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Staffing Ratios - Is It the Right Question?

One of the most loaded questions that I get regularly regards staffing and in particular the level of staffing most appropriate to a congregation of a given size.

So, a lay leader says to me: “our minister thinks a congregation of our size needs an assistant minister, is that true?” Or a minister says: “our congregation is stuck at X members; to move beyond that, we need to ’staff for growth,’ don’t we?” When I get questions that so obviously are eliciting ammo for an argument, my first inclination is to mumble or hide. Especially since, the way the questions are presented, it makes me feel like I ought to have a nice clear numerical answer. I feel as though I ought to be able to say: “If you have x number of congregants, then you need at least y staff.”

But I know that matters are not so simple.

What is it that I ought to say? What would be an adequate response? Unfortunately, an adequate response is considerably longer than either side in the debate is likely to find useful on the way to a meeting or as a footnote in the strategic plan.

Thus, I suppose I write this blog entry mostly to resolve my own frustration over my mumbled answers.

I find that this question often comes to me because someone has vaguely remembered hearing that there is a specific rule of thumb or best practice guide regarding the ratio of full time equivalent (FTE) staff to congregants.

This memory is correct, as far as it goes. Indeed, the question shows that those asking have been paying attention to expert opinion on the subject.

For a long time, one of the basic pieces of congregational wisdom—like the 85% rule—has been that there is such a ratio. The number made its appearance as part of the congregational size literature.

The size transition framework for congregations originated in Arlin Routhage’s Sizing Up a Congregation for New Member Ministry (New York, NY: Episcopal Church Center, 1983). Available online by following the links at: http://www.congregationalresources.org/ShowOne.asp?RID=156&TC=109. This one brief booklet spawned what has become a veritable publishing industry on the subject of congregations and size (though if someone wants a concise “free” 20 pages on the subject this is still the best place to begin.

This original booklet was written with a particular focus on the question of new members and how they are assimilated into congregations of different sizes. A decade after this was written –in 1991 — Roy Oswald wrote a key article drawing out the implications of this line of thinking for congregational leadership. At that point, he and others had been noticing that with frustrating consistency the ministers who thrive in a congregation of one size fail miserably ministering to a new larger size congregation. Why is this? What needs to be done? To answer this question Roy Oswald wrote the article “How to Minister Effectively in Family, Pastoral, Program, and Corporate Sized Congregations,” (Action Information, vol. 12:2, March/April 1991, pages 1-7 12: 3, May/June 1991, pages 5-7, http://www.congregationalresources.org/article0132.asp).

In this article, Roy Oswald said the fateful words:

As a rule of thumb, if you desire to staff for growth, you need one full-time program person on your staff for every one hundred active members.

This wisdom has insinuated itself into the common lore about congregations through the grapevine, through a myriad of educational events by Alban people and others, and — perhaps most influentially for UUs through Alice Mann’s book, Raising the Roof: The Pastoral-to-Program Size Transition (2001), which includes as an appendix Oswald’s article from a decade earlier.

From here the wisdom has found its way into innumerable staffing plans and long range planning documents (some of which I have written). Indeed, if any reading this find themselves pressed for time to write such a document, this line of thinking has become standardized enough that any number of good prototype report explaining this logic can be snagged from the web.

http://mysite.verizon.net/vze7sg4f/StrategicPlanWeb.htm

http://www.standrew-pres.org/staffing/LongTermStaffingProposal2.ppt

http://www.msd.uua.org/RE_documents/RecommendedREstaffing.pdf

Is this standard advice good advice?

I worked at Alban at the time of the publication of Raising the Roof. Raising the Roof has started as one of Alban’s first experiments in online education. I can then recall discussing (with whom I forget) whether it was wise to include Oswald’s 1991 unrevised wisdom in Mann’s 2001 book.

Clearly, there is some relationship between congregational size and staff size. As congregations get larger staffs need to expand.

