A friend recently sent me a link to an online symposium hosted by Comment Magazine in which a handful of Human Resources professionals weighed in on the HR obstacles encountered in Christian organizations. Because I am a Christian working in Human Resources at a secular organization, I thought I’d give it a read-through. I couldn’t have been more disappointed by what I read.
To detail all of the responses would take up too much time here, but there were a few overarching themes that troubled me: that Christian organizations too frequently hire individuals who are not as qualified as they should be for the “ministry” (read: organization) to reach its full potential; that Christian organizations need to be more proactive in creating processes and programs to deal with suboptimal employee performance; and that Christian organizations require too much sacrifice on the part of their employees in terms of compensation and benefits.
The first criticism I have of these responses is that, Christian or not, they have raised issues that are not actually unique to Christian organizations, but endemic to all. Furthermore, the solutions the responders have offered are the same broad, idealistic suggestions I would expect to find at, say, the secular company I work for. The question Comment posed, if I understand correctly, sought to bring to light what is different about Christian organizations. According to the responses, nothing.
Take, for example, one of the prevalent complaints of Comment’s responders: too many Christian organizations hire individuals who are not qualified for the job, therefore the job isn’t being done at its full potential, and the church or ministry may be suffering. I consider this to be a very bold and potentially unfair assessment, especially when it comes without relevant examples. How have these organizations suffered? Merely in terms of not achieving a goal on a time or budget line? And how is a ministry’s potential measured? By money or numbers or other objective measurements? How does one effectively measure the impact of the service of the church or ministry?
Again, speculation is difficult here because none of the responders went into detail about where these employees or ministries are lacking, but a Christian organization– and especially a church– ought to be more open to giving people an opportunity. Frequently, if a person doesn’t have all of the right experience for a job it’s not because he or she is incapable, but because no other company will give him or her the opportunity to gain the experience. Shouldn’t the church be more subversive? In a capitalist industry, being subversive in this matter would mean losing money, which is counterintuitive to the capitalist philosophy in the first place, but in a church, the goal is to serve the people, not the bank or the corporation. By giving those with less experience an opportunity to develop, the church or ministry serves not only the population it seeks to reach in the first place, but also the employees who help to provide that service, however imperfectly.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that Christians should just hire anybody off the street for a job that requires specific know-how. What I am saying is that Christians — whether at a Christian organization or a secular one — shouldn’t limit themselves to the “cream of the crop” in candidates the way typical HR practitioners would suggest. Not only is such behavior exactly the same as secular behavior, but it also limits the sovereignty of God in doing amazing things in the workplace. This may sound like idealism, but I say it is at the very center of the Christian faith.
Further treading the border of idealism, and rightfully so, is the idea that Christian organizations, above all others, should steer clear of the “processes” designed to evaluate and enhance employee performance. First of all, those processes tend to criticize more than they encourage employees. If an employee is not meeting performance standards, the default for most organizations is to fall back on a process for getting the employee back on track, but this assumes that all employee performance issues stem from the same thing, which is almost never the case. Further, such processes are too objective for what is frequently a subjective problem. More often than not, an employee fails to meet an expectation either because his or her thought process needs to be adjusted, or because he or she really doesn’t have the necessary skill set, in which case a performance review isn’t going to be very helpful even with an incentive plan to follow. A stiff criticism, finger-wag, or reprimand won’t be enough if employers don’t provide the tools for change, whether that has to do with thought processes or hard skills. A man can’t saw through a tree if all he has is a hammer.
Even more disappointing than the responses about performance reviews and hiring practices was the response about compensation and benefits. It’s no secret that non-profits are not exactly known for their packages, nor should they be. After all, they are non-profits, which means they aren’t supposed to be in business to make money — something that becomes problematic when we consider that they are still operating inside a capitalist structure. Something Americans fail to consider is that, if none of our businesses were turning profits, we’d all be as underpaid as the non-profit workers, suggesting instead that they are not actually underpaid, but that the rest of us are overpaid. As long as non-profits must still operate inside a capitalist structure, there will be a compensation chasm.
Highlighting the philosophy, however, doesn’t change the reality, which is that non-profit workers are more likely to struggle making ends meet than the rest of us. But predsumably, non-profit employees don’t take their positions for the pay; they work for non-profits because they believe in them and their causes. Those who work for Christian organizations should be people who believe in a cause — the advancement of Christ’s kingdom. Christ didn’t pay his disciples — in fact, he required that they leave everything behind, and has told us that if we are to follow him, we must do the same. I don’t mean to saturate this commentary with idealism or fundamentalist Christian propaganda; I don’t imagine that Jesus intends for us to do without the things we need to live. I will suggest, though, that part of the reason that he requires us to leave riches behind is because he, himself, will provide all that we need while we are doing his work. Working for low wages anywhere, and especially in a ministry or church, can be a testament to the reliance Christians are told to have on Christ. If an employee passes up or leaves an opportunity at a church because of compensation, then that person probably isn’t the right fit for the post in the first place. A church is a place of worship and sacrifice, not capital gains. Does this mean that secular counterparts to Christian organizations will look more attractive to some? Of course. But that doesn’t mean the Christian organizations are the ones that need to make adjustments. Following the example of the world to win the service of others should be an intuitively dangerous road for any Christian.
Comment follows their first question with a second: How can HR be done with integrity? The answer is that HR must undergo reform. But this cannot happen unless Christian organizations themselves are willing to embrace reform. If the people who are involved in running Christian organizations are themselves not thinking like Christians, then a distinction between Christian and secular organizations becomes a moot point. Thinking like a Christian, though, does not simply mean being more gentle when terminating an employee or more tolerant of underperformance. It means intentionally engaging in the lives of employees in order to facilitate change. In my experience, the secular world discourages this if not through company policy then through — forgive the expression — the cover-your-ass legislation we’ve become so fond of in America. Everyone is afraid of lawsuits and consequently, we are hesitant to get too involved in the lives of our employees and coworkers. This is not a Christian response to HR, but a secular one. This needs to change in both worlds if HR can ever have integrity in any organization, and Christians should view themselves as charged with spearheading this change, regardless whether it means that a church or ministry will not be running at full potential all of the time.
In short, Christian organizations need to be more subversive when it comes to HR or they run the risk of being no different than the secular corporations that have been so successful at removing the “human” aspect from Human Resources practices.