Church Administrators and the Parish
by Lawrence Downing
I have not kept count of how often church administrators and departmental directors stood before us pastors to assure us that their primary function was to help us and our churches. “Our only role,” we have been told, “is to help you and your churches to be more effective.” Some church leaders have assured us that any department or administrative function that does not support the local church should be discontinued. If these statements are true, how does one explain the lack of involvement church officials have in the challenges and needs of a local parish and the continuance of departments that have little or no relevance to the parish? Indeed, I suggest that too often administrative decisions and actions, rather than assist us, distress and disrupt parish life.
We pastors are fully capable of creating our own problems. People let us know that what we said or did troubles them. In response, it is our responsibility to address the initiating incident, explain our view point, and seek resolution. In contrast, when church members come to us, vent their frustration over what an administrator said, share with us the news that yet another church official has been discovered to have participated in unethical or illegal activities, what are we to say? It is not uncommon that the fall-out from an administrator’s nefarious acts is the congregational leader’s resignation from church offices and a break with the congregation.
My challenge to church leadership is this: Take care what you say and how you say it. We in the local church pay a price when you make dogmatic, controversial statements or when your actions violate the law. Be genuine when you state that you are here to help the local pastor and congregation. It isn’t that difficult and it starts with integrity in all things. When something is wrong, admit it. Take note: the internet is the enemy of obfuscation. The truth will come out, and when a person who has been hedging the truth is found out, that person’s credibility is gone.
It is important for us in the religious disciplines to “talk/listen” to people who hold opinions and views different from our own. We will benefit when we include in our conversations people other than those in our social/work network. We benefit when we spend time with people who will tell us things we may not want to know. When we limit our contacts to those we are most comfortable with, we dig deeper the rut that holds and shapes us to its mold.
We pastors do not expect church administrators to solve the significant problems that face the Adventist Church in North America. Do not apologize for this. The challenges are great. We empathize with you. We work in the places where the problems originate. Be assured, we don’t have the answers, either. Why can’t we talk together? We can at least share the angst. It is possible you might learn from us; certainly we can learn from you. Such a dialogue may lesson the tension between administrators and pastors and assuage those in the parish ministry who wonder whether administrators view them as “necessary evil.” Such a conclusion is not as far removed from reality is ideal.
An experienced business executive was asked by a Union Conference president to conduct a management audit of the Union. The executive told me that in the course of his study he was reviewing some of his findings with the president. The president listened and said, “You know what our biggest problem is? It’s the pastors. They are our problem.” My friend told me that he looked the president in the eye and said, “Do you realize what you just said?” He was not certain the man did. How to build mutual trust and respect between administrators and pastors might be worth further thought.
When a sales business is in decline, and the church markets the best product in the world, it is not best practice to fire the sales people. Conferences that cut their pastoral workforce rather than administrators may find too late this is a counterproductive action.
The local church is where funds to operate the organization originate. Most other components of the Adventist system are consumers. Ask an experienced business executive where the Church should place its emphasis? Keep the bureaucratic levels running or put resources in the local parish? Spend time and energy on the institutions or the needs of the congregation? For the record, church administrators spend far more time attending institutional boards and organizational committees than in working with local pastors or the parish. We pastors believe that most church administrators have little knowledge about what happens in our parish. They are out of touch and live in a world far removed form ours. I believe that for the North American Adventist Church to achieve excellence it is essential that we direct more of our care and resources to nurture the goose that has produced the golden eggs and diminish the strangle hold round its neck!