Our people. Our Precious Resource

In case you’ve missed it, the nature of employment is changing. Our expectations as employees, and our responsibilities as employers, differ significantly from those of earlier generations, and all the indications are that developments will continue. In spite of constant change, one basic tenet of management remains – ‘our staff are our greatest asset’. 

‘Corporate leaders often proclaim that their employees are their most valuable asset. For many people, though, this is an empty platitude. [..] Why the disconnect? […]  We have identified one cause. Managers do not know how to show people they are valued. In fact, they unwittingly do the opposite.’

In a sector which is inspired and motivated by the Gospel of love, justice and respect, Christian employers should be a shining example. In the Church, Christian charities and other organisations, we have the perfect opportunity to demonstrate the Biblical principles of integrity and care when dealing with our staff. However, as many experts point out, the widely used mantra about the importance of our staff is ‘often an empty platitude’

Instead of being ‘best in class’, Christian employers are too often tarnished by examples where staff and volunteers end up disappointed, disillusioned, and even burned out. Too often, poor and inexperienced management by Trustees and senior managers places the lowest priority on looking after this most precious resource.

Last year, I went to Spring Harvest at Skegness and was delighted to bump into a husband and wife team who had worked for many years in the Christian residential sector in East Anglia. They resigned after many years of service at the end of last year, with the husband recovering from a major heart attack, brought on in part, he told me, by the endless burden of unrealistic expectations and overwork placed upon him by his Christian employer. The pressures he described were all too familiar. Long hours. Lack of support. Low pay. Unacknowledged grievances. ‘I’ll tell you this,’ he said, I’ll never work for a Christian organisation again.’

A young friend recently left the Christian sector after working as a youth worker for a charity through whom he was reaching out to young people caught up in the urban culture of knife crime, violence and drugs. He was successful. His work attracted a high profile. He was deeply committed, working in dangerous situations on estates where angels fear to tread. He was getting alongside some dangerous and very damaged young people, providing a great role model, and ready to bring them the Gospel of Christ. Often working alone, in situations where his safety was seriously in question, without the safety net of the most basic management support from his employers, he resorted to setting up his own ‘lone working’ policy, which involved contacting members of his own family, telling them of his plan for the evening, in case he needed urgent help from outside. In spite of repeated requests for support, his Christian employer left him carrying an unsustainable burden.

These are two disappointing examples amongst far too many of disillusion amongst people working in front line ministry. In the last twelve months I have spent time with a senior manager in a nationally recognised Christian organisation who has been victim of bullying by his CEO. I have spent time with a lady who struggles in retirement because through the bulk of her work, her employer, a major international Christian charity, provided grossly inadequate pension arrangements. Examples of staff harassment, unchallenged bad behaviour, unfulfilled contracts, broken promises and even allegations of constructive dismissal abound. Too many staff leave the sector in a state of exhaustion and with a sense of disillusionment. The tragedy is that every one of these examples was avoidable, and in almost every case, well intentioned employers have themselves been left perplexed and bemused, completely unaware of their failings in their duty of care.  

It needs to be said that there are many examples of excellence in the Christian sector. I have lots of examples where staff have been treated well and encouraged to flourish and grow. This leaves me all the more disappointed when I meet good people, who have often given up career opportunities to work in the Christian sector because they are pursuing a sense of calling, ending up poorly supported, overworked, and burned out. In the Christian sector, which should be setting the best example, it is simply not good enough.

Poorly trained trustees and directors who have little understanding of their responsibilities or experience of managing staff. Under performance at Board level is unchallenged, and unacceptable behaviour too often overlooked. Committed leaders who simply misunderstand their role and interfere with day to day activities, undermine their own management team, or fail to accept responsibility when intervention is required. Outdated management cultures and processes which fail to respect individuals and at times breach modern employment law. 

Too often, strong personalities and outdated management cultures make it very difficult for Churches, charities and Christian organisations to properly review themselves. Challenging decisions are deferred or side-stepped, leaving trustees, staff and volunteers frustrated and disappointed. 

These are not historic issues, they are 21st Century examples, and they need to be a wake up call. External support and consultancy is often helpful, and can be a good investment. The Charities Commission offer clear guidelines and tools which enable charities to review their performance and identify issues with their management processes. Initial and developmental training for Trustees and Directors is widely available, and should be recognised as a requirement, rather than a luxury. Christian organisations, even those who believe that they are performing well, should take their responsibility to examine themselves and review their management very seriously.   

If our people really are our most important asset, we need to be sure that we are treating them as such. When we fail in this important area, we not only bring disappointment to ourselves and others, we miss the opportunity to demonstrate the values and behaviours which are built on integrity and love. 

This post was first published in August 2019

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