How Many Staff Do You Need?

July 29th, 2013

Personnel related expenses are typically the largest line item found in a church operating budget. Our buildings and our staff are the two primary resources available to us for engaging mission. If we are being good stewards of the assets entrusted to us, then we must ask ourselves if the size of our staff team is appropriate for our context. Inevitably, leaders want reassurance that they’ve hired enough staff to appropriately equip the ministry of the congregation, without becoming over-reliant on staff to do the work of ministry that rightfully belongs to the people.

I’ve yet to encounter a church staff team that feels “big enough” to members on the team. Most pastors name staff positions that they yearn to add if only they had access to more budget dollars. Every congregation has to make choices about when to limit spending on personnel, so that there are adequate resources to fund the ministries that those staff are asked to lead. What is the right amount of money to allocate to the personnel function of the congregation?

Many factors influence the size of a staff team. Among these are attendance, the size of the operating budget, growth or decline rate, affluence of the community, geographical location, denominational affiliation, and the age of the church. The first two factors, attendance and operating budget, are the two factors most frequently cited when people talk about the size of a staff team. Specifically, how many paid staff do we need given the size of our active membership (typically represented by average weekend attendance)? And what percentage of our budget should be dedicated to payroll-related expenses?

Payroll as a Percentage of the Operating Budget

Faith Communities Today (Fact 2008, 2010) is a study out of the Hartford Institute for Religion Research, that looked at, among other things, how 3,000 congregations allocated their budgets. Researchers discovered that the average U.S. Protestant congregation allocates 45 percent of its total operating budget to payroll-related costs. Mainline churches spend considerably more (49 percent) on payroll-related expenses than either the Evangelical Protestant (31 percent) or the Catholic/Orthodox communities (41 percent).

Intuitively, most of us expect that the larger a congregation becomes, the smaller that payroll expense will be relative to the overall operating budget. We expect some economies of scale to exist. However, research does not support the notion of economies of scale, until a congregation passes the 5,000 mark in weekend worship attendance!

A Leadership Network study (which focused on staffing costs in larger congregations) found that the following factors were related to staff costs:

  • Whether the church is growing. Staffing costs are leaner for churches whose attendance is growing, perhaps because growing churches have not “caught up” with emergent staffing needs.
  • The dominant age group of the congregation. Staffing costs are leaner, but only slightly, for churches where the average person’s age in the congregation is lower.
  • The year in which the church was founded. The younger the church, the leaner the staffing costs.
  • The location of the church. Staffing costs are lower for residential and new suburban locations and slightly higher for older suburb and downtown churches.
  • Race. Staffing costs are leanest for predominantly African American churches and highest for Anglo European churches.
  • Use of paid part-time staff. Staffing costs have no relationship to the percentage of paid part-time staff in relation to full-time staff, until a congregation employs three or more paid part-timers for each full-time staff.
  • Economic level of the congregation. Staffing costs are leanest for churches whose internal constituency is described as poor and highest for churches with an internal constituency described as wealthy.

Staffing/Membership Ratios

Perhaps the longest standing rule of thumb about staffing structures is the ratio of program staff to average worship attendance. In 1965 Martin Anderson wrote one of the first books to address staffing models in the larger church, Multiple Ministries. He recommended a staffing ratio of 1 pastor for every 500 members (1:500) . Looking back on that number, it is hard to believe that congregations ever functioned with such lean staff teams, but in fact they did. Remember that this book was written during a time when worship attendance and membership were more closely aligned, when membership meant different things than it does today, when volunteerism in the church worked differently, and when church programming was more homogenous and standardized than it is today. No church today would ever dream of targeting a 1:500 staffing ratio and expect to meet the needs of its congregants.

In 1980 Lyle Schaller wrote The Multiple Staff and the Larger Church in which he introduced average worship attendance as a more reliable indicator of staffing needs. Schaller proposed a ratio of 1:100 as a guideline for the typical ratio of full-time paid professional staff positions in mainline Protestant congregations. In 2000 Gary McIntosh wrote Staff Your Church for Growth and suggested that a 1:150 paid professional staff ratio was a more realistic and affordable guideline. Both Schaller and McIntosh focused on the combination of professional clergy leaders and professional program staff leaders. Their ratios did not include administrative or support staff. Both assumed that the staffing ratio remained constant across size ranges.

So, given these conflicting guidelines, what is the most effective way to think about the size of the staff team relative to the active membership base of the congregation? The same 2010 Leadership Network Study that looked at the characteristics of a lean staff team created an alternative way of thinking about staff size relative to attendance. Rather than thinking solely about program or clergy staff in relationship to attendance, the Leadership Network study looked at the ratio of all full-time staff equivalents (FTEs) to attendance. Furthermore the study looked at how that ratio changed as the percent of budget devoted to staffing expense increased and decreased. Here is what they found.


Staff Costs as a Percent of Budget              Ratio of Staff to Attendees

            10-19%                                                1:108

            20-29%                                                1:91

            30-39%                                                1:73

            40-49%                                                1:73

            50-59%                                                1:70

            60-69%                                                1:59

The conclusion here is obvious. If you spend more of your budget on staff, then you have more staff per attendee than other congregations do. The results also suggest that churches with higher staffing budgets don’t necessarily pay their staff better; they just hire more staff. The ratios are helpful benchmarks as to how many staff congregations employ. Given that the average congregation spends between 48 and 50 percent of its operating budget on payroll, we can assume the average congregation employs one full-time equivalent staff member for every 70 to 73 people in average weekend worship attendance.

Determining how large of a staff team that you need depends upon your mission and your context. No benchmark can answer the question for you. It should never be your objective to match the averages quoted in this article. However, these averages can be used as a starting point for good dialogue between you and your leaders. Do you lie inside or outside of the normative parameters outlined here? In what ways does the unique nature of your mission and your context require something outside of the norm?

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