It’s the season of congregational Annual Meetings, the time to pull out the reports, summarize the year, articulate the ways in which God is making clear God’s preferred future, and enjoy possibly one of the best potlucks of the year. Annual Meetings are an important part of congregational life, and one of the real highlights for church geeks and insiders.
But an Annual Meeting and, more to the point, the diminishing return on investment (time spent on the meeting versus the ways in which it ‘moves the needle’) points to a growing disconnect between a beautiful heritage and critical need. Our church’s representative democracy is a lovely thing, and a heritage I prefer to keep. At the same time, however, we need to admit that we’ve created a cumbersome and top-heavy institution. Simply to carry out the local parochial version of The Episcopal Church, year after year after year, requires a great deal of volunteer hours and oversight and coordination and management and communal good will. It’s been stated elsewhere, and this is no joke, that we’ve finally perfected the perfect version of an excellent 18th century institution. Only problem is it’s the 21st century.
Culture has completely shifted. I’d go so far as to say there’s a good chance that Average Sunday Attendance (ASA) for most of the last century was artificially inflated (and not just because the ushers double-counted).
People went to church because culture went to church. It was written into the laws of our cities, counties, and states. That’s why stores would close down on Sundays. That’s why so much of the whole world would stop on Sundays.
Because culture went to church, but now culture has shifted.
This Thanksgiving I visited my young cousin who was hosting his first dinner. Just before leaving he said to me, “I now really appreciate all the dinners you’ve hosted over the years. I did not realize what happened behind the scenes as I always arrive in time to eat and then leave after an evening of fun. It’s a lot of work!”
For many years at our church, five large containers of bread and pastries are donated weekly by a local restaurant to our Feeding Outreach Ministry. A new vestry member was surprised on discovering that behind the scenes each week someone had to pick up the containers and bread, and others had to sort and bag the bread and clean the containers, in addition to completing an annual application. We laughed and asked if she thought the “Bread Fairy” did all the work.
When was the last time a delegation of 5 or more people from your church attended an event that addressed an area of vital importance to your congregation? These important areas may include: 1) Evangelism 2) Stewardship 3) Formation 4) Anti-racism 5) Vestry Leadership Development 6) Church Planting/ Replanting 7) Outreach or 8) Communication.
These events may have been sponsored by the Diocese, the Episcopal Church or a national Episcopal organization. These entities have invested much time and effort to be a resource in the areas listed above and others not mentioned. Additionally the National organizations have dedicated their whole ministry to deep expertise in these areas. Examples of these organizations are Forma, Episcopal Church Foundation, and Church Pension Group.
In addition to my church work, I serve as President of the Parent Teacher Organization (PTO) at my daughter’s Montessori school. It’s a way I can help give back to a great school. Also, the President of the PTO has far fewer responsibilities than Rector of a congregation, and I love simple, straightforward jobs.
As it turns out, the PTO was re-started a few years ago with a strategic aim. Like many small, private Montessori schools, our school was started by a visionary Montessori educator who wanted, herself, to start a school. She and her husband literally built it out of nothing. And in recent years they began to sense it was time to retire, which meant: time to sell the school. I knew this all along, and I knew as well that re-starting the PTO was envisioned as a helpful contribution to this overall transition. Kickstart a PTO so parents and teachers and the school community have a sense that there’s a place they can go when they have questions. Transitions are difficult enough for everyone.
The priest’s prayer was unusual: “Please God, don’t let anyone code during the Christmas services.”
A year ago on Christmas Eve, our pianist was a few bars into “Away in a Manger” when he slumped over. No pulse. No respiration. Thankfully the AED—automated external defibrillator—was in the narthex, and people were trained how to use it. The congregation stayed calm and collected as parishioners strapped the AED onto Dale and the electric charge brought Dale’s heart back to life. The children were ushered into the choir room, the font was moved so EMT’s could bring in the stretcher, and people prayed in the pews.
Today, Dale is a healthy, vibrant octogenarian, tickling the ivories at churches across northern Kentucky and southern Ohio.
The church bulletin is arguably one of the most important documents in our congregations. Given our bibles, hymnals and Book of Common Prayer (BCP) that may sound a bit heretical. However the amount of resources that goes into producing it does give our church bulletins very high priority. The original purpose of the bulletin was to provide the order of service including references to the BCP, hymns and readings of the day. We have evolved much beyond the basics.
