This opinion paper is rife with generalities. Suffice it say that the opinions expressed herein refer to the majority of churches, as opposed to all churches. This, by the way, will be a very untidy post.
The mainline church in the U.S. has long pursued adoption of “sound” business practices in its member congregations, spurred on by the increasingly rigorous legal and social demands that have resulted from a long and growing list of ethical transgressions. The two most prominent areas of concern are sexual misconduct and financial/property mismanagement. In my opinion, the interest in the first has been spurred not primarily by a sense of protecting and safe-guarding children and people otherwise at risk of sexual predation, but by the financial fallout that may consequentially occur. That which has garnered the full attention of concerned parties is the potential “price” of abuse. Increasingly, changes have occurred with the development of “sound” church business practices that have moved the basic ethical underpinnings of church oversight and administration from spiritual and social concerns to financial matters and risk management. Routinely financial, staff and property management are referred to as the “business” of the church, with the real business of the church – ministry, mission and education – receiving far less attention.
While material concerns are undoubtedly important for the health of churches individually and corporately, an ever-growing problem has arisen for churches of all sizes. By far, the majority of session discussions, decisions and activities revolve around matters unrelated to faith. Nowhere is this more prevalent than in smaller churches, in which far more people are involved in financial/property/business management than in Christian education or mission. Rather than open doors for growth, concentration on worldly concerns is likely to further stunt the possibilities for meaningful ministry in small churches. The role of church administration in small churches needs to be addressed in way that frees membership to engage fully in ministry, mission and education.
One of the critical problems for churches is to able to serve people who are having life crises. This is impossible to do when the church environment looks and acts increasingly like a business.
The church’s adoption of business ethics and behavior could not be timed more poorly. Those in their mid-forties and fifties are most likely to be entrenched in business-life, familiar with all of the practices and philosophies that have given rise to major decreases in labor loyalty and general attitudes about the morality of business behavior. They are already facing the contradictions present between consumerism and living a life of meaning, and are finding the same situations reflected in church life. Rather than finding a worshipping institution that reflects a better view of the world, people seem to be finding one that simply reflects the world back to them.
The major problem, however, is how small churches can deal with issues of administration without using up all the available resources of time, talent and energy. Unless the problem can be solved, I contend the outlook for small churches is grim. This post will only be informative for those churches, however, that have come to the realization that dealing with the accounting, property management and other “business” of the church is killing it.
For those churches that belong to a denomination or association of churches, there is potentially a mechanism by which administration issues can be more easily handled. The “how to…” is not part of this post, since in each case it is likely to be a little different, but the theory behind it would be the same – the answer is in the numbers. By numbers, I am suggesting we worry about numbers – that is, sometimes, what landed us in the predicament in the first place – but to utilize the power of numbers to work out solutions.
If you are reading this because you belong to a small church and cannot foresee a brighter future, you are not alone. If you handle the finances, repairs, maintenance, insurance or utility concerns, and wish to be engaged in outreach, but find yourself overloaded with the “practical” matters of church instead, you are not alone. The strength in your position is just that – the fact that you are not alone. The difference between where you are and where you could be is simply knowing who else is in your position, who is in a position to help and how to get their attention.
Enter your judicatory – we call mine a presbytery, yours may be different. This is the colelctive local braintrust for your, generally at least, geographic area – and it will include many people who are all too familiar with your. Contact your [insert name of local leadership – mine is General Presbyter – yes, I know, that’s quite posh, isn’t it?] of your [insert name of your judicatory – mine, again, is presbytery] and tell them you want to collect names and make calls to have a special meeting at the next presbytery meeting. The Generla Presbyter should ask why, and now you have someone’s attention.
Some advice – from a former church administrator. While everyone likes to hang onto the checkbook, it is only a good idea if you have no paid employees other than the minister. If you have others, all of a sudden you have tax forms and reports to file that will overly complicate your life. The reason the minister is not important is that, generally, he or she is self-emplyed from the IRS’s perspective and you do not withhold taxes. Other than payroll, cutting checks for bills should be no problem, assuming there’s money, if you are willing to report what you have done.
Here’s some things to consider.
If the are five or more small churches within a reasonable distance to each other, each of whom have property issues and someone tasked with dealing with them, can they form a rota where each person takes a turn for a week or month caring for all the churches? This will free the others up for the other weeks/months to engage in ministry.
Short of this, can each church afford a small amount to give a handyperson or itinerant repairperson a retainer that is good for a certain number of hours per month/year so the people of the church just need to worry about big ticket issues?
When it comes to cleaning, can the same be accomplished there?
Is there, in any of the churches, an accountant or bookkeeper who is recently retired and wishes to earn a modest income doing the books for all the churches? It is surprising how small the cost of this can be, when compared to the cost of hours spent not in ministry.
Is the presbytery in any position to lend a hand in organizing this effort – it is in their best interests, after all?
I am not going to address buying groups – mostly because I believe all churches should support local businesses, anyway. By your stuff as close as you can – you’d be surprised who you can meet in each of those little stores.
Is one church in a position to fund a little more, as a mission contribution, to set up a central accounting/ property management resource center?
Are there larger churches that, as a mission effort, would help one or more small churches by allowing their staff to help out?
I realize these are all questions, and no answers are forthcoming, but the benefit of connectedness in judicatories is that you have a place to ask the questions. The answers will need to be fluid to fit the exact circumstances of the churches involved.
I, for one, would love to examine this further, so leave me a comment or email me to see what we can figure out. Incase you havenn’t guessed, I’m the minister of one of these congregations. I am hoping one of my elders or members might be the first to show an interest – and then we can see what we have. Remember, we have a collective braintrust, and it works when more people are engaged in the process.
As a final note, I will state the opinion that the survival of any church is far less dependent on sound business principles than sound Christian ones like evangelism, service and education. Freeing up the limited time and resources available for minstry by spending less time on practical concerns is the only way that a small congregation will be able to work alongside the pastor in revitalizing a church and/or community. Living into the Reign of God can be messy work, but fulfilling. It may not be as predictable as the business aspects, but it more rewarding and it is much more likely to put people in your pews.
 Kerry Wood, Andrew Little – co-editors; Jennifer Carter, John Martin , Thomas Orth, Rebecca Ploughe, David Soliday – contributing authors, Growing Beyond Numbers – The Methodist Theological School in Ohio Project for Transforming Church Growth, unpublished paper delivered May 23, 2003.