Why church administration is important

This is the first part of a series on how church administration can be a ministry.

Church administration is often given a low priority by both clergy and lay leaders. Typically, administrative procedures are borrowed from the techniques of for-profit or non-profit organizations, and it is assumed that those techniques will work in churches without any substantive modification. Indeed, this assumption is probably in large part true: standard administrative procedures used in the business and non-profit world do work quite well in churches.

However, I begin with a different assumption. I assume that every facet of church life should be informed by theology. Therefore, when it comes to church administration, I begin with the assumption that, no matter what the final outcome, there should be a fundamental connection between theology and church life. Note that I am not asserting that church life should be grounded in some abstractly true theology; rather, theology and church life inform each other in a theory-praxis relationship wherein each supports and modifies the other in a sort of co-evolution.

Nor is this merely an academic question for me: church administration is at the heart of my own praxis as a minister. Those who use the language of “call” would say that I, as a minister, have church administration as the central part of my “call to ministry.” Having never heard a “call,” I don’t use the language of “call”; I’d prefer to say that the rest of my ministry grows out of what I do in church administration. But whatever language you prefer to use, church administration is central to who I am as a minister; and so it is that I believe there is more to church administration than what the M.B.A’s teach us.

To find out why adminstration is so important to me, let’s compare administration to preaching. Most people in my Unitarian Universalist tradition consider preaching to be far more important for ministers than administration, because preaching is typically the heart of our worship services, and our worship services are at the heart of our congregations. As a thought experiment, imagine I was serving a congregation where I happened to be the only minister but where for some reason I didn’t preach. Yet though a ministry of administration, I could nonetheless ensure that the congregation heard excellent preaching each week. I could, for example, help reorganize the budget to cover fees for outside preachers, and take care of the logistics and scheduling of outside preachers. Or in another example, I could recruit, train, and support lay preachers, while administering the logistics of scheduling, etc.

That second example, of recruiting, training, and supporting volunteers, brings up a critical point about church administration. Although I’m now a parish minister, I started out as a minister of religious education (MRE). Rather than preaching, an MRE’s central task is making sure religious education classes take place. But whereas a preaching minister can have hundreds of people hear a single sermon, religious education classes work best when they take place in small groups. So an MRE has to make sure lots of small group religious education classes take place, which generally means that the MRE can’t lead every class by him- or herself. Therefore, an MRE has to learn the art of administration so that he or she recruits, trains, and supports volunteers — in short, empowers volunteers — to do the actual face-to-face ministry of teaching. As an MRE, I had to learn how to ministry by administration; and I learned that it is just as effective as direct ministry.

It might help if I talked about a few specific issues so you can see how ministry by administration works. Obviously, since some of the programs an MRE administers serve minors, issues of safety are brought into high relief, due to the legal issues involved. But what I discovered as an MRE is that if I focused my administrative efforts on safety, I noticed a qualitative change in the mood of the congregation throughout all age groups. I think what happened was this: Many churches are not safe places; physically, churches often occupy buildings with serious maintenance issues; emotionally, there has been little attention to issues of emotional safety; and most importantly, spiritually there is often little attempt to create a safe place for people to engage in spiritual exploration.

When the church building, church community, and church “spirit” do not feel safe, it can feel as if the people of the church are, as it were, sitting on the edges of their chairs getting ready to run out of the building if a disaster happens. In church administration jargon, there is a lot of anxiety in that church. In my experience, it’s possible to lower that anxiety substantially with seemingly minor safety features. I have found that the simple act of posting clear, well-thought-out maps showing emergency evacuation routes in each and every room in the church building (including the primary worship space) can lower anxiety to extent that seems hardly credible.

Next installment: More about safety

1 thought on “Why church administration is important

  1. Bill Baar

    In a rush, but do read The Economist of Dec 24 – Jan 6 starting on page 41. It’s on
    Mega Chruch adoption of corporate management structures. The focus on Chicago area’s
    Willow Springs Church.

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