Category Archives: Church admin.

After you make the decision, what next?

Replaces post that disappeared during Web host problems.

We were in a meeting talking about how our congregation makes decisions. And engineer told us what happened after they made decisions in her for-profit workplace. She said, “We used to have a saying: Agree and commit; Disagree and commit; or, Get out of the way.”

In congregational life, as in the for-profit world, there’s usually a fourth option: Disagree and sabotage. A decision is made by a duly constituted authority, or through an established democratic process, and a small group of people who disagree with the decision start to sabotage it. And why wouldn’t we behave in this way? That’s the way democracy in America works: once a decision is made, many politicians (both Democrats and Republicans) go out of their way to sabotage the implementation of the decision. Ordinary citizens like us unconsciously follow their example.

But I think our congregations should be countercultural; we should not do democracy the way many U.S. politicians do democracy. We shouldn’t blindly adopt the standard from the engineering world, but it might be a good starting place:

Agree and commit;
Disagree and commit; or
Get out of the way.

Still true today

Dana Greeley, the first president of the Unitarian Universalist Association, wrote the following in 1970:

“I once preached what I thought was a pretty good sermon on ‘The Methodological Conservatism of Theological Liberals.’ We have to be as inventive with our money as we are with tools or medicine or private enterprise. And to me it is more important, and more natural, for liberal religion to be bold, and to grow, than for IBM or some new computer company to be bold or grow. The worst complacency in the world is religious complacency.”

The importance of membership

How important is the size of a congregation’s membership? Here’s Kennon Callahan’s response:

“Regrettably, in many of the churches in our country there is a preoccupation with membership. A simple illustration will suffice: Two ministers meet at a conference. The one minister is in the process of moving to a new pastorate. The other minister, in an almost automatic way, asks, ‘How many members does your new church have?’ The more important question would be, ‘How many people is your new church serving in mission?'” (Kennon Callahan, Twelve Keys to an Effective Church, 1st ed., Jossey-Bass, 1983, pp. 2-3.) And what does Callahan mean by “mission”? He defines it thus: “…in doing effective mission, the local congregation focuses on both individual as well as institutional hurts and hopes.”

Of course it’s more complicated, and more nuanced, than these bald statements would imply. For the complex, nuanced version, you’ll have to read the first chapter of Callahan’s book yourself.

In the long run

“In the long run we are all dead.”

So said economist John Maynard Keynes in “A Tract on Monetary Reform” (1923). That’s a delightful statement in and of itself, taken completely out of context. It’s even better in context. Keynes is making an argument reductio ad absurdum, pointing out that it’s rather too easy to take the very long view. If you really want to take a long view as an economist, you can simply say that in the end everyone’s going to be dead, which means it’s really easy to make economic predictions, e.g., in a hundred years the current economic crisis won’t seem so bad, because we’ll all be dead.

It’s easy to make this kind of mistake in your local congregation. In a hundred years, it won’t matter if the roof is leaking. Compared to the infinitudes of Transcendentalist theology, it doesn’t matter if the grass is all dead on the children’s play area at church. Both these are true but pointless statements. This kind of attitude doesn’t get you very far.

It’s also easy to make the opposite mistake: only paying attention to the problems that are staring you in the face right here and now. Don’t fix the roof until it leaks, and then wait a couple of year until we have enough money in the operating budget. Don’t worry about the lack of grass in the children’s play area until the rainy season begins, until the children’s favorite game becomes mud wrestling. As with the previous attitude, this kind of attitude doesn’t get you very far.

In my sixteen years of working in local congregations, I have found one of the hardest tasks is finding a good balance between these two extremes. It’s easy and ultimately useless to take the very long view that we’ll all be dead. It is equally easy, and in the end equally useless, only to pay attention to problems that hit you in the face. It’s really hard to try to predict problems far enough in advance to deal with them in a timely manner, but not so far in advance that you’re wasting your time solving them now.

Moral vs. immoral banking

In an article titled “Where’s Your Church’s Money? : Banking for the Common Good,” in the September 21 issue of Christian Century magazine, Scott Bader-Sayre quotes John Calvin as saying that “Usury [i.e., lending at interest] almost always travels with two inseparable companions: tyrannical cruelty and the art of deception.” Calvin was willing to allow lending at interest, however, as long as such lending adhered to moral principles; thus, Calvin said that if you lend money to the poor, you should not get interest.

Calvin’s words seem prophetic in light of the recent banking crisis, which exposed the immoral and predatory practices of the banking industry. Bader-Sayre then asks, What can we do about this? He believes that part of the answer is that local congregations should place their money in places where it will do good, e.g., in banks that invest locally:

Few … have any lingering questions or qualms about usury. Perhaps we should still worry that interest as such fails to serve a good human economy. But given that there are faithful precedents for brokering just loans in service of real need and given our practically inescapable participation in an interest-based economy, the relevant question may not be “Should Christians* loan at interest?” but “What would it look like today to participate in lending and borrowing in such a way that it served human good and benefited all parties involved?’ Such a question might, in fact, lead us to more radical proposals for social change than would come from simply rejecting capitalism from the sidelines.

* Obviously, this statement also applies to religious liberals who are not necessarily Christians.

Bader-Sayre points us to an organization called Move Your Money, which is encouraging people to move their money out of the six biggest banks into local banks. Here’s a video from Move Your Money, featuring George Bailey and Mr. Potter:

The problem with local congregations moving their money into locally owned banks is that many congregations have become overly dependent on receiving high rates of interest in order to fund their operating budget. If our congregations are going to use their money responsibly, maybe we’ll all have to start giving 5% of our gross income to our congregations to support our moral goals.

