A conversation with a colleague last week reminded me of one of the reasons I do not feel called to congregational ministry. Our discussion landed, as such discussions often do, on the topic of governance.
This minister noted with dismay that because of the governance structures put in place, they weren’t so much a minister as the executive director of a non-profit that doesn’t have enough money – who gets to preach now and then.
This is not what any minister goes to seminary for.
New ministers are often surprised to learn that the bulk of their job is to manage a non-profit that doesn’t have enough money, and they’re doing all of that learning on the ground, because we don’t teach this in our seminaries.
I went to Union Theological Seminary in NYC - where I had the opportunity to learn about Hebrew and Christian scriptures, systematic theology, preaching and worship, social justice and ethics, church history, and pastoral care. Some of my classmates took courses on religious education, or biblical languages, or psychology, or philosophy - I took courses on ritual, liturgy, and the arts.
There was a field education module, where we worked in congregations or organizations for about 10 hours a week, and in the classroom time we did maybe 3 classes on things like budgets and staff supervision, but largely our time was spent on situational ethics and theological reflection. And talking about what’s going on in our field ed sites.
Now I don’t know if other seminaries spend more time on practical things that ministers encounter in congregations (we certainly didn’t talk about copier repair, roof replacement, or plumbing, which would have been seriously helpful)… but I know that the training I got prepared me to be a minister, not the executive director of a non-profit that doesn’t have enough money.
The upside of congregational polity is supposed to be that everyone who has a stake in the congregation (the members) govern the congregation. And while the minister also has a stake in the congregation, their role is the spiritual health and well being of the congregation and its members. That means worship, education, pastoral care, and prophetic witness. Not writing budgets and long reports, not doing bylaw reviews and tracking metrics, not running stewardship campaigns and begging for money. (I addressed some of this in February.) And mostly, not being the only person held responsible for when membership or pledges are down.
Your minister should not be the executive director of a non-profit that doesn’t have enough money.
Your minister should be a minister.
But because your minister is doing work they were not called to do – and in some cases have no idea how to do – they are finding themselves burned out and mourning the work they thought they’d be able to do while struggling to do the work you’re asking them to do.
Now - before your minister drops from burnout - now is the time to get off the mat, and take responsibility for your congregation - its governance, its growth, its vibrancy. I bet you dollars to donuts that if you shared the responsibility, there would be less to blame anyone for - particularly your minister.
Share. The. Work.
Share. The. Ministry.
Perhaps it is time for the UUA to wake up. My medical school training did not include any “business of medicine” training, but as a department head my position demanded further education. Not my favorite endeavor, but critical to my role. A honest “job description “ with the tools required would seem to be in order. Mike Balsan, M.D.
It doesn't have to be this way. In our UU congregation, most of the tasks you listed have been the responsibility of our congregational administrator (contractor interactions and basic business) and Board of Trustees (capital, budget, and committee oversight). This doesn't mean all is sweetness and light. I write this having just stuck my neck out and volunteered to help organize a new Facilities Council because our long-time congregational administrator is slated to retire.
By the way, your Union connection strikes a chord. My dad was an administrator there for nearly forty years; my wife and I wedded in James Chapel.