Monday, January 13, 2014


One of the things that amazes me most, thinking back to my first few years as a pastor, was that most Sundays I preached twice a week. It made for a busy life, as each new sermon usually took two days to write. But between being allowed to exchange pulpits once a month or so, and having a few Sundays a year off, I managed the two-sermons-per-week routine without too many problems.

I could never manage that sort of preaching load anymore. Why not? In a word (or two), church administration.

In my first congregation, things pretty much ran themselves—and if they didn’t, a layperson was there to make it run. So, when a new church needed to be built (around the bones of an old fire station), every detail was handled by church members—from building support for the project, to fund-raising, to getting zoning approvals, to final construction. Many members contributed free labor, as well. I didn’t have to do a thing, other than take a few turns behind the paintbrush and serve as a cheerleader.

Worship was the same every week—only the songs and sermons changed. On Tuesday mornings I’d pick the songs we were going to sing the following Sunday, write a few announcements about upcoming events, and pass them along to the secretary. Members of the congregation looked after almost everything else—nursery and coffee schedules and volunteers, committee meetings for education, building and grounds, as well council meetings. The clerk received all church mail and responded to it all.

It isn’t that I didn’t have a few projects of my own that I promoted and planned for. But the bottom line was that the church was owned and run by the membership. Volunteers were never in short supply. And the church template—what churches did on Sundays, in particular—was far simpler than today’s.

These days, things are different. It isn’t that there isn’t any more lay participation. In my current congregation, there certainly is—from the flower guild to the council, from greeting to coffee preparation, many volunteers participate in the life of the church. Still, volunteers, especially for longer-term responsibilities, have become harder and harder to find over the past thirty years. And when things are not going smoothly church members look to the pastor and his or her staff to fix it.

What has changed?

1. Most people have less time. Especially in large urban centers like Toronto, where most people now live, people are feeling more and more pressed for time. Traffic is a mess, especially in the hours leading up to traditional church-meeting times like breakfast and just after supper. What is more, with unemployment hovering between 7 and 8 percent, people have to give extra time and effort to their jobs. Many feel vulnerable. Again, time for other activities suffers. On the plus side, some people have less time because community—and even foreign—NGOs are also dipping into the traditional church volunteer pool.

2. A related factor, and probably the single largest factor in this list, is that many more women—once the heart and soul of church volunteerism—are now working professionally. They (as was almost always the case with their husbands) are coming to church exhausted. They want to participate in worship, but resist teaching for and planning Sunday School, babysitting during the service, organizing social and community events, and serving on council. More and more equality in the workplace means more and more tired, stressed out church members.

3. Our culture has encouraged greater expectations for parental involvement compared to the seventies or eighties. Parents want to cheer kids on, drive them to and from practices, and spend quality time at home or on vacation with their kids. Overall, this is a great development, as many of us boomers can remember when parents were just too busy or distracted to spend much time with us. But a byproduct of this is that both parents and kids are too busy to help out at church.

4. Still, expectations for the quality and variety of church programing have only increased. No surprises here. In the era of TV preachers, megachurches, and a consumer-satisfaction oriented culture, churches that don’t shine don’t attract new members. They lose old members and fail to excite current members. People—whether consciously or not, rightly or wrongly—treat churches as franchises they have to choose between. Franchise outlets that don’t sport the best menu, the latest innovations, the best music, the latest technology all fall behind. Churches run as mom and pop operations don’t keep up with the times and fail. Ironically, just as members have less time for church involvement, expectations for what churches must deliver have increased.

5. Technology can save time, but it has also increased expectations on pastors and staff for fast response times about ever more and more matters. More insidiously, the very ease of sending off an email means that lots of them are sent! Even when parishioners are not deeply involved in offering time for church matters, they are making suggestions and asking for answers. Email represents a great opportunity to stay in touch—and to touch—church members. But it comes at a cost in time and energy.

6. Technology two. The Internet and other contemporary technology is great for getting your church noticed—if you are good at it. But that means someone on Facebook and Google Plus, and updating your webpage on a weekly or more frequent basis, providing great content for blogs, and regular tweets. As the franchise competition heats up, more and more resources have to be dedicated to marketing. Someone on staff has to be on top of this.

7. Bigger staffs themselves require more administration. Although my first congregation and my current congregation are about the same size, many of the factors mentioned above mean I work with a much larger staff than ever before—from 1.2 FTE to 4+ FTE. But working with a large staff, maintaining morale, helping them grow in their skills and keeping everyone on target takes a lot of administration too.

8. Laws have become more and more complex—often for good reason. But the burden on churches is also real. From the annual audit to voluntary sector criminal reports, to writing policies covering matters as diverse as sexual harassment to what foods can and cannot be served during coffee time, churches are being held to a higher standard. And the staff is expected to stay on top of the constantly changing demands.

9. Worship is better. More musicians playing more genres of music practicing with each other and looking for direction from staff, more thoughtful use of movie clips and other media, more drama and lay participation, more responsive reading, more consideration for historic liturgical practices—worship has changed a lot from the days I used to give the part-time secretary a list of six songs to put into the church bulletin’s never changing worship template. All of this requires a lot of planning and administrative work behind the scenes.

10. Denominational and local church structures are more intrusive than ever before. They always claim that every new initiative is going to save you time and help your church thrive, but the truth is denominational leaders have only rarely figured out how to offer real and timely help rather than more obligations. Denominations undoubtedly struggle with many of the same trends that local churches do. Denominational agencies and affiliated organizations are vying with each other for time and support in an era it doesn’t come to them automatically anymore. As a result, there is more and more stuff from denominations, more and more new initiatives, and more and more insecurity. A lot of pastors try to ignore the whole scene, but that won’t make for improvements, either—or eventually deliver real help.

We live in an era heavily influenced by post-modern suspicion of institutions. People think institutions are rule-bound, hidebound, and acronym-obsessed. They don’t like the rules, regulations, master plans, and perceived coerciveness of institutions. They want church experiences that are of a gee whiz sort rather than church responsibilities that require time, attention, and dedication.

But ironically, as their other obligations make church involvement more and more difficult, and as they download their old volunteer jobs onto church staffs, and as they raise their expectations, churches themselves become more and more the staff-driving institutions that the same members are suspicious of.

What’s the solution? Well, it isn’t going back to how things were, because it just isn’t going to happen. Jobs will not become less demanding. Children won’t need less nurture. Technology is not going to simplify our lives. Commutes will only rarely take less time. And so on.

No, the solution, though counterintuitive, has to be better administration. As church administrators, our work has to become more effective from Monday through Saturday, so that our work becomes mostly invisible on Sundays. That creates the atmosphere—along with great worship and community that staff has done much to arrange—where congregants may become inspired to figure out how they can give more too.

What do you think?

1 comment:

What do you think?