Saturday, March 22, 2014

Re-Organization, Indeed

The Rev. Tom Schade had a great post over at The Lively Tradition today.  In it, he calls for a reorganization of the UUA.  He has two main points, the second of which is:

Creating a service bureau at the denominational level which provides back office functions for local congregations (bookkeeping, payroll, website design and production, even pledge accounting) on a profitable fee-for-service basis. It should seek clients in other denominations as well.

I wanted to add my two cents and just unpack this a bit.

Website

I've already written about how congregations often struggle with website design and production, and how the UUA could create a template webpage that we more easily adapt, that would be on message and higher quality than what most of us produce on our own.  For every one great UU congregational website, I swear I can find you five bad ones, and not all in small churches.  But I'm not naming names.

Since that post that I wrote, I've been redesigning our website.  Even moving to a Wordpress site, it took me the better part of three weeks working at trying out different themes and widgets and plug-ins before I decided I was halfway happy with the solution.

Do you know who could do a better job than someone whose degrees and training are in English, psychology, and ministry?  I bet they'd do it in half the time, too.  And then I could do the work of ministry that this congregation really called me to do.  But I don't have many people who understand web design in my congregation, except one who is developing in that area, and the UUA is not helping so far with this, so it's left to the individual congregation, and whatever expertise we can drum up, or hire out if we can afford it.

Payroll

My best example is my 90-member church.  We struggled with payroll.  It was complicated for our treasurer to understand.  It took a lot of volunteer hours.  There were plenty of instances when payroll was done incorrectly.  In fact, in ten years at this church, it was only within the year that we got the deduction for healthcare done right and the percentage that I get in lieu of FICA.  And that's even after a handful of years ago when we started hiring a local small business organization to handle our payroll. Even companies that do this for pay don't always work with a lot of churches, and churches are different.  We had to educate them, if memory serves, about housing allowance.  I've done spreadsheets and graphics to explain housing allowance and the other components of my package to my board.  My theory, as I said in the comments at The Lively Tradition if you ask ten ministers if they've ever had a church mess up their paycheck or their tax forms, you'll get ten yes answers.  It's complicated, even for those who understand things, and a lot of our churches, particularly small ones due to sheer numbers, just don't have someone who totally understands things.

Who could understand this and do it for churches?  Yes, the UUA could.  And it would be a service we'd happily pay for, as we're paying for it now.  And they'd understand churches a lot better than your average local small business support organization.

Pledge Accounting

Again, something we struggle with.   We ask members if, in addition to their pledge, they'd like to separately pay their UUA dues, and pay for a paper newsletter subscription, and if they'd like to have their pledge electronically deducted from their bank account.  And we pay a fee to Vanco, as many churches do, for this service.  It's complicated to get the systems all set up right, with some people paying annually, some monthly, some weekly. 

If the UUA bundled this in with a financial services package, would we opt for it?  Yeah, I bet we would.

Bookkeeping

Our church has a volunteer bookkeeper, but we pay for occasional professional accounting services from yet another person.  That paid accountant helped set up our software and checks over things every so often, as I understand it, to make sure we're entering information correctly.

Would we be interested in paying the UUA to handle this instead, along with pledge accounting and payroll?  Yep, I think so.

In sum, we have a pretty good cadre of volunteers doing this work, but it takes an enormous amount of time from them.  All of them are not people who were in this type of work for a living, so they're very good and intelligent and proficient amateurs.  We've seen immense burn-out in our treasurers.  We've struggled to find the right pieces to farm out to professionals, and struggled to find the professionals who understand churches. 

The UUA would like to see churches doing a better job at spreading our message and being out there in the world working for justice.  We'd like to pour more of our resources into worship and programming and social justice and religious education.  But for a small church, the back-office work is eating up our volunteer hours. 

It's time for re-organization, indeed. 

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