First-hand: Church Administration from Those Who Practice it

Especially in college, I realized that as much as I learn effectively from books, I learn a lot from listening to people tell their stories. This class is no different! So, I designed an assignment (yes I dream about designing assignments for myself, I am strange) where I interview two people about the role of church administration in their work.

C is an office administrator at a larger Lutheran congregation in the Pacific Northwest, and A is a pastor of a 2-point parish in Texas. As her central role, I wanted to know from C what it was like to manage church administration all day. Also, since I want to be a pastor, I thought it might be smart to interview someone who is currently a pastor, whose call has imbedded administrative roles as a leader of two different congregations.

I took my notes from our conversations and arranged them into main themes that I heard rise to the top. So – in paraphrased form here’s what they said about the role of church administration and why it matters:

I’m learning that when it comes to church administration…

A: I came in and people were already doing administrative jobs. I am one among many who manages administrative roles in my congregations. Someone else gets the mail, someone else runs budget meetings (which I attend), and someone else does the day-to-day financial management, even though check-in on it regularly.

C: Yes, I have lots of administrative tasks, but a lot of my time is spent visiting with people who come in my office. Often individuals will find me on a Sunday morning to tell me something about their health or about a family member or friend. Longevity has helped with building up relationships and people trusting me.

The best part of church administration…

A: I get to be like a gardener and help people identify their gifts, whether they are administrative or otherwise.

C: The people. It was “unreal” when my spouse passed away. So many people came by with dinners and casseroles that we had turn them away and groups started getting mad. They wanted to help so badly, and their compassion touched me, and still does.

Most challenging part…

C: As the congregation grows, in membership and thus staff size, my job as administrative support changes. This congregation has experienced tremendous growth recently, and this impacts how I support the congregation and staff members in an administrative way.

The one of the best things you can do is…

A: As a parish pastor, it’s important communicate things far in advance, and in more modes than one. Our church and other local churches collaborated and led a youth event. With my gift of administration, I did a lot of the calling, communicating, advertising, etc., and sometimes it felt discouraging that other churches didn’t have or didn’t empower their members to manage their administrative tasks.

A: Acknowledge it’s a gift or not. If administration is not your gift, ask for help, and it’s okay to ask your parishoners for help. I lean a lot on my parishoners when we do visioning work, and they lean on me with a number of administrative tasks.

It’s all about…

C: Knowing why you’re doing what you’re doing. This is why my faith is so key to being a church administrator. Know why you’re caring for these people and this facility; otherwise it might be a challenge to put in the effort or care this role requires.

 

What I (Allison) think:

From these interviews, I gained a new sense of appreciation for these church leaders and their roles. Neither of them are counting, arranging, organizing, or communicating in front of their computers all day. Their roles are extremely human, and they helped me see that administration enables them to connect with individuals and communities even more effectively. Like A said, not all of us have gifts in administration, but if you recognize that you don’t, don’t be afraid to ask for help! I’m so grateful for both of these church leaders and especially people like C who manage administrative tasks that keep our faith communities running. Thanks for sharing your stories with me, and learning with me what it means care for people, which includes the (all essential) administrative side of things!

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Newcomers and New Questions

In this fourth week of learning about church administration, I’m learning about being like a “CEO” and communication. If you want to follow along, this week I’m reading and reflecting on the chapters titled, “Oversight (Being CEO) Is a Worthy Calling,” and “Communication: Ministry Means Messaging” (pgs. 143-199) of Church Administration by Robert N. Bacher and Michael L. Cooper-White.

This past weekend I taught a new member’s class for the first time. We had about ten people made up of young families, couples old and young, and some on their own. I got to steward my experience from the last eight months of internship with a hope and a prayer, and hopefully I represented our congregation well.

Reflecting on it now, I know I want to share about all the wonderful stories I heard, thoughtful and open conversations we had on church, LGBTQIA, communion, and Theology on Tap, all the beautiful and broken people I met, and an ADORABLE infant who will be the youngest new member in the next couple months. But I truly want to stick to the administrative side of it. I don’t mean to paint “administration” and “human moments” as polar opposites. In fact I’m finding that they’re more intertwined than I thought.

This week Bacher and Cooper-White responded to 1st Timothy 3:1 by saying, “Such a ministry of oversight [someone trusted to lead a congregation or region], whether as bishop of a diocese or pastor of a congregation, inevitably includes administrative dimensions” (144). This is all too true. As with all pastoral interns, I came into a congregation with systems and a culture already in place, churning, and shaking. So when I asked our Office Administrator if I could make copies of the forms I knew we were going to have the new members fill out at the end of the evening, I saw that there was one that was used a while ago but hadn’t been brought out recently.

