Lack of Institutional Support: A Recipe for Clergy Destruction

Lack of Institutional Support: A Recipe for Clergy Destruction December 20, 2017

To say that I did not have the institutional support that I needed to keep going as a clergy could qualify as the year’s most significant understatement.

Better instituional support: the key to uncloking clergy energyWe had our office Christmas party earlier this week. My husband and I sat at the head of the table. [Note: Technically we co-own the company. Truth: he built it from the ground up. Even at 75, he works four to six days a week. I married into this and am the cheerleader and “the boss’s wife” at official functions.]

We occupied a private area of a lovely restaurant where we could talk easily. Superb food and drinks of all kinds soon had everyone relaxed and enjoying themselves. Conversation flowed. We had bought a box of fudge for each person, but there was no gift exchange, no pressure.

I looked around and admired the diversity of skin color, gender, age, nationality and educational level. Although my husband is a hard-working, hard-driving leader, he also genuinely cares about the people who work for him. They know he does.

The wisdom of the for-profit world: offering instutional help to their real customers

The company itself is a marketing agency with over 1500 people in the US sales force. This particular lunch, however, was to celebrate the excellent work in the past year by the administrative and support staff.

Much of our private marital conversation revolves around this business. I need to learn as much as possible because of the expectation that, at some point, I will have to be more actively involved in the decision-making process.

After a lifetime in the non-profit, religious world, I daily undergo a baptism of information overload about the very different nature and expectations of the for-profit world.

During one conversation my husband mentioned, “I know who my customers are–and it is not the people who buy our products.”

I looked at him curiously, and he added, “My customers are my office staff and my salespeople in the field. Whatever I can do to increase their job satisfaction levels pays off in the long run. The salespeople live on the front lines in a highly competitive environment. I have no business without them. I check on them, constantly look for ways to support them and help them be successful, and encourage them to take care of themselves and their families.”

There is a clear economic benefit to retaining his administrative staff and the sales force. The longer they stay, the more loyal and productive they become. They also become friends and valued colleagues. In other words, they are treasures.

My initial thought: “I sure wish The United Methodist Church understood that principle about its clergy.”

Clergy: sales force for the gospel

Clergy are, after all, the front line sales force for the gospel. Their work creates the income streams for the larger church by their congregational giving. They also deal with the complex and never-ending joy and challenges endemic to local ministry, work that functions primarily on the backs of volunteer labor.

It is both a rewarding and scarily draining call. You might want to read this article on why many clergy are close to the edge.

I remember when I made the complex decision to take early retirement.  I was serving a vital and extraordinarily wonderful congregation, passionate about service, growing both numerically and spiritually, and genuinely caring for one another.

Yet, a sense of extraordinary peace invaded my being. I would finally be able to rest.

To say that I did not have the institutional support that I needed to keep going could qualify as the year’s greatest understatement.

The institution wins; clergy lose

A few weeks ago, I saw this article about various agencies in the UMC hierarchy arranging for pay raises. Those memories of my decision returned.

The General Council on Finance and Administration board unanimously voted for the new compensation structure over the expressed objections of three general secretaries — that is, agency top executives. Among those speaking out against the changes was the Rev. Kim Cape, speaking in her capacity as convener of the General Secretaries Table.

Agency executives worry about how the new pay ranges look to the wider church at a time the denomination’s future is uncertain and a task force is exploring whether church-giving levels are sustainable.

Institution support comes from local church offeringsThe money for those pay increases comes primarily from local church apportionments. Those on the front-line, the clergy, are directly responsible for making sure that the giving of their congregations is adequate to pay those yearly assessments. [Note: the agencies cannot unilaterally raise apportionments: that’s General Conference responsibility. Funds for the increased pay will have to come from reductions elsewhere]. 

Now, without front-line clergy, the agencies do not exist. I am not saying they are unimportant: they do vital work for the connection. But they engage in their ministries because they stand firmly on the shoulders of the front-line clergy and the giving funds they can generate.

Take a few moments to consider the implications of that fact.

Unfortunately, it is likely that the tax bill just passed by Congress will negatively affect charitable giving, putting further strain on the ability of local churches to raise ever-increasing amounts. Clergy shoulders are starting to sag. Their own tax obligations may rise drastically, reducing their personal abilities to give. They can’t carry much more weight.

There’s more.

A little while ago, I noticed in the clergy newsletter (and even though retired, I do stay on that mailing list to keep my connection active), that the close-out day for this conference is January 11. In other words, pay all your apportionments by then, not one day later.

Fine and well. The deadline lines up with the US Government mandated fourth quarter tax payment, Jan. 15.

Next: check-out day, January 18, although some district offices may want the information earlier. Check-out day for the UMC is the equivalent to year-end reports for businesses. Trust me; few companies could have them ready at that point. For accuracy, those statements need time and attention.

Spiritually debilitated clergy need better institutional support

lack of institutional support leads to exhaustionNow, Conference and agency staffs get a relaxing, paid two week holiday spanning Christmas and New Years. They are not on the front lines.

Clergy, however, often face the second busiest time of the year, Easter being the first. Perhaps they are able to take a few days off, but their own family Christmas celebrations still loom because CHRISTMAS IS A WORK DAY.

More, because the money has got to be in before year-end, there are often last-minute appeals and calls to contributors to ensure adequate funds on hand for apportionment payouts.

We have before us the classic case of a lack of institutional support.

Most clergy have passed normal tiredness and gone into spiritually debilitating exhaustion after the “holidays.” It takes time to regenerate, to fall in love with God again, to become adequately grounded so as to offer spiritual hope to congregations.

Also, since January is often a high-attendance month, smart clergy know they must not neglect worship services and message prep time.

But none of that matters to Conference staff: they want the money and their reports. They want them NOW. Woe to the clergy person who does not get them in on time. Grace does not figure into the deadlines.

Furthermore, the forms used always seemed to me to be difficult to understand and decode. In a well-functioning connection, every church would use shared software to input the necessary stats all year long. Then, Conference staff could generate the reports, letting clergy more appropriately focus their attention.

But no . . . in our disconnected connection, each local church is on her own to find reasonably priced software and try to figure out a way to use it to get the requested, and often arcane, information. Some small churches may still do all this by hand.

The well-designed software, correctly written for this task, carries a price way out of reach for smaller congregations and also takes too much training for volunteers to use skillfully.

I know that these are small observations in the broader context of an historically vital church connection that is on the verge of splintering. But sometimes, minor tweaks can have enormous effects.

Perhaps . . .

Perhaps the whole church would function better if the front line soldiers, i.e., the clergy, got enough rest, better tools and proper logistical support.

Perhaps spiritually grounded clergy could find ways to reach across our growing divides and re-create a workable structure without a “winners and losers” situation.

Perhaps the church, the Bishops, and the District Superintendents need to learn who their real customers are.

Perhaps that is a key to unlocking clergy energy needed to rebirth the church.

Just a thought as I go to prayer for my many clergy friends and colleagues just before the Christmas services. Peace be with you in your many celebrations of the Incarnational moment.

Photo credit: free stock photos from Pexels, Dreamstime, Unsplash

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