Comprehensive filing system

Carol has a book about managing large volumes of email, titled Hamster Revolution. In order to manage email, the authors of the book (Michael Song, Vicki Halsey, and Tim Burress) recommend using the same filing system for email that you use for all other files. To make filing easier, they further suggest using four broad filing categories: clients, output, team, and admin.

I liked the idea of using the same categories for email that I use for my other files. Of course, that raised another issue: I need to use the same filing categories throughout my computer that I use in my physical files in my filing cabinets. I also liked the idea of using just a few broad filing categories. And that raised another issue: those of us who work in congregations don’t really have clients, so that won’t work as a filing category. After a good bit of thought, I decided to use the following four big filing categories: 1 People including people in the congregation, and other stakeholders; 2. Output, including programs and ministries; 3. Team, including paid staff, volunteer staff, and lay leaders; and 4. Administration.

But which of my existing file headings should go into which of the four big categories? For example, do I put my files on rites of passage under Output, since they are a ministry of the congregation, or do I file them under People, since rites of passage are for specific people? In the book, Song, Halsey, and Burress point out that the first three categories can be arranged in order of importance, with the most important category at the beginning of the list:

People and Stakeholders
Output (programs, ministries, etc.)
Team (staff, volunteers, lay leaders, etc.)

— where Team creates Output which serves and guides People and Stakeholders (with Administration as a necessary foundation to everything else). Now, when trying to decide between two filing categories, use the one highest up in the list. Thus, my files on rites of passage could go in Output, but I’m going to put them into People because that’s higher on the list.

I hope I’m making this clear, although I’m trying to explain this concept in a short blog post, while in the book this takes up an entire chapter. My most important point is this: although the filing categories proposed in Hamster Revolution are designed for the for-profit business world, I think they can be readily adapted to the world of congregations, using the modifications I suggest above. Of course, if you want, you can go read the book, or ask me questions via a comment. And for further clarification, I’ll give my complete filing hierarchy below as an example.

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Front page news

A lead story today from the New York Times reminds us that “members of the clergy now suffer from obesity, hypertension, and depression at rates higher than most Americans. In the last decade, their use of antidepressants has risen, while their life expectancy has fallen.”

And how can we stop this downward trend? No definitive answer yet, but: “a growing number of health care experts and religious leaders have settled on one simple remedy that has long been a touchy subject with many clerics: taking more time off.”

Sounds about right to me. That’s the way many ministers are trained. I have minister friends whose internship supervisors insisted they work far more than 40 hours a week during their internships; one supervisor told her intern that the intern must work at least one 80 hour week “to know what it feels like”; that supervisor routinely worked 60+ hours a week.

And then there are the minister who rarely take Sundays off, who never use all their vacation time, and rarely take more than one day off in any given week. And now of course cell phones mean that clergy feel they should always be available, at any time of the day or night (there goes your sex life, I guess) — even though we all got along just fine in the days when there weren’t even any answering machines.

OK, so my bias is obvious (and I do take my vacations, and keep my hours below 50 hours a week). So what do you think?

Volunteer management for religious education

Today in the New DRE (Director of Religious Education) workshop, one of the topics we addressed was volunteer management, and we focused on volunteer teachers. I said that the way I think about volunteer management is that it is a cycle that begins with supporting your current volunteers, then moves to recognizing volunteers at the end of a semester or year (or for volunteers completing service), then moves to recruiting new volunteers (or recruiting current volunteers to volunteer for another semester or year), then moves to training volunteers beginning service.

I asked workshop participants to brainstorm ideas for ways that we can support, recognize, recruit, and train religious education volunteers (especially volunteer teachers). Below is the list of ideas they generated:

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Budgets as vision statements

As I watch the debates on whether to move the 2012 General Assembly (GA) of the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) out of Arizona because of the boycott stemming from Arizona SB 1070, I am reminded that financial budgets are in fact expressions of our goals and dreams.

The current conflict about whether or not to move the 2012 GA will come to a vote at this year’s GA, which will take place in Minneapolis June 23-27. If there were no budget implications — if it cost nothing to move General Assembly in 2012 –there would be little discussion about whether to move it or not. But it will cost money to move GA in 2012; and the current UUA budget is tight to begin with, with layoffs and cuts for the past two years.

We’re seeing budget battles playing out in many local congregations right now. Many congregations have seen revenue drop over the past two years of the Great Recession, and most of those congregations have had to make budget cuts. What do you do when you have to choose between a paying full-time minister, and repairing a leaking roof on a historic building? What do you do when you have to have to choose between cutting your Director of Religious Education’s (DRE’s) hours, and paying a rising heating bill?

Making budget cuts is extremely painful, because every time we cut something out of a budget, we are cutting away a piece of someone’s vision. When we cut the DRE’s hours to pay the heating bill, we are cutting away at someone’s vision for the congregation’s ministries to children and youth. When we cut the minister to half-time in order to repair the leaking roof, we are cutting away at our vision of our congregation’s ministry.

This suggests a strategy when we’re trying either to cut a budget, or to move money out of one budget category into another budget category. When I get excited about a vision, I won’t give that vision up quickly, nor will I give it up at all if I don’t see a more compelling vision. Visions are a matter of the heart. Thus, if you want to change a budget that supports a vision that I’m excited about, your strategy should be to engage my heart — to get me excited about your new vision.

This is why I think it helps to think of budgets, not as dry statements of facts and numbers, but as passionately emotional vision statements.