In the spirit of the old form, I created something new: “Harvesting of Gifts, Interests, Passions, and Growing Edges,” where you can find things like “Telling stories,” “Comforting people who are sad,” “Making people laugh,” and “Making breakfast,” to select under I enjoy/want to learn more about… The other column are options (strengths and talents) to check for If I were to guess, I think I am…

The form can’t be more than 20 lines long, but it gets people identifying their gifts and growing edges, while giving staff members a way to introduce and connect them with people at our church who can get a new person to feel like we’re their people, and they’re our people. Over half of the people there filled it out and I can’t wait to connect them with people who are experts at giving new folks opportunities to share, serve, be known, and feel like they belong.

Prepping the multi-media, scheduling guest speakers, making sure there was enough material for participants without killing too many trees, answering emails, coordinating with the Office Administrator to invite people, following-up with staff connectors, expressing thanks and asking for previous teaching content, crafting an agenda, making copies, playing with babies (ok maybe not the last one)–were all part of the administrative picture of this wonderful New Members class.

My role as facilitator, teacher, and pastor was to set the table; Bacher and Cooper-White write, “the way the table is set for a meeting will have a significant impact on its ultimate results” (169). I didn’t make the dinner, but I confirmed with the cook that we could squeeze in two more for dinner. We set out dark chocolate candies to hold people over for the dinner break an hour in to my presentation. But I also set the table by setting expectations and setting the space to maximize the learning and connection of the people gathered there.

I shared with them the objectives for the evening, why they were there, and what I wanted them to think and dream about together.

Believe it or not, this whole church thing isn’t 100% unchanging (!). God’s promises are unchanging, but the Holy Spirit has a funny way of blowing people in (and out of) communities and bringing with them (or leaving room for) new questions, new perspectives, new backgrounds, and new pairs of lens with which we read the Bible and the world. I hope I established a space to share how our church is sensing God’s call, and also invited these new members to imagine how their presence and new contribution might enrich this congregation’s response to God’s call and vision for this church. I’m grateful for the staff people that supported me in this teaching, and I’m excited for more opportunities to engage with ministry and administrative tasks in new and creative ways!

Is there a particular class, activity, service, or project that you facilitate regularly that engages in administrative tasks that enrich that experience for your participants? Or do these administrative tasks do the opposite? What’s a way that you engage in administrative tasks with joy and gratitude?

Enough.

I’ve been staring at a blank page for a couple days now. I think partly because the days are growing shorter and winter is coming (gasp), and that just doesn’t make me that excited for life. But if I look past those things, there are some big things I’ve been dreaming about lately.

My thinking pose which apparently requires a beach.

My thinking pose that requires a beach.

Yes, this is another, “Allison is going to rant about a church thing” but it’s also not. Because I think there’s something hopeful and constructive about this line of thinking — which I don’t think has been as present in my thought-process for a while now.

Timothy started an interim worship and music directing position, and it’s led us to think about a lot of worship-y and music-y things. I’m trying to be grateful to him and this community and our larger church that’s all over the world, but I can’t help but see things that make me want to rip my hair out.

Surrounded by questions of “Did enough people come to worship today?” and “Where are the swarm of kids that filled up the church during the children’s sermon a few weeks ago?” – I wonder if we’re measuring success in unhelpful ways (great articles herehere, and here). These questions are asked at churches and in church leadership in LOTS of places: East coast, Midwest, West coast, urban, rural, contemporary (whatever that means), traditional (whatever that means). Fear, anxiety, counting heads, and trading in imagination for job protection…. the lists go on, the tensions go on, and they all seem to really be inward looking. Needless to say, I don’t think they’re helpful.

I think we can be imaginative. I say “we” as in people who go to church and people who don’t go to church very often – because we all have something to contribute when imagining about what could be since religion and society are so intertwined and influence each other significantly. There’s no “us and them” in these questions. There’s “us”. Together, we can contribute to the conversation about church. You don’t have to be “Christian-y” enough to speak up, at least that’s what I think.

We can ask: What’s the point of church? What’s the point of communion? What’s the point of baptism? What’s the point of faith?

I know, giant questions. But let’s take a shot.

Pinterest, if you say so.

Pinterest, I hope you’re right.

What if instead of inviting people into church buildings to experience God in their life (most likely once a week, if we’re being honest?), we bring practices and small tweaks to people’s daily lives that encourage an awareness of God in their daily lives – you know, the ugly and pretty daily walk in which God promises to be with us more than just once a week (see Isaiah 43:1-2)?

For instance: Communion. Often happens in a church building, yes? We hear that Christ is for us as we experience God’s presence in daily things (for most of us): food & drink. We remember the last supper, when Jesus had supper with his closest friends, with people he loved (Mark 14, Matt 26, Luke 22, John 13).

Depending on the size of a congregation, this is practiced by handing each person a wafer or small piece of bread and a small cup wine or grape juice. An experience that might last 5 seconds and often includes standing in line and going back to your spot, in a pew (you’re back in a line, but sitting).