Bulletin content is the largest issue for us to wrestle with. Bulletins may contain some of all of the following: fundraising and social activities, meetings of church and community organizations, lists of illnesses, birthdays, anniversaries and deaths, special donations, community, diocesan and national announcements, stewardship messages as well as information on a particular saint day, others have information on voting, job posts and apartment rental. So our bulletins, have become newspapers, newsletters and journals all rolled into one. Whew!
As summer approaches and throughout the year, one of the major issues that church leaders face is how to find a clergy person to fill in for Sunday services if the priest is unavailable. This issue is more pervasive for congregations in transition but is equally stressful for congregations with full-time clergy when it is time for vacation, sabbatical or the clergy is ill. The stakes are even higher if the need for clergy is on a high Holy Day such as Easter or Christmas. One of the most important activity for anyone with this responsibility is to plan in advance especially with the current clergy avoiding the last minute panic.
April is financial literacy month and to help your congregation, we offer five resources to help get you started with the basics. Please share this digest with your parish leadership and extend an invitation to subscribe to ECF Vital Practices to receive Vestry Papers and the monthly digest.
How can we meet better? This month we offer five resources to help your vestry or other church group have more engaging and productive meetings. Please share this digest with new members of your vestry and extend an invitation to subscribe to ECF Vital Practices’ to receive Vestry Papers and the monthly digest.
Lynne Switalski was just coming off a 3-year Vestry term when she was asked to be the Senior Warden at Saint Michael & All Angels Episcopal Church in South Bend, Indiana. Nine months into that position, the Rector announced he had accepted a call at another parish. Lynne was propelled into a Rector search process, office cleaning and reorganization, and hiring a secretary. With a smile, she calls this her “trial and error learning phase.” Now, with 6 ½ years of experience, Lynne offers these pointers for new Senior Wardens:
Coming to church saves lives.
At least it did in our congregation on Christmas Eve.
If you read only one blog, read this. If you’re going to follow the advice of only one best-practices column, let it be this one.
It’s a lifesaver.
In April of 2016, I put out a request for help to the Episcopal Communicators Facebook group on best practices and recommendations for electronic voting at our bishop election convention in Central New York. As a way to say ‘thank you’ to this group, here’s what worked for us. (Click here for the related photos)
A response from Patrick Stroll in the Episcopal Diocese of Central Pennsylvania shared that they had contracted with a local school district to use their electronic voting system. As luck would have it, we had a school administrator on our Bishop Search Committee. Apparently New York has changed many of the laws around school voting, and he thought it unlikely that any school district would take the chance in renting out their electronic voting systems.
This post is about efficiency, for sure, and it’s about a pretty small, seemingly insignificant part of congregational life, but I’m also a believer that paying attention to the little things – and with an eye toward greater efficiency – is a great way to pastor the whole community.
Here’s the problem we were facing: every week, our parish administrator, together with me and our music director, created drafts of the Sunday bulletin and got them to our inboxes by Tuesday, Wednesday at the latest. There was one bulletin for 8 o’clock, another for 10:30am. Both had announcements and information, the same calendar and same scriptures, of course. One had music, the other did not. When all the edits came in, bulletins were printed, folded, stapled, and set out for the various worship services.
Sounds like life in most every parish church, I’m sure.
I have always loved looking through the church directories. As a kid, I would flip through them between commercials or get distracted by the photos whenever I was looking up a phone number. Seeing each picture both as an individual unit (whether family or single) and as part of the larger whole of the church was oddly compelling.
When we received our new church directory on Sunday, I found myself drawn again to the pictures. And I wasn’t the only one. During the coffee hour, several folks were thumbing through it.
Editor’s note: Years ago, I worked for the Girl Scouts. Each summer one day was dedicated to cleaning the old mansion that housed our offices. Mornings were spent clearing common and storage areas, afternoons, individual offices. For today’s summer rerun, we’re sharing Richelle Thompson’s July 14, 2014 post about a different type of cleaning…
Spring cleaning is a pipe dream for most congregations. It’s too busy, with Easter and end-of-the-year celebrations.
Summers tend to be a little slower and thus a better time for “spring cleaning.” Here’s one place that almost always needs the dust knocked off: the mailing lists. All too often, the mailing lists are a one-way destination; once you’re on the list, you never get off. You may still be receiving the newsletter from the church you visited with a high school chum four decades ago. Like official church rosters, mailing lists are more helpful when they’re (mostly) accurate.
Most congregations have a variety of mailing lists: leadership, acolytes, commission members. There are also the list of people who receive the annual stewardship appeal and those who receive the newsletter and parish Christmas card.
