A Study in Church Administration

A defining moment in my understanding of church administration came following The Walnut Road Church Case Role Play1, which was part of our classroom experience on May 2-3, 2003, during the Pastoral Leadership and Administration Class (PCOS 114) at the Ohio Valley Course of Study School. As I reflected on the role play, a number of leadership ideas came into perspective for me, and also brought to life some concepts that were echoed in the required reading material, written with church administrators in mind.

The role play involved six students from class, each portraying a member of the fictitious Walnut Road Church as they were coming together for a meeting in the church parsonage to discuss reconstruction plans following a weather-related loss to the church building. Each character desired to see the church undertake a particular project that they felt was necessary and desirable for the church. Because of financial restrictions, not all of the projects could be simultaneously undertaken without additional planning. Presiding over this meeting was the pastor, whose role was to bring together the group and identify the various issues before presenting them to the congregation. As the role play continued in separate scenes over the two-day class session, different students were substituted for the characters’ parts, and each character periodically met with a student-led group to evaluate how the meeting was progressing, and to decide upon the next course of action.

Since the class consisted of Local Pastors already serving a congregation, I believe that most students kept a close eye on the pastor’s role as it was performed before them. It would not be hard for any of us to imagine how we might be sitting in a similar meeting, facing a similar situation at one of the churches we serve. As the meeting got underway, however, I began to feel uneasy, and soon felt nearly overwhelmed by what was taking place. The first set of players seemed to know a great deal about construction, insurance policies, building codes and regulations, and building projects. One player began to discuss the possibility of grant monies that might be available to help underwrite a project, while another questioned whether a church member’s construction work would be guaranteed, and if that member’s participation in the building project might fall within the limits of the church’s workers’ compensation policy. I was not prepared for questions of this detailed nature, or a discussion of this depth, and was nonplused by what was taking place.

Listening to these issues being raised caused me to question my own ability to lead. I felt inadequate to answer the inquiries at hand, or to lead the meeting to an amicable conclusion. I breathed a prayer of thanksgiving that I had not volunteered to play the role of the pastor, and secretly wished that we were involved in something else, like a study of the gospel of Matthew; or engaged in a theological debate over the values of Arminian and Calvinistic thought-form. I wanted to be anywhere but in a meeting regarding the construction project of a church roof.

In his book, In the Name of Jesus2, Henri Nouwen seems to speak of this same sense of inadequacy as he began working with mentally handicapped persons in the Daybreak community in Toronto, Canada. His twenty-year tenure at Notre Dame, Yale and Harvard “did not provide a significant introduction3” to his new acquaintances, and his “considerable ecumenical experience proved even less valuable4.” He was, as he described, “faced with my naked self, open for affirmations and rejections, hugs and punches, smiles and tears, all dependent on simply how I was perceived at the moment5.”

I, too, was faced with my naked self as I listened and watched the playacting. I felt greatly out of my element, yet knew that a church administrator must step into places where she/he does not feel totally adequate, or even marginally in control. Henri Nouwen seems to address this phenomenon as he writes that a Christian leader is called “to be completely irrelevant and to stand in this world with nothing to offer but his or her own vulnerable self6.” I believe that Nouwen writes to encourage the Christian leader to come in contact with the feelings of inadequacy experienced in these situations and the inability to lead perfectly, as well as to abandon her/his self-reliance in exchange for total and public dependence upon the leading of God’s Spirit. It is not an easy task for me to make myself vulnerable, let alone become vulnerable before others who might dislike me. Yet, Jesus specifically taught His disciples that if anyone desired a position of greatness before the Lord, then they must first become last, and endeavor to be a servant of all7. This, I believe, is the basis of Nouwen’s idea of becoming irrelevant – and perhaps one of the most important lessons I learned from the role play.

Another observation that I made during the role play was how easily estranged everyone, even good Christian men and women, can become from one another. Each character came to the staged meeting with an agenda to be declared, and a genuine desire to be listened to by her or his peers. Because the scenes were limited in time, the players anxiously jockeyed for a place on the floor – sometimes at the expense of another role player. Since each character was meeting with a small group of students between scenes to review and discuss the preceding act, I believe that everyone felt an urgency to justly represent their group during the role play (not unlike a real meeting where representatives of various committees come together to expostulate their own committee’s position). This level of responsibility might well have frustrated the players who it seemed were provided less opportunity to speak. At times during the classroom experiment, some of the players demonstrated evidence of this frustration, which often appeared to be genuine. The temperaments of the actors at times seemed to be tested, while the potential for people to become hurt during, and in the wake of the play was increasing. Those who seemed to be offended looked to the pastor for personal justice and equity as they represented their group’s idea. It did not seem to me that that justice was always granted.

I believe that a church administrator must avoid the temptation to strictly administer, and instead, remain focused on ministry. That is, to avoid placing too much emphasis on the supervising of projects and agendas in a way that the people behind those ideas are not adequately cared for. When I witnessed the overemphasis on administration taking place during the role play, I saw the actors becoming more alienated from their pastor, and not as willing to compromise, or work with other members of the cast. In his book, The Vital Congregation8, Herb Miller calls for church leaders to create atmospheres where people have a sense of meaningful connection and belonging. Nothing, he insists, can substitute for it, and we cannot expect for it to happen on its own. Rather, Miller writes, we must “systematically work at providing love, inclusion, and opportunities for healthy interaction9.” I believe that the effective church administrator must diligently work at fostering an environment where disconnection and alienation are remedied by a continual sense of belonging.