Does anyone else see how distant this practice has become from Jesus’ last supper?

What if we actually had supper/dinner together and that was communion? Imagine it: Everyone comes together and brings their favorite dish (see: pot luck). We hear words of blessing from a non-pastor that remind us that it’s not all about us and God is for us, the haves, and the have-nots. We all dish ourselves and sit down with our full plates. As friends, we listen and share about our day today. We look at each other’s faces as we talk (great reflection here). Is this not communion? Sharing a meal we all want to have anyway (dinner) and hearing God is for you, the Christian, and you, the non-Christian?

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Eating dinner or some meal together. I could see it!

This is just one idea. But bringing an awareness of God into a daily thing – I think it’s what an honest-to-goodness walk with God looks like – not a once-per-week 60 minute experience on a Sunday morning, but a daily reminder that God is for us! God is for you! I don’t care who you are, that’s news we need EVERY DAY.

My question – could this be church? Is it already church? If so, where is it, because I want to see it! And I think this is so important to me because my research and observations tell me that church needs a major revamp and perhaps needs to get back to what’s important. The church (the people who I associate with it) have invested in me, and I want to give back. I think this conversation about church and success needs some help.

I’m hungry for a church where success is not measured by the number of butts in the pews but the depth at which lives are changed because they know:

  1. You’re enough.
  2. You deserve love and connection.
  3. You matter.

Is that so hard? It must be – because I can’t point a church that’s living these messages out right now. Perhaps other communities are? For-profit organizations? Non-governmental organizations? Creative communities? Online communities? For me, these values are the root of the message I read in the Bible. How might someone learn these messages/beliefs/values?

Because here’s what I think:

If Jesus led you to these beliefs…

If Muhammed led you to these beliefs…

If a “divine spark” led you to these beliefs…

That’s great. These things are still true:

  1. You’re enough.
  2. You deserve love and connection.
  3. You matter.

These values are what Jesus was all about. Saying and being these things over and over again. Not boxing people in; not loving some and ignoring others; not liking — but LOVING, and LOVING – a lot, to everybody. All are welcome, right?

So why do churches (your church, my church, your grandparents’ church, churches that I have worshiped in, led, preached at, you name it) draw lines — physically draw lines to direct people to walk up to the front of a church to receive communion, to experience God’s presence; we play in boxes, we think in boxes, we preach that Jesus is THE answer, implying that other answers are not only wrong but outside of human imagination and experience.

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We live in a post-9/11 society. The world has seen many shifts, and we must treat this time in history as a time of significant shift – a shift in political views and policies, economic and social privileges, values and prejudices. Likewise, there’s a shift in religious and spiritual thinking and dialogue. This means the church has a massive opportunity to speak into this new reality. But does it? Will it?

What does it mean to be a Christian in a post-9/11 society? This a huge question, but one whose answer might make or break the future of Christianity — it would surely re-shape it — and I hope for the better. With genuine hope, I believe it could re-shape our values, our vision, our practices, our understanding of leadership and our daily lives that usher in a new way of being a Christian person in the world.

We can’t keep doing business as usual. I’m not saying “The church must stay relevant! Everybody’s forgetting about the church!” We don’t need contemporary bands, traditional liturgy, new pews, or pastors with more experiences at “The Celebration of Biblical Preaching” than they know what to do with (no offence, but when the majority of pastors use their entire continuing education budget on this one event every year, we have a problem. What I am saying, is that if the only answer to “Why are we doing it this way?” is “Because that’s how we’ve always done it,” then we have lost sight of the church’s reason for being. We have lost the vision, the mission, and the values that guide a response to God’s grace — a response that is an opportunity, a celebration, of warmth, humor, vulnerability, courage, and connection. THAT’S a response to God’s UNLIMITED love and grace that I can get behind.

Everyone in my generation has “the story” of where they were on 9/11. I was going into the 9th grade and my mom curled my hair as we watched the buildings burn on TV. On the radio we listened as the Seattle DJs watched the first tower fall as my sister drove us to school. My world didn’t change all that much, 2,800 miles away from New York, but the world changed. The world changed. And it’s changed since. As I write this I can see the flight path out of MSP as I sit here at the nearest Starbucks to Timothy’s work.

On a journey.

On a journey.

Now, all this reflecting and questioning of mine – it’s by no means a guide to make the church healthy or grow exponentially. Like countless church staff around the country (around the world), they (we) face big challenges with often too little support. It’s easy to become cynical, but we must fight that with critical thinking, trust in each other, and faith in Jesus’ unrelenting love and hope.

I think there are just too many good ideas and kind people out there to throw up my hands and say, “I give up.” I see so much beauty and joy going on in the world (God’s created and sustained world), in our own lives and in the lives of neighbors and communities all over the world. It’s happening everywhere, literally, everywhere. I wonder, when will the church see it?