Not a Dirty Word

Administration as a Spiritual Practice

I only signed up for the class because my seminary required it.

Church Administration sounded boring. I associated “administration”” with business. It seemed unlikely that I would go to work for a large church, and even if I did, the jobs I would apply for as a new seminary graduate would be associate positions. “Administration” carried the flavor of middle management; it sounded like someone else’s work.

“Administration” did not sound like ministry to me.

The instructor was an adjunct, the senior pastor of a large church in the suburbs of Boston. It was long enough ago that I took notes in an actual spiral notebook, listening carefully if skeptically to the pastor teaching us. It was the spring of 2001, and the methods shared by the instructor already sounded old-fashioned to me, with an emphasis on three-ring binders and locked file cabinets.

The next semester, I would carry my first laptop to classes.

A year later, I moved into the pastor’s study at my first call. I served a small congregation as their first female settled pastor. The only other staff member was a musician. One volunteer did the monthly newsletter, and another copied the bulletins on Friday. The church had no telephone directory, because they all knew each other’s phone numbers. Busy juggling three school-age children, community involvement on behalf of the church, and adapting to the basic tasks of ministry, I flailed. It wasn’t long before I found myself sitting at my desk wishing we had something other than dial-up internet and one phone line, chin in hand, wondering how I would write another sermon, worrying about having enough volunteers for the soup kitchen, and letting the kind of special junk mail that churches receive pile up on my desk.

Gradually I came to understand what my professor had been teaching. No one else was in charge, and the size of the church made the lines of authority less clear. I needed to administrate myself first in order to accomplish the work of ministry.

Administration is not a dirty word. Many pastors think of administration as the lesser task in their work, a distraction from the “real” ministry, or even describe it as being nibbled to death by ducks. Yet the work of organizing events, information, and people can be a form of ministry and doing it more effectively can become a practice that makes ministry possible instead of detracting from it. Administration literally means “near to ministering” (from the Latin, ad + minister). The adjunct professor defined it as drawing others out for ministry. I have come to think of it as drawing ministry out of myself and others, by organizing myself and helping them to do the same.

From binders and file cabinets to shared Google calendars for busy households, from hierarchical staff structures to part-time calls in shrinking churches, we have seen a shift in tools and circumstances over the past two decades. All ministry requires some form of administration, and I continue to look back to the wisdom shared in that class, accurate in its spirit even if old-fashioned in its details. Being a leader includes helping other people find their way into ministry.

My sense that administration can be a spiritual practice developed over a glass of wine with a friend, frustrated after a lengthy board meeting. Her denomination doesn’t matter, because whether it’s Session or Vestry or Church Council or Consistory or Governing Board, some meetings go on long enough to leave us feeling stretched thin as a piece of yarn, taut until the moment it tears apart.

My colleague felt that close to breaking. As a Senior Pastor/Head of Staff, her job includes a lot of administrivia, and work with staff, and a full calendar of appointments with committee chairs and other lay leaders, in addition to the unexpected detours that fill our weeks in ministry no matter the size of the congregation we serve. How much farther could she stretch herself?

“What if,” I asked, “what if you took an hour to get your bearings every week?”

What came next felt predictable.

“I don’t have an hour,” she said.

I said, “Let’s look at your calendar.”

We discussed the vagaries of her schedule and found an hour she could dedicate weekly.

“So, how would I use it?”

“You would take a quick glance back at the past week and then a longer look ahead. You need to think about these things — “

“Hold on,” she said, then started typing into her iPad.

Together we developed a kind of examen. I call it Administry, a reminder that it’s not just about making good use of a Planner Pad (a tool she loves) or a Bullet Journal (my preference) or the ever-popular Evernote, but about a covenant with ourselves to look at the essential areas of our ministry on a regular basis. It became a tool for assessing our ministry in five major areas, adaptable to our particular circumstances:

• the core commitment of our ministry,
• the people with whom we minister (staff, colleagues or lay leaders),
• the people to whom we minister, especially the ones in need or the ones with whom we are in conflict,
• our relationship to the world outside our church/agency/institution, and
• what we need more of to feel healthy in body, mind, and spirit.

When I give this self-check the time and space of a practice, I acknowledge that all the parts of the work God calls me to matter.

The method is a quick glance back at the past week, with the majority of the hour given to a look ahead at both near-term and long-term needs and goals. By putting these thoughts on paper, we have a record that keeps us honest with ourselves. Who are we avoiding? What did we favor to bypass doing something else last week?

The core commitment of my colleague’s week is preparing for worship, and particularly preaching. Because interruptions occur, the time she has scheduled for study and writing often becomes filled with other things. Instead of reacting to a preaching emergency, she makes space to be prepared by not ignoring the other things but instead making space for them. The principle works no matter what your ministry might be. Some pastors of declining churches identify themselves – willingly or not – as hospice chaplains. Church planters have the opposite role, as midwives to a new birth. My core commitments in ministry shifted as I moved into interim ministry, bringing the church’s preparation for the future to the center. Now that I piece together work as a non-profit director, writer, and coach, administering myself feels more complicated and even more necessary. I encourage myself to focus on the tasks of administration that feel like a stretch.

Practices are not meant to be easy. I love the idea of yoga, for instance, more than leaving my house to do it. When I get to class with my mat, I worry that I will not get the poses right, or that I might fall over while doing them. Sometimes I have wept during Savasana. Yet when the teacher ends the session by saying, “Namaste,” I am glad I went.

Administration is not a dirty word. Administry helps me organize myself for ministry and draw others out for ministry, too. When I give this self-check the time and space of a practice, I acknowledge that all the parts of the work God calls me to matter.

administration, administry, Core Commitment, Evernote, Martha Spong, minister, Pastor, Planner Pad, Savasana, spiritual practice

Martha Spong

Martha Spong is an author, a clergy coach, and executive director of RevGalBlogPals, an international online community for clergywomen. She is co-author of Denial is My Spiritual Practice (and Other Failures of Faith)with Rachel Hackenberg (Church Publishing, 2018). Martha is an ordained United Church of Christ minister married to a Presbyterian pastor; she lives in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania. She offers her thanks to the Rev. Dr. Paul R. Adkins, who taught Church Administration at Andover Newton.


Cover Image: Martha Spong, “Untitled.” (June 17, 2018). Used by permission of the author.

Inside Image 1: Rob Bye, “Untitled.” (Feb. 1, 2017) Via Unsplash. CC2.0 license.

Inside Image 2: Freddy Castro, “Coffee, Notebooks, and Pen.” (Sept. 6, 2016) Via Unsplash. CC2.o license.