It makes sense to cull through the lists on an annual basis. This isn’t about saving stamps, although you might save a few shekels. It’s really about making sure the messages reach the intended audiences. People move, change positions, switch churches. They divorce. And die.
I’ve received more than one call from a grieving widow, asking to please take her spouse’s name off the mailing list. It’s too painful to receive mail for her beloved deceased.
Our by-laws stipulate that one of the officers of the vestry is a person called ‘registrar.’ This person records minutes of vestry meetings and makes them available to the group. “[S]hall keep or cause to be kept true and accurate minutes of all meetings. …Copies of vestry minutes shall be made available to each member prior to the next regularly scheduled meeting.” The duties of the registrar as found in our by-laws are just as straightforward: “The registrar shall record the minutes of all vestry meetings and all-parish meetings in a suitable minute book, which shall be maintained in the church office.”
Our parochial report asks us every year to provide the name of the clerk of the vestry, which we assume means our registrar. And our diocese, meanwhile, asks us every year to update our list of parish officers, and specifically they ask us to provide them the name of the secretary of our vestry.
Registrar? Clerk? Secretary?
All of these titles are talking about (roughly) the same job. They’re referring to the person who records and, as needed, revises minutes of vestry meetings and, from time to time, meetings of the parish. I get it, and so do you. I wouldn’t waste your time with a blog post about different names for the same basic job. I promise.
The question I want to leave here for the church is whether we might want to look at enhancing, expanding or making more useful the job of registrar / clerk / secretary?
The fact is that, decades ago, the clerk or secretary or registrar was not only the minute-taker but also the primary record keeper and a true officer of the congregation. The registrar signed cemetery deeds, as, in our case, she still does. The registrar/clerk probably kept and updated the parish register, probably keeping it at his or her own home, recording marriages and baptisms and various other services.
I've spent quite a bit of time looking for the perfect to-do app – something I can download onto my Smartphone to help me keep track of everything I have to do. I want it to be simple and easy to use, but also to have all the intricate and advanced features I imagine will make me more productive. Occasionally I do find an app that has all the features I want, but then it turns out to be so complicated to decipher and difficult to use that I give up on it. Or, I come across an app that is easy and intuitive, but it lacks those important functions that I imagine I must have. It turns out the perfect “to-do list” app does not exist.
I've worked in a few churches and communities that have spent a lot of time looking for the perfect software to manage their database or help community members stay in touch. Many end up using complicated and difficult-to-use software because it has all the features the leadership thinks it needs. Maybe the software tracks donations and contact information and you can also pay the bills with it, but it's a nightmare to use.
A few weeks ago I was at a meeting where Kyle Oliver, Digital Missioner for the Center of the Ministry of Teaching, talked about the tension many communities feel between finding the perfect platform or application for a community and the fact that no one really wants to learn to use new software, or another login to remember. We sometimes imagine that there are technical solutions to our problems, when really the solution is managing personnel or time, or working on the norms of our community. Because ultimately there is no to-do list app that will force me to get my work done, no program that will keep community conflict from arising.
In the March Vital Practices Digest, we offer 5 treasurer basics every parish leader involved with finances might use, with the 5th a resource to help develop year-round stewardship in your congregation.
It’s easy and free to connect with more great resources for your congregation. Subscribe to ECF Vital Practices to receive Vestry Papers and this Vital Practices Digest in your inbox each month.
Are your tenants your friends? Is that even possible? What is the relationship with the people who use your church’s space?
So many of our churches these days have tenants. It’s practical, mostly. We often have more space and less money than we need, and tenants help pay the bills. When we’re lucky, our tenants are nonprofits and community organizations that do things we are proud to be associated with.
My church has several tenants, including one large one that is a major part of our economic stability. What I have noticed, however, is that the tenant relationship is not particularly conducive to a sense of shared ministry. Tenant relationships tend to have defined expectations, clear exchanges of money, space and services, and not much beyond a friendly hello in the hallway to mark our connections.
In our parish, we have begun experimenting with other ways to offer our space. We are, in essence, asking people to be our friends. When someone comes to ask to rent space, we suggest a more complex relationship. We ask for voluntary donations rather than setting a dollar amount of rent. We ask for some kind of in-kind donation to the life of the church: help with parish work days, an eye out for security when the new groups are in the space, offerings of talent such as music and dance that add to the life of the church.
This approach can make people a little anxious. Many of our neighbors would honestly prefer to have a dollar amount and some rules and be done with it. Many of our parish leaders worry that the church will be short-changed.