Most American congregations face a painful reality.
David T. Olson has established clearly that no more than 17 percent of the population attends any church.

The only congregations growing are those smaller than 49 or more than 2,000 in attendance, or those begun since 1990.

That means the majority of congregations are stuck or declining.

One of the most difficult “pinch” points for congregations is the increasing load of costs to maintain the staff models of the past—full-time ministers for each program of the church, paid staff to do most of the support work, and a growing percentage of budget spent for employees.

Realignment is an agenda most do not wish to face, but the facts call for fresh thinking about congregational leadership.

Parallel to this crisis of decline is a rapid increase in the cost of maintaining fair salaries and benefits for those who are employed for church leadership and support.

The costs of health insurance and maintaining appropriate retirement benefits now compete with growing costs of insurance, utilities and maintenance for overbuilt or inefficient facilities.

Every congregation must seek new approaches in their own setting with effective processes of change that address them.

The following suggestions may stimulate some creative thinking about these strategic issues, which can result in healthier and more effective outcomes in the work of the church.

First, the future will require a new emphasis on the importance of volunteerism within the congregation.

The day is past when most congregations can employ enough people to do what is needed to accomplish their work.

This is not an easy challenge when the average frequency of attendance for most faithful church participants is less than two Sundays per month.

Second, focus on the essential functions of worship, opportunities for learning, building hospitable opportunities for enhancing relationships among participants, and connecting to the community to attract new faces and new voices.

Activities, programs or events that do not contribute vitally to these central functions are destined for extinction.

Third, rethink how to get done both the ministry functions and the administrative tasks necessary for all congregations.

Consider the following:

1. Begin with volunteers.

The work of employees must focus increasingly on designing the work of the church around a group of volunteers that functions like employees without pay.

The growing base of retirees who can function with defined job descriptions and given the authority to do their work will be a useful model.

2. Use part-time contract employees.

There are increasing numbers of capable, computer-literate persons who can accomplish administrative tasks of creating newsletters, email communications, financial record-keeping, telephoning and other tasks from home.

Employees who work less than 1,000 hours per year can be contracted as self-employed, responsible for their own Social Security/Medicare expenses.

The contract worker can also benefit from business-related deductions, while the church will benefit from paying higher hourly amounts to these persons.

 3. Move to more part-time employees.

Many of the staff in medium-sized and smaller congregations who retire or relocate will be replaced by part-time employees.

4. Follow careful guidelines in the number of full-time employees for the church.

The usual norms are no more than one ministerial employee for each 100 to 150 persons in average worship attendance.

A second guideline is to enlarge the size of support staff in the form of administrative assistants in relation to the number of full-time ministerial employees.

It makes little sense to pay a minister with high levels of education and compensation to do the multiple secretarial tasks they often do because of the scarcity of support persons.

5. Explore the potential of outsourcing increasing numbers of tasks, such as facilities maintenance/cleaning, social events, financial and personnel records to local businesses on a contract basis.

6. Redefine the places and ways church staff members do their work.

In an electronic age of cell phone usage, texting, emails, social media and the importance of personal contact, sitting in an office at the church may be the most inefficient way to accomplish God’s work in the world.

Is the future configuration of ministerial work centered in an automobile with a cell phone and notebook computer?

None of these suggestions can be implemented quickly, but they offer the potential of streamlining much of the work many congregations attempt to do with staff they can no longer afford.

Larry McSwain is a consultant with the Center for Healthy Congregations. He is a retired professor of leadership at McAfee School of Theology in Atlanta. A version of this article first appeared in The Center for Healthy Churches’ e-newsletter and is used with permission.

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