Another issue that some classmates and I recognized developing during the role play was the committee’s lack of direction. Each player had her/his own agenda to set forth, and for that actor, their group’s agenda became the immediate focus. They were six separate characters championing six distinct ideas with barely a common thread to tie them together. Disunity abounded, and the amalgamation of the group was greatly retarded as they labored beneath six separate flags, rather than one common banner. I believe that the role players and their respective consulting groups gradually recognized this, because an attempt to form a vision for the committee was eventually made.

Lovett H. Weems, Jr., in his book, Church Leadership10, discusses the importance of uniting a church through the development and sharing of a common vision. He describes a vision as “a picture of what is possible11,” and that which gives, “meaning, direction and life to one’s efforts12.” Had the Walnut Road Church actors been united by a vision, or mission statement, they might well have been able to fluidly move forward, bound by a common motivation and purpose.

Watching the actors struggle without a common focus taught me how crucial a corporate vision is for a church body. With a shared vision they could have examined each new idea with an accepted standard, and evaluated it by merits that they already recognized. They could have entered into the committee meeting already agreed upon something, and then have worked from that advantage. The church’s broader vision may well have inspired them into creating a specific mission statement for the committee, thus bringing them into closer unity, and providing a defined direction.

I believe it is vital for a church leader to encourage those within his/her administration to prayerfully work on creating a vision for themselves, and their community of faith. As Weems notes, this vision will unite, energize, focus priorities, become the ultimate standard, raise sights, and invite others13. The vision may begin as a roughly hewn statement, but through time and testing, become precisely articulated. The church leader must allow for the vision to grow with the group, and be unafraid to encourage alterations to it, as circumstances change, and goals are realized.

Having a vision, however, does not guarantee that disagreement will not arise. There may be some who genuinely believe that some ideas conform to the vision, while others believe the same ideas are in conflict with it. There may even be some who challenge the vision itself. Henri Nouwen seemed to recognize this as he wrote, “Nothing is sweet or easy about community14.” Yet, Nouwen, who likens community to a mosaic, with each person an individual, colored stone, contemplates that it would be incomplete without these challenges. Therefore, it would seem that these challenges and disagreements are actually necessary to the overall life of the vision, and to the community that the vision serves.

Just prior to class dismissal on May 3, Dr. John Wagner, our instructor, required one final scene for the role play. Six new students were selected and sent to the “center stage.” This time, however, Dr. Wagner altered the course of the play by explaining that the committee members were to proceed as if they had just returned from a weekend church retreat. I had the pleasure of acting as the pastor for this final episode. Unlike some of the previous scenes, the characters were noticeably subdued as they came for the meeting, and there hung in the air a quiet spirituality that I had not sensed before. As the meeting opened, almost as a person, the participants began to place less emphasis on their groups’ agendas, and instead to seek the common good of the larger body. Their hearts were pliable, and there was a tone of repentance in their voices. In this scene I was reminded, in a very deep sense, how important it is to consider the power of God to change hearts, and the efficacy of prayer to bring about God’s kingdom in our lives, homes, churches and communities. At the beginning of the two-day role play, the first lesson I drew from the experience was how inept I can be at administering. In this final scene of the play, I was reminded how powerful, ever ready, and efficient God is at leading.

In being asked to reflect on my own understanding of church administration, I write about what I see, think, feel and understand from my present vantage point in life. I fully expect my understanding to change and grow since the very “task of leadership is to change15.” That said, I do not believe that I will ever discard the things learned as part of this class and its assignments, but rather, I hope to add to and build upon them.

By counting my vulnerability as an asset, remaining focused on the care of those within my administration, encouraging vision within those around me, and humbly relying upon God for an assuredly unpredictable, strangely reckless16, thankfully ubiquitous flow of grace, I may with great hope endeavor to serve those within my care.

1 Provided to our class as a handout: “Adapted from ‘Walnut Avenue Church,’ Casebook on Church

Society edited by Keith Bridstone, Fred Foulkes, Ann Myers, and Louis Weeks (Nashville: Abingdon,

1974), pp.15-20” [sic].

2 Henri J.M. Nouwen, In the Name of Jesus, (The Crossroad Publishing Company, 1989).

3 Ibid., 27.

4 Ibid., 27.

5 Ibid., 28

6 Ibid., 30.

7 Based on Mark 9:35 (KJV).

8 Herb Miller, The Vital Congregation, (Abingdon Press, 1990).

9 Ibid., 92.

10 Lovett H. Weems, Jr., Church Leadership, (Abingdon Press, 1993).

11 Ibid., 39.

12 Ibid., 40.

13 Ibid., 62-66.

14 This prayer was provided to our class as a handout: “from Henri J.M. Nouwen, “Can You Drink

the Cup? pp. 57-58” [sic].

15 Lovett H. Weems, Jr., Church Leadership, (Abingdon Press 1993), 11.

16 The late Rich Mullins, known as the Ragamuffin Poet, sang of the “wreckless [sic] raging fury that they call the love of God.” “The Love of God,” Never Picture Perfect Ó1989 Reunion Records, Inc.