Most weekly churchgoers probably don’t spend a lot of time studying church tax law, wondering if their church’s HVAC systems are running right or looking for suppliers when the carpets need replacing. But someone has to keep today’s churches running smoothly in a tough economy and an ever-more-complex world.
Welcome to the life of a church business administrator.
Around 600 church administrative leaders are registered for the National Association of Church Business Administration’s national conference, “Racing toward Excellence,” July 11-15 in the Charlotte Convention Center. About a third of the registrants are clergy.
If administrators are doing their job, says Jennifer Childers, business administrator at First Presbyterian Church in Gastonia and general chair for the 2013 convention of the NACBA, the church will be running smoothly and can focus on their pastoral work.
“We almost try to be invisible,” she says.
“When people think of churches, the main thing they think of is … the pastoral side,” Childers says. “The business administrator makes sure the door stays open.”
“I have this interesting conversation when I’m on a plane,” says Phill Martin, 61, deputy CEO of the National Association of Church Business Administration.
When he tells people what he does, Martin says, “It’s interesting to watch people who are from larger congregations who worship in churches but don’t think much” about who performs all its various business functions.
“And people who go to small churches are kind of blown away that there’s a profession and there’s an organization that actually does this,” Martin says.
The church today is “a more specific business entity” than it once used to be, says Leslie Gipple, 43, business and operations manager at Caldwell Presbyterian and vice president of the NACBA’s Charlotte Metro chapter.
Gipple says she never has a typical day. Church administrators have to function in a lot of different areas, from making out the church budget to managing human resources, buildings and grounds. In smaller churches, one individual might be responsible for all these functions. Others may oversee staffs. Most full-time lay workers in church administration are doing it as a second career.
Doing the business of the church well can have effects that go beyond the office and actually strengthen the communities they represent, Martin says.
“Congregants have a trust level about how the church functions,” he says. “Certainly churches, like all organizations, have examples of people who have betrayed the trust of congregations, so we believe that when people follow good business practices … and do the work of the church with excellence … issues that tear down trust between churches and the community will be mitigated.”
Health care a key issue
Simeon May, 59, has been CEO of the National Association of Church Business Administration for the past 15 years. Before that, he was a church business administrator at First Baptist Church in Richardson, Texas.
“The thing that I love so much about this association is that we are so diverse,” he says. “We have people who are members from the most conservative, right-wing, maybe Southern Baptist church there is, to people who are in the most liberal Episcopal parish in the country, and we have everything in between.”
The members are all Christian, but beyond that, “because we focus on the administration side of the church, the business side of the church, we don’t get into theology. It allows our people to come together from all different faith groups and meet together and share ideas and learn from each other.”
When he started as CEO in the 1990s, “churches were just getting started on using the Internet. That was kind of the new thing: Is your church going to have a website?”
“We actually passed a motion in a board meeting one time to buy modems for each one of the board members so that we could start communicating by email,” he says.
This year’s conference will also have several workshops on today’s “new thing” – what the upcoming health care reform will require churches to do for their employees.
“The Affordable Care Act is the hot topic at the moment. Everybody is trying to figure out how it affects them – do they have 15 full-time equivalent employees, and that kind of thing,” May says.
The conference also offers several sessions on risk management. “There was a day and time when almost no one would sue a church, and now that’s totally changed,” May says. “And of course protecting children is a big issue – it’s not so much a hot topic now as it was a couple of years ago; I think a lot of people have gotten on board with background checks and various policies and procedures related to protecting children and mentally handicapped adults.”
Ken Garfield, 60, former religion editor at The Observer, has been the director of communications at Myers Park United Methodist Church in Charlotte since 2006, and has given workshops around the country to churches about how they can build a communications ministry, especially on a limited budget and staff. He is giving two workshops at the conference.
Garfield and one other staff member handle the newsletter, magazine, website, e-blasts, press releases, and other communications duties for their 5,100-member congregation, one of the largest United Methodist churches in the country.
“Every house of worship is wrestling with the complexity of Facebook, website, e-blasts, print,” says Garfield. “How do you coordinate it all, how do you reach different age groups and demographics who are used to getting their information in different ways?”
Spreading the word
“In this information technology revolution,” Garfield says, “don’t lose sight of the most important thing, which is telling the great stories of your church members and ministries. Don’t just figure out how to post stuff on Facebook and send out e-blasts publicizing events, but how do you tell the story of a member who has started a cancer ministry or … has quit their job to go into nonprofit work?”
A conference like the one in uptown Charlotte “builds camaraderie among people that are trying to do God’s work, and I think it shows us that we all face roughly the same challenge, and that’s – whatever our job is at our church – reaching people in the most effective way in this very changing landscape,” Garfield says.
“I think we’re attracted to the work for a deeper sense of purpose,” says Gipple. “At the end of the day, I may do a lot of the same things I might do for a different business, but I feel like I play the part in at least trying to make my small corner of the world a little bit better.”
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