Developing a Helpful Working Agreement

Should there be elder-preacher working agreements?

Aren’t we Christians?

Aren’t we honest?

If so, why should we have to think about it and write it? Just discuss it and do what we promised.

Or just make the general promise, “We’ll take care of you,” and let that cover all issues.

The purpose of spending time on a clear working agreement is to minimize conflict before you have conflict by discussing issues before they arise. It’s much easier to talk about expectations before conflicts arise than after one or both parties are exasperated because of violated expectations.

Agreements aren’t for dishonest people but for people who may forget what they said and may die and not be able to tell people what they said.

In fifty-nine years of preaching, I’ve tried it both ways.

  1. Don’t discuss it and don’t agree on anything. Don’t write it.
  2. Discuss, pray, think, write, pray and think more, re-discuss, adjust, record, review, refer when you forget, and revise when mutually agreeable. Continue to communicate and stay current with expectations.

Here’s what I’ve found helpful.

Steps for Developing an Agreement

1. All parties write what they want included.

Whether it is preacher, youth minister, secretary — let that person bring what they want in the agreement. The elders, a deacon, or other supervisor bring what they see as helpful expectations.

2. Meet and read through all items.

Both elders and preacher (youth minister, secretary, deacon) should feel free to write what each thinks would be an ideal situation. The way you get what you want is to ask (Matthew 7: 7, 8). Be thorough. Starting in 1976 and continuing through the rest of my full-time ministry, I had two rooms for ministry: a neat, well-organized room where I met with people, had staff meetings, did counseling, and other meetings. The books were neatly stacked on the shelves from tallest to smallest. There was another room — away from most traffic, usually upstairs, called the “upper room.” There is where I did my studying. I didn’t have to “clean up” before company came. When I had a meeting, I closed the door, went to my neat study, and talked. The reason I had those in the last four churches I served is I asked for them.

3. Combine and agree on all points.

Read through both documents a section at a time, discussing, combining, defining, and negotiating. If you get to a point you can’t live with, now is the time to learn it. Some things you can tolerate. Some things you can’t. Before you move is the best time to discover an unworkable expectation. You save a U-Haul bill and a lot of frustration.

4. Include all possible areas where there might be misunderstanding.

  • How long would the preacher like to work with this church?
  • How long would the elders like the next preacher to work with this church?
  • Will the preacher interact with the elders for information, encouragement, support, and prayer?
  • What is the salary?
  • What are the benefits — insurance, auto mileage, cell phone, contribution to retirement, money for a portion of Social Security (the church can’t pay Social Security but they can give the preacher money to pay part or all his Social Security), housing allowance, continuing education?
  • Time off: vacation, gospel meetings and workshops, lectureships, other training.
  • Agreements on ending the relationship. During the honeymoon, we think we’ll never part. But it’s rare for a preacher to spend a lifetime with one congregation. If the elders become unhappy with the preacher, how will they communicate their concerns? Will there be a warning with an opportunity to grow or correct the deficiency or will they surprise him with no previous indication of displeasure? If he must leave, will the preacher be permitted to teach and preach for a few weeks to give his blessing to the congregation, for an appropriate time of grieving and a funeral, and for the congregation to express appreciation to him or will he be told, “Last Sunday was your last day and we don’t want you in the pulpit again.”? If the preacher is approached by another congregation or if he is wondering if he needs to make a move, will he discuss that with his shepherds or will he tell them he’ll be gone in three weeks? Will there be severance pay? Will either or both practice the Golden Rule or will they treat the other in a way they would never want to be treated?
  • How often will these agreements be reviewed? Will there be a recommitment/renegotiation when new elders are appointed or will you assume all new people will agree and cooperate? My observation is that after one or two turnovers, people will come who have different expectations. Unless these are discussed and worked through, there will arise “a new king…who did not know Joseph” and the preacher’s days will be numbered.
  • A criticism agreement has been helpful to me for the past nine years: “Any criticism of Jerrie Barber will be directed to Jerrie Barber and it will be welcomed. Jerrie Barber does not accept anonymous criticism.”
  • Due to several misunderstandings, resistance in some congregations, and an audit of my 2016 income tax, I have a new paragraph in my contract: “This church agrees to give Jerrie a W-2 form with the total compensation minus the estimated housing allowance in Line 1 and the estimated housing allowance in Line 14.” The best time to settle conflict and misunderstanding is before it comes up.
  • There will be no changes in these agreements without the discussion of all parties involved.

5. After completing the agreements, allow a cooling off, sleeping-on-it, reflection time.

People sometimes get buyers remorse after agreeing to something — wishing they had remembered one more thing or adjusting something. This is especially true of churches or preachers who’ve never had written agreements before. Several years ago I was agreeing to work with a church who’d never had a contract with a preacher. We worked through the agreements, filling in all the details we thought would be helpful. When we finished, I suggested we “sleep on it before we sign.” They agreed. I drove three hours back home and came back in a couple of days. They thought of one or two items they wanted to include. We both felt better by not doing it quickly and feeling trapped.

6. Sign, make copies for all parties, scan, store on multiple hard drives and several places in the cloud, with the originals in a safe deposit box.

Contracts aren’t for dishonest people. Written agreements are for people who may forget and who will eventually die and who won’t be able to tell people what the original agreement was. The only people who don’t need written agreements are people who never forget and who will never die. Also, they need to be working with people who will never forget and who will never die.

Otherwise, work it out carefully, record it, and review it periodically.

What suggestion do you have to develop better agreements?

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Jerrie Barber
Disciple of Jesus, husband, grandfather, preacher, barefoot runner, ventriloquist

2 Responses to “Developing a Helpful Working Agreement

  • Great observations, sir! Review when a new elder enters is very wise. I really liked the idea of the separate study and meeting room; I did that myself at one military chaplain assignment, but it had somehow slipped my mind until I read this post. Thank you.

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