Taking Minutes, Waiting for the Messiah: Administration in a Small Church

March 13th, 2018
This article is featured in the The Vile Practices of Ministry (Feb/Mar/Apr 2018) issue of Circuit Rider

In my small church, the trustees are more doers than scholars. They hear reports, secure bids, make decisions, oversee projects. They have little patience for putting all this into words. That’s where I come in, me with my education in texts and my MacBook. I am the “acting secretary”. I create the narrative to which they refer occasionally, like actors checking their scripts. Someday someone will be elected to our trustees who is both doer and chronicler as they regularly were when this was a larger congregation; but for now, this is the missing piece.

I supply missing pieces for other boards and committees in this church as I have done in other small churches I have served as pastor through the years. I cobble together agendas for Church Council, write letters on behalf of Finance, translate connectional church mandates for the Staff Parish Relations. I initiate contacts, provide models, calendar meetings, supply projections, help some persons let go and others to become more involved. Whatever it takes!

Sometimes I ask myself what has this to do with the messianic drama that brought me into ministry. I was called to preach good news that the Messiah has come, to teach the ways of God’s reign, to lift-up the bread and cup as sign of grace, to lead worship in the sanctuary and witness in the market place. I pray with God’s people, Maranatha, “Come, Lord Jesus­!”, come and finish your work. But does that work include such mundanities as propping up the administrative life of a small local church?

I have colleagues who answer, It does not! They view administration as an artificial layer imposed on the congregation by some unquestioned tradition or distant bureaucracy. It is an environmental hazard to congregations and the sooner it dissipates the more the congregation will thrive. One version of this reductionist thinking goes like this: “we need to simplify structure, place power in the hands of fewer persons, release others for ministry rather than meetings. If it’s right for mega-churches, it must be right for smaller churches.”

"Small on Purpose: Life in a Significant Church" by Lewis A. Parks (Abingdon Press, 2017)

I have watched this logic applied to small churches for several years now and the results have been disappointing. There is no surge of ministry; those excused from weekly or monthly meetings happily fill those nights with other interests. Pastors and lay leaders with more power and autonomy find themselves exhausted from micromanaging and susceptible to financial and supervisory mistakes, sometimes with legal repercussions. The congregation at large is less engaged with the decisions that shape their ongoing story. A pattern of apathy emerges.

By ordination, appointment, or hire I find myself called to order the life of a small congregation.  

By conscience and grit I will not accept a slumber of administrative indifference as the congregation slides toward death. So how can I turn things around?

First, I can remind myself and them that God will provide even this small church with every spiritual gift we need (1 Co 1:7) and among those gifts are “leadership skills” (1 Co 12:28 CEB). Somebody here has experience in banking, regulatory agencies, personnel management. Somebody here has a craftsman’s hands, a real estate agent’s eye, a techie’s savvy. That somebody may be on the margin of the congregation, the spouse or child of a member for instance, or someone who only attends Christmas and Easter. Tapping their gift is an invitation to participate in the ongoing story of the congregation. And in the small church belonging comes first, then imitating, and eventually believing. The path to confessing Jesus as Lord is more likely to begin with an invitation to “lend us your hands” than “lend us your ears”.   

Second, I can equip and encourage the persons I secure for administrative positions. I can provide them with lists of the non-negotiables that have accrued to their future areas of responsibility such as audits (finance committee), parsonage inspections (trustees), or job descriptions (staff parish relations). I can accompany them to training events; respond quickly to their calls, emails, or texts.  I can coach their emerging voice of leadership at meetings: attentiveness, focus, confidence, integrity, consensus building.          

Third, I can offer spiritual interpretation to the work they do. Not that they would expect it. It’s “ministry support” and someone’s got to do it. But I want better than that for them because there is better to be had. There are latent dramas in the administration of a local church from the biblical point of view. God summons order from chaos at creation (Gen 1:1-3) as the Messiah summons it from a stormy sea (Mk 4:35-41). A steward (Joseph) of vast but vulnerable resources is led by God in dreams and thereby makes strategic moves to save both the household he serves and his family of origin (Gen 41). A bit of a rascal with his back against the wall is inspired with a shrewd solution in the nick of time (Lk 16:1-8). We have the dramas. The scripts are set. Now all we need are the actors.

Fourth, I can lift excellence as the preferred standard for every act of administration; “… if anything is excellent and if anything is admirable, focus your thoughts on these things” (Phil 4:8 CEB). When it comes to things like setting budgets, monitoring properties, evaluating personnel, conducting meetings that matter, and reaching decisions by consensus, the small church is not some shabby, relaxed-fit version of larger churches. It is more like a competitive small business with its own values to protect and goals to achieve and with a no-nonsense posture of compliance toward regulations of justice, financial integrity, and child safety.  

Fifth, I can play the part of a utility fielder. After I have spotted spiritual gifts for administration, equipped and encouraged persons to use those gifts, named the biblical dramas of administration, and pursued excellence in execution, there still will be gaps. Small church means you don’t always have skilled players for every position required by your polity or best practices. So, while I keep scouting for those position players, I jump in where I am needed. The game is bigger than its individual players. Love of the game (a spirit animated small church buoyed by effective finance and administration) is what keeps us players showing up. 

For more helpful insights from Lewis A. Parks on small church ministry, read Small on Purpose: Life in a Significant Church

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