Ministry Committees Observed

by Dan Hotchkiss

Originally published in First Days Record , May 1999

The standard advice about Committees on the Ministry has varied over the years, depending on what people wanted them to do. After years of giving such advice myself, I thought I might learn something if I watched ministry committees the way birdwatchers watch birds. The appended aviary is the fruit of such a labor. Noting the diversity of plumage, song, and nesting habits, and the sometimes subtle variations in the way species perpetuate their type, I have contrived a tentative taxonomy.

The Conduit. I spotted one hawk-eared Ministerial Affairs Committee wearing “Talk to MAC” buttons in the coffee hour. It was the clearest case I’ve seen of a committee acting as a “conduit for comments to the minister.” This role is more or less inevitable – people with complaints who don’t want to address them to the minister directly (or who have tried and given up) naturally shop their gripe to the committee. The question is – what happens then? Committees that record complaints and pass them on anonymously perch themselves on the sharp point of a triangle. The minister may try to change – but probably won’t change enough to satisfy the critics. The critics may be gratified that their complaints are heard and talked about – but not enough to make them stop complaining. In this system it’s the committee members who end up with ulcers in their gizzards.

The Support Group. Lay leaders sympathetic to the minister like to imagine that the Ministry Committee is one place where the overburdened minister can confide, disburden, and find solace. (One pictures the mutually admiring inmates of a chicken coop, clucking agreeably whether the fox is pacing at the door or not.) Ministers need support – even more, they need a kitchen cabinet to advise them on church politics and leadership – but does it make sense for the board of trustees to nominate the minister’s support group? By chance one year, the ministry committee may be compatible, discreet, and wise enough to be the pastor’s privy council, but it is a foolish minister who confides in them just because it says so in the bylaws.

The Arbitration Panel. The tell-tale mark of this breed is the appointment process: the minister appoints two members, the governing board two more, and those four meet to choose a fifth. This is more or less the way General Motors and the UAW pick people to avert a strike. Most of the time, like ducklings that grow into swans, committee members rise above their origins, but under stress, too often they revert to type. It is not a good idea to have idle arbitrators lurking on the cliffs – like all conflict professionals, they watch for a fight. When one occurs, they salivate.

The Personnel Committee. These secretary-birds deal with the technicalities of ministry – housing allowance, expense reimbursement, taxes, salary levels, hours, and vacations. It can be a good thing to have people who can explain these things to the congregation without making it sound like the Great Tax Rip-Off. The downside is that a committee drawn from the 0.001% of the population interested in stuff like this won’t be up to the more delicate aspects of the ministry: evaluation, conflict management, self-care. If your committee’s central task is Personnel, be sure the limits of their charge is clear.

The Apologists. Sometimes a ministry committee decides its job is to explain the minister to others in the congregation. No doubt we all need to be explained – still, in spite of good intentions, this crow of a committee protests too much: “Look, see: our minister is less inept than he appears!” With advocates like that, most of us would not need critics. Ministers need to explain ourselves. Defining our position, as Rabbi Friedman put it, not a task to delegate.

The Seminar. Some Ministry Committees run their meetings like the sessions of a college class. The curriculum for monthly meetings might go: Preaching and Worship, Pastoral Care, Administration, Membership Growth, Teaching, Social Action, Compensation, Denominational Affairs – and then a summer break. Casting bread crumbs to the flock this way will keep them out of mischief, and it is a useful discipline for ministers and others to think at least annually about the main elements of ministry and how they might be accomplished more effectively. Suggestion: open up the seminar and use committee members to help teach.

The Lay Ministers. This type of committee also might be called The Deacons. Like the Music or Religious Education Committee, its task is to advocate and implement a thing called Ministry. In some places this has meant starting lay ministries in pastoral care, worship, social witness, or administration. In others it means simply helping out the professional minister in a one area each year. These hardworking Early Birds get lots of ministry accomplished, but are not apt to be much interested in some of the traditional roles of ministry committees: listening to complaints, resolving conflicts, adjusting compensation breakdowns. Need I add: this is my favorite model!

Each type of ministry committee has its partisans; somewhere each works well. It helps if the minister supports the model used, and if the committee members are more owls than geese. The most important task is to help keep the minister aloft in an emotional atmosphere of health. When the inevitable problems and complaints arise, it pays not to obsess, but to distil out underlying facts and interests, keeping all the while a bird’s-eye focus on the congregation and its mission. Neither flightless dodo nor evasive ostrich, the good ministry committee soars light and good-humored over the changing landscape, heeding its own migratory compass despite all distractions: crosswinds, hunters, storms, and even tasty fish too trifling to take seriously.

 

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