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The Five "C's" for Picking Staff and Volunteer Leaders

Dr. James Emery White | Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary | Monday, March 10, 2014

The Five "C's" for Picking Staff and Volunteer Leaders

I am often invited to facilitate private leadership gatherings that are designed as mentoring sessions.  I love the give and take, the back and forth, the questions and, hopefully, answers.

Time and again – through both personal experience and formal surveys of participants, the biggest issue facing those in ministry has to do with staff and volunteers.

In other words, the people you have to work with.

The famed business author Jim Collins has written about getting the right people on the bus, and then in the right seats.  When you don’t, the organization suffers. 

So does the leader.

So how do you hire the right people, and solicit the right volunteers?  I have learned to follow the five “C’s” – the five things to look for in any hire, or any volunteer.  Violate them at great peril.  I know – I’ve colossally screwed-up every one of them at one time or another, and paid dearly. 

That’s how I learned them.

So here they are:

Character.  The foundational thing to look for is character.  I know, we’re all sinners, but I’m not talking about perfection.  I’m talking about whether they have a foundational ethic that operates in their life.  It’s often been said that integrity is who you are when no one is looking.  I want people I don’t have to look after. 

I am often asked about what character issues to overlook, and which ones to make non-negotiable. 

A serial predator whom has a trail of dalliances in his background has, for me, a disqualifying character flaw.  A person who never pays their bills on time due to habitual misuse of funds has a disqualifying character flaw.  A person who manifests an ongoing pattern of deceit has a disqualifying character flaw.

The key words here are “habitual,” “pattern,” and “ongoing.”  And I am particularly oriented toward the sins of the spirit, not the flesh.  Yes, gluttony matters, but not as much for ministry as pride; yes, slipping up and having one too many glasses of wine is not optimal for those who feel the freedom to imbibe, but it pales in comparison to anger, envy, or sloth.

The reason character matters so much is because you cannot teach it.  You cannot “impute” it (a good old King James English word) into someone. 

It’s either there, or it isn’t.

Competence.  The second dynamic to look for is competence.  This has to do with the raw capability, the essential skills, needed to do a job.  This is the least of the five, as it is the one thing that can, indeed, be taught.

I have hired countless numbers of people who had no background in ministry.  In many ways, I like this.  They bring their personal, educational, and corporate skills to the table without preconceived notions regarding the practice of ministry.  The basic competencies needed vary from role to role, but generally I look for the ability to get along with others, enthusiasm, a positive attitude and raw leadership gifts.

Catalytic.  A third area is one that I seldom hear talked about, but is increasingly important to my thinking – namely, that the person be catalytic.  What I mean is that they create activity, bring energy and have a spring in their step that makes things happen.  I often use the word “hungry” or “aggressive” to characterize them.  This can be misunderstood. I do not mean overly ambitious as much as they are driven by a deep desire to have their one and only life count.

When I describe such people, and how I look for them for my teams, many leaders turn a horrified face toward mine. 

“How do you control them?  How do you make sure they don’t do something you don’t want?”

My reply is always the same:  I would rather rein someone in than have to continually kick-start them into gear.   

Chemistry.  A fourth issue has to do with chemistry, which is simply asking yourself, “Do you like them?” 

Yes, that’s a legal question. 

At Meck, we have a little thing called the “beer test.” 

Sorry if that offends you, but it’s just a way of cutting to the chase about where you stand with someone and has little to do whether you feel free to drink a Heineken or not. 

Here’s how it goes: 

At the end of a long, hard, grueling day of work together, would you like to go out and have a beer with this person?  If the answer is “yes,” then they pass.  If the answer is, “Are you kidding?  The last thing in the world I would want is to see their face,”

…then they fail.

Think about how you feel when someone puts their head in the door on a Tuesday morning – are you glad to see them?  Or does their very persona suck the life out of you?  When you check your email, and you see something from them - good feeling or bad?  Do you read it first, or dread even opening it?

I make no apologies for hiring people I like.  Life is too short to put yourself into a team that doesn’t work.  I want to walk into each day enjoying the people I have to work with most intimately.  More importantly, good chemistry results in good teams and effective ministry.

Called.  Finally, they should be called.  I know, you assume this, but don’t.  Many people are drawn to work in a church because they think it will be easy, serve a season of life when they need flexibility with kids, or because they are simply out of work and it seems readily available. 

The goal is calling; that they would do it whether they were paid or not.

I recall a time when we needed to transition three part-time roles in a certain ministry to one or two full-time roles.  The growth of the church, the demands of the ministry, made it necessary.  We just couldn’t go part-time anymore.  Further, two of those part-time people were somewhat questionable, it seemed, in regard to their commitment. 

We communicated the decision, gave several months advance notice, caring for them well in terms of financial matters.  We invited them to candidate for the full-time positions, though we suspected that their life-stage would prevent them from pursuing the new roles. 

Intriguingly, the two who seemed a bit passion-challenged almost immediately left the church.  Not in anger; they just no longer felt it was the place for their church home.  Translation:  it was only the job that was keeping them there. 

That’s not a calling. 

So here’s the test for both sides:  if you are only a member of a church because you work there, quit.  You’re not called.  Even if you may be called to ministry, and even in the area you are currently serving, but you would not attend that church independent of your employment, it’s not a full calling.  And if you know of someone on your staff who would not attend if they were not employed, and you are their supervisor, begin the exit strategy. 

Calling matters too much.

So how can you make sure you have the five “C’s” present and accounted for?

Hire from the farm league.

I constantly counsel church leaders to hire from within.  Most don’t.  Most look to other churches.  They solicit resumes, work their networks, and place ads.  They go “pot luck,” and hope the person that passes the beauty contest is as good as they seem.

They rarely are.

So what’s the option?  Look to your own church.  Hire from within.  View your current volunteers, the members who now serve in strategic roles, as your farm league. 

Why is this best?

Because you know what you’re getting.

You know their character.

You know their competencies.

You know whether they are catalytic.

You know whether you have chemistry with them.

You know whether they have been called, at the very least, to your church.

Don’t underestimate this.

Just once hire someone who continually walks around talking about how they did it at their old church, how much better it was at their old church, or how much better the leadership, teaching, staff, was at their old church. 

You’ll be ready to send them back to their old church!

But there’s more. 

You know whether or not they “get it.”  Each church has a unique DNA, a focused mission, and a unique context.  When you hire from within, you do not run the risk of contaminating the purity, force and intent of your team.

Yes, there is a need for “fresh blood” and new perspectives.  You can gain quite a bit from someone’s experiences in other venues.  But you run an incredibly high risk of losing what you have worked so hard to create, namely your church’s unique DNA. 

So when we hire from the outside, we look to “sister” churches – places that share our philosophy of ministry, leadership style and structure, mission, vision and values.

And maybe most of all, whether they like the same kind of beer we do.

James Emery White


Jim Collins, From Good to Great.

For more, see 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, is now available for pre-order.  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.  Follow Dr. White on twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.

The Five "C's" for Picking Staff and Volunteer Leaders