Yet, what should the relationship be? We need some new thinking on this. The first problem is that Oswald’s 1:100 ratio is often quoted out of context. It is often cited as if it were a statistical generalization. It is not. It is a consultant’s gut judgment translated into numerical form. It is the gut impression of a very good consultant confirmed by the gut impression of many other good consultants and others. Yet it is still a gut impression that is frequently quoted as if it were a statistical generalization. This is troubling.

To the extent that I have any impression of what the number is, I am rather uncertain that the original 1:100 number is or ever was right in anything more than the most ballpark, order of magnitude sense. Because such numbers are so prone to being used as ammunition in arguments, those who work on such things are loathe to quote specific statistics. In our district, individual congregations have for their own planning purposes collected information from what they regard as peer congregations. My impression is that they find that the average staffing levels (not the normal or best practice level) are rather higher than the old 1:100 level (more staff per congregant).

Beyond the quibbling over numbers, there is a more important issue at stake: While it is true that bigger congregations have—and need—more staff, how helpful is it to focus on the FTE ratio as Oswald and Mann have taught us to do?

The original wisdom about FTE ratios was set forth to assist mid-sized congregation in deciding when to add a second minister. For this issue in this size congregation, there is little reason to doubt the wisdom of the advice to focus on this ratio. There gets to be a point where it is too much for one minister and where the minister’s reluctance to let go and the congregation’s reluctance to spend more money just aren’t very helpful.

Yet here we come to the biggest and most systematic weakness to our generalizations about congregational life. Through the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, there was a huge explosion of congregational knowledge that claimed to be universal but was largely based on the experience of consultants with mid-sized, mainline, largely suburban, Anglo congregations. While the experience of these congregations has a huge amount to teach, it is a fair question to ask whether the experience of these congregations can be generalized into universal laws. My own prediction is that the next few decades of creativity in this line of work is likely to focus on how these generalizations over-stretched.

But to return to the more specific issue at hand: One crucial thing we know about this ratio is that is it not constant by size. Very small congregations function somehow without any staff. And, as congregations get bigger staffs increase—but not as fast as their membership. Bigger congregations have more staff, but not that much more. Again, statistics are hard to come by but the general point is this: In our CMwD, for instance, Rockford with 400 people has two ministers and Appleton with 550 has two ministers. How many ministers would we expect a congregation of 1450 to have? Six? Seven? No, this would seem a reasonable extrapolation but the number is three (First Madison).

What is the point here? Our ideas of staffing ratios have a hidden mid-sized congregation orientation. For very small congregations staffing ratios are irrelevant because very small congregations don’t have staff. And for large congregations, staffing ratios become less relevant because as congregations get larger they must increasingly extend the service by provide more by leveraging staff than by adding staff.

Bigger congregations have bigger staffs. That is true. Yet as a congregation gets larger, it needs to increasingly focus on how to leverage more intelligently: to extend service by doing things differently more than by having more paid staff to do them. For example, as congregations get over 500 they usually find that the minister or ministers will generally do a decreasing proportion of the pastoral care themselves and will devote more time to recruiting, training, and supporting lay people in doing this. Thus, ironically, from one angle, the way a congregation of 1500 does pastoral care may have more in common with the way a lay led congregation of 50 does this than with the congregation of 350.

Bottom-line advice: if you want a general guide concerning staffing ratios the basic advice is still that of Oswald and Mann. Rather than using the old 1:100 figure, it is probably best to check with some peer congregations. And realize that, you need to do more than examine the ration of staff to congregant. As congregations get larger the number of staff actually becomes strategically less important and how their time is used becomes more important. The question of number of staff must not be allowed to substitute for the questions what staff are needed and how they should work so that they can each serve a proportionately larger number of people.

It can be easier to focus narrowly on staffing ratios because talking about better leveraging of staff time can raise very difficult issues staff restructuring. Yet, the two need to go together. If a congregation has grown enough to potentially need more staff, it has also grown enough that the question needs to be raised of how staff time needs to be leveraged differently.

Ian