To end my discussion of church administration, I’d like to look at two specific instances of applied church administration.
I recently talked with Christana Wille McKnight, a Unitarian Universalist minister who works as a chaplain in a nursing home. Christana mentioned that the health care industry is taking seriously the possibility of an avian flu epidemic, to the point of making fairly detailed emergency preparedness plans.
Not that there are any firm predictions about an avian flu epidemic — no one knows if or when an epidemic will occur, nor if a mutated avian flu will even be deadly. However, from an administrative point of view, it makes sense for all congregations to engage in at least a basic level of emergency preparedness planning. And while the specific possibility of an avian flu epidemic might give us an opportunity to motivate our congregations to put basic emergency plans into place, anyone who was working in a church on September 11, 2001, knows at a gut level that an emergency can arise at any time. Better to have at least basic plans in place now than try to scramble to put something into place at the last minute.
Here are some elements of basic emergency preparedness that most congregations could easily put into place in less than a month:
- Functional telephone tree that can be used to contact every member of the congregation
- Plan for checking on shut-ins during an emergency
- Up-to-date list of members and friends of congregation who work in health care and public safety
- Plan for supporting health care workers and public safety employees in an extended emergency
In certain regions, churches will wish to engage in more specific emergency preparedness (earthquake preparedness in California, etc.). Similarly, the possibility of, say, an avian flu epidemic will prompt us to engage in planning specific to that possible emergency. So for an avian flu epidemic, we might do the floowing:
- Plan to use church communication channels for public health or emergency messages (this implies contact with public safety authorities)
- Alert congregation to possibility of closing down church services in case of quarantine
- If appropriate, plan for using church building and facilities as emergency wards or morgues
In closing, we can ask: Why should churches worry about emergency preparedness? From a practical standpoint, people in churches are aware at some level of the possibility of an emergency, and we might as well address this openly; at the very least, by so doing we’ll reduce congregational anxiety. From a theological standpoint, churches exist in part to help people get through extraordinary moments in their lives (birth, passage into adulthood, marriage, death). But these extraordinary moments are not limited to predictable life passages; they also include crises that go beyond individual lives; so emergency preparedness is simply an extension fo our core theological mission.
In my Unitarian Universalist tradition, some experts estimate that over fifty per cent of all Unitarian Universalist congregations have experienced an incident of clergy sexual misconduct since the 1960’s; that is to say, within living memory. Church consultant Deborah Pope-Lance has said that the effects of clergy sexual misconduct are pervasive, that is, they pervade every part of church life, and persistent, that is, they persist for decades after the misconduct ended. Clergy sexual misconduct is one instance of what are more generally termed “boundary violations,” where someone in power violates the boundaries (physical, emotional, spiritual) of people over whom he or she has power. I’ll focus on clergy sexual misconduct here only because it is so widespread.
After clergy sexual misconduct has occurred, and after the perpetrator has been removed from the congregation, the work of healing can begin. However, healing a church after boundary violations can be a long, protracted, unpleasant process. Indeed, in spite of best efforts, boundary violations can kill a church, or choke it so that it stays small and useless. Obviously, then, it is extremely important to heal a church after boundary violations.
There is now a fairly extensive literature on healing churches after boundary violations, which you should consult if you are in such a church. However, I have not seen anything in that literature that specifically addresses church administration as a way to promote healing. Having now served in two churches in which there had been clergy sexual misconduct, I have become convinced that good church administration can foster a safe environment in which healing can proceed more quickly; and it should be obvious how this can lower a church’s anxiety, which can in turn promote healing.
Additionally, good church administration helps a church set up, maintain, and negotiate good boundaries. When a clergyperson violates sacred boundaries by engaging in sexual misconduct, that can cause people in a church to question all boundaries within that church. Good church administration sets up boundaries based on safety and on theological principles; it maintains boundaries through clear procedures and clearly demarcated power structures; and it can help persons negotiate boundaries by ensuring that boundaries are open and visible to all.
From a theological standpoint, church administration promotes healing from clergy sexual misconduct by creating a (metaphorical) safe space in which trust and covenant can be restored between persons, those in leadership roles, and the Sacred. Church administration is not sufficient by itself for healing after clergy sexual misconduct, but it can be a key, even a necessary, component.
Summary and conclusion
Church administration differs significantly from administration in the business and non-profit worlds, because church administration is informed by theology. Two theologies in my tradition that can inform adminsitration are feminist theology and ecological theology. Safety becomes a key issue for church administration; safety can encompass physical, emotional, and spiritual safety, as well as emergency preparedness. Finally, church administration is an oft-overlooked tool for promoting healing after such boundary violations as clergy sexual misconduct.
In conclusion, although church administration is often a low priority for clergy and lay leaders, I find it to be central to my ministry. I hope that this series of short essays on the subject will promote further discussion of the issue. Because standard theological education in my tradition neglects administration, ideally, I’d like to see a book-length study of the theology and practice of Unitarian Universalist church administration aimed at ministers, staff, and lay leaders.