September 3, 2012

Procedures: A Vital Practice

September is here, which means that many churches are kicking off the program year. It also means new volunteers, full of energy and new ideas. This can be a blessing for church staff, but the amount of work involved can also be overwhelming, particularly at small churches. This is a good time to review your office policies and procedures to ensure that volunteers are trained correctly and important tasks don’t get neglected. Does your church have a procedure for paying the bills and for collecting financial forms, for dealing with building problems such as leaks, and for making sure important documents get filed away?

It is important to have established office policies and procedures to guide the incoming volunteers and vestry members and staff throughout the year, so that they have a clear understanding of what is expected of them, and in turn, what they can and cannot expect from the church staff. Having these procedures written down can be enormously helpful to staff and vestry members by establishing both what is necessary to run the office and what is not.

Most churches have a fairly small staff, and many staff members wear several hats. When I was a parish administrator, I was also doing bookkeeping and answering the phones, as well as acting as the assistant to the rector. Having a set of procedures helped me know what was essential: paying the bills and collecting W9s from certain vendors was essential, but other things could wait.

Written protocols not only guide your staff, they also let the vestry know how this particular church has decided to handle administrative and financial matters. This protects the staff from vestry members who might want to reinvent the wheel. Of course, this doesn’t mean a church should refuse to change its ways and review its best practices. Still, it is preferable to have a defined structure to work than to start from scratch every time a new person takes charge.

It is crucial for vestry members to be reminded of the capabilities and limitations of their particular church staff. For example, your treasurer may work in a large corporate office where he or she can count on assistance from a team of junior associates and administrative staff, and may want to model the practices after his or her office. That is simply unfeasible for a small church. A written procedure will help establish what must be done, and will safeguard the staff from being asked to do more than is strictly needed or doable for their church.

To ensure thoroughness and practicality, financial procedures should be reviewed by a certified public accountant who has experience working with churches. That person can help the parish staff and vestry determine what procedures are essential for good business practices, and what procedures might be done in an ideal, fully funded and staffed office (which doesn’t describe most churches) but are not absolutely necessary.

Churches should strive for best practices, of course, but procedures must also take into account the size of the staff, the type of organization, and the time required. While it is important to give competent staff and volunteers some latitude in running the office, having these procedures lays the groundwork so that important things get done during busy times of the year.