Vetting Staff

Vetting Staff

One of the most frequent questions I get from fellow pastors has to do with hiring (and firing) staff.

As in,

…how do you know who to hire?

…when do you know it’s time to let someone go?

…how do you evaluate current staff in terms of future roles and responsibilities – or even if there is a future?

In my book What They Didn’t Teach You In Seminary, I outlined the five “C’s” for hiring: calling, character, competence, catalyst, chemistry. I stand by all five as the basis for any and all hiring decisions.

I also talk about the importance of picking up the phone and calling their current employer, no matter how awkward that might be. Want a wake-up call? I’ve only been called once by anyone who ever hired a Meck staff person – whether they were currently on board, or were a staff person in the past.


Want another wake-up call? 

With very few exceptions (very few), the person hired without the call was either 1) on a performance-improvement plan; 2) on the verge of being fired; 3) had been justifiably passed-over for promotion and increased responsibility; or…well, you get the point. They weren’t exactly who we were building around. I’m sure that’s why they came up with whatever reason they did for the hiring church not to contact their actual supervisor at Meck.

I also was confessional in the book about my biggest mistakes, such as hiring too many times out of expediency and not moving quickly enough to address staff “infections.” If any of these topics are of interest, and you haven’t read the book, it might be worth a look.

But how do you spot warning signs after you’ve hired them? Let’s say there seems to be a sense of calling in their life, there is character, there is (at first) chemistry, there is seeming competence, and they give every sign of being a catalytic go-getter. Are there other signs to be mindful of as you evaluate them for the future?


There are at least six “red flags” to watch out for as you evaluate them as staff in terms of whether you can build around them for the future.

1. They are attracted to the mission in principle, but not in practice. 

Most staff breakdowns are not doctrinal, but over philosophy of ministry. But I’ve learned that it’s not just philosophy, but the practice of that philosophy. For example, let’s say your church is all about the unchurched in terms of outreach. Someone can sign off on that with great conviction, but when they come face-to-face with what that means, things change. They’ve never really encountered it in practice before, and when they do, it’s alien to them. Even abrasive. They start pushing back in ways that betray a philosophical divide.

2. They are called to a job but not ministry, or called to ministry but not your church.

This is a huge area to explore. Meck gets countless applications for employment, but it’s very clear upon the most cursory examination that the vast majority are called to getting a job, not to a life of ministry. Ministry is a means to an end. What is harder to spot are those who are called to ministry, but who are not called to your church. They like a lot of things about it, but if they weren’t employed, it’s doubtful it would be the church they would naturally attend. And that’s key – would they attend if they weren’t employed? If not, that’s your answer. It’s one of the reasons we tend to hire from existing attenders. We already know it’s really their church.

3. The problem is never in the room.

I don’t know if you’ve heard that phrase before, but it speaks to those who never feel they are at fault for anything that goes wrong, or isn’t going well. The problem is never with them or anything they have done; it’s always something “outside” the room. This can reflect pride, a lack of teachability or just a defensive spirit. Whatever the cause, it’s a show-stopper.

4. They don’t play well with others. 

This is a real blind-spot for many who are in leadership. You get along great with a staff person you supervise, but the peers of that staff person tell a different story. They find them difficult to work with. In such situations, you have someone who knows the art of kissing up, but not getting along. This will be corrosive over time. I once heard Jeffrey Immelt, head of GE, talk about the rise of staff in an organization – that it’s less important what the supervisors feel than the person’s peers.

5. They are lone rangers.

Let me say that a “lone ranger” is not the same as an introvert. Introverts are fine. So what’s the difference? “Lone rangers” do their job adequately, get their reports in on time, show up when asked, but they are aloof from the team. Separate from the community. They are in a “silo” and don’t interact with other ministries. They have their ministry, but it’s not macro in nature. It’s their little turf. 

6. They spread dissent and dissatisfaction.

This is the most important single staff dynamic to vet for. Nothing is more important in a church than staff unity, and a single staff person can wreak havoc to what was, before, a happy tribe. If you want a cautionary tale on this, read the chapter “Zero Tolerance” in What They Didn’t Teach You In Seminary.

None of these are always easy to spot. They can take time to surface. Even someone who is the source of dissent and dissatisfaction can take a while to pinpoint, or at least to gain the evidence to confront. 

But make no mistake. 

If you oversee the hiring and firing of staff, the creation and development of teams, you need to get down not only the “C’s”, but these six more subtle “evaluation” areas.

Trust me.

I’ve learned them the hard way.

James Emery White



James Emery White, What They Didn’t Teach You In Seminary (Baker).

Editor’s Note

James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, which he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, The Rise of the Nones: Understanding and Reaching the Religiously Unaffiliated, is now available on Amazon. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church and Culture blog, visit, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. You can also find out more information about the upcoming 2015 Church and Culture Conference. Follow Dr. White on twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.