Simeon May, Phill Martin & The Church Network™ have driven the ministry of better church management since 1956
By RaeAnn Slaybaugh
Church administration professionals are called to their roles in much the same way any church leader is called. In order to provide thought leadership and specialized training to these unique professionals, it’s a mindset which must be acknowledged and embraced.
Generally, these special individuals “land” in their roles in one of two ways: from the pew / business world, or from the seminary — something The Church Network CEO Simeon May and Deputy CEO Phill Martin know all too well.
After all, they’re prime examples of these two divergent paths. And it’s precisely this varied, in-the-trenches knowledge which has helped them serve association members successfully for more than 20 years.
Simeon May came to church administration from the pew. His path began while he was working as a CPA in Dallas. Very active in his local church, May became a deacon and took on other leadership roles, as well.
Along the way, he realized that doing CPA work alone wasn’t enough. “Put it this way: I was feeling a higher calling,” So, after talking with his wife (the child of missionaries, raised in Peru), the couple began to pursue missions work.
“When that door closed on us, I went into my private space and prayed to God,” May recalls. “I said, ‘God, I’ll do anything you want me to do. I’ll go anywhere you want me to go. Just tell me.’”
Message received: about two weeks later, his pastor offered him the position of church business administrator. “Lightning flashed, and lightbulbs went off,” May says. “It was like, ‘OK, God didn’t want me to go across the world; He wanted me to stay right here. But, He needed my heart to be in the right place.”
May served in that administrative role for 15 years. Along the way, he joined an organization known then as the National Association of Church Business Administration, or NACBA. (In 2014, it was rebranded to The Church Network [ www.thechurchnetwork.com ]. More details later) He got certified, was accepted to the board of directors and, ultimately, became board president.
In 1998, he took on the role of executive director of NACBA, a title that was changed by the board of directors to CEO after May earned the designation Certified Association Executive from the American Society of Association Executives.
“I wasn’t looking to leave my role at the church; I was very happy doing what I was doing,” he recalls. “But, again, I felt called to take this role. And I’ve been doing it for 20 years now.”
Phill Martin’s path was different.
Since high school, he wanted to be a minister — of music, specifically. In seminary, however, Martin shifted tracks to pursue Christian education; that way, he reasoned, he could serve churches in both music and education.
At 34, having earned his seminary degree, Martin landed at a large church in Houston. Though he had no administrative, accounting or facilities management expertise to speak of, four staff members — who had all those responsibilities — reported to him.
“We didn’t even know what an executive pastor was in 1986,” Martin recalls. “I’d never even taken an accounting course.”
He began looking around for some help, quickly finding NACBA. In 1988, Martin earned his certification with a project focused on using computer bulletin boards to communicate at the church — a very forward-thinking concept at the time.
Soon, he was accepted to the board of directors … and every board member received a dial-in modem so they could communicate by email.
Ultimately, the association grew enough to add another executive-level staff member and Martin was hired as the association’s first Director of Education. His title was later changed to Deputy CEO.
“So, really, ours are the two models we see most as people decide they’re going to do this job professionally,” Martin says. “Some come up out of school; they train and go. Others — I’d say the larger percentage, today — are people who never intended to be in the administrative side of church. They’re just good, active, faithful church members who have business acumen.”
Providing necessary, niche training
In 1956, NACBA was established by a group of 45 men and women — all church business administrators — who saw a need to get together and share their knowledge. The organization’s tagline is simple, but all-encompassing: Don’t Go It Alone.
“Whatever you’re dealing with in regard to church administration, there’s somebody else who has already dealt with it,” Martin says. “You just have to meet them.”
For Ivela Dickens, Finance Director at Covenant UMC in Winterville, N.C., that sentiment is like preaching to the choir. She joined the National Association of Church
Business Administration in 2013, after being introduced to the organization by a co-worker, who was also a member. Today, Dickens serves as president of the Triangle Chapter (Raleigh-Durham area of North Carolina) of The Church Network.
“I love the support it provides; the motto of ‘don’t go it alone’ is so true,” she says. “Why try to figure things out yourself, when there’s a whole support system out there?”
Aside from the day-to-day guidance afforded by the organization, perhaps its most highly regarded offering is the annual conference. The next gathering — the 63rd of its kind — will be held in Charlotte, N.C., in July 2019 [ http://tcnconference.com ].
While a lot has changed in church administration over six decades, one thing hasn’t: The Church Network annual conference was (and is) regarded as one of the only places where administrators, executive pastors — and anyone else tasked with church administration — can get the in-depth, unique, and hard-to-find training they need, day in and day out.
For Jack Taylor, CCA, emeritus member of The Church Network and past president of the board of directors, the conference was what grabbed his attention at first.
In March, Taylor retired after 22 years in church administration. His first position was in 1996 at Knox Presbyterian in Cincinnati. On the recommendation of a friend, he joined then-NACBA right away.
His last church post was Sycamore Presbyterian Church, also in Cincinnati — and Taylor was still a very active member of The Church Network.
Having spent his career in the secular workplace, Taylor says the transition to church work was “like jumping right into a frying pan.” He knew he had to find some resources to get himself up to speed, and fast. To that end, the annual conference emerged as the most rewarding membership benefit.
“It’s just everything that flows from that event — the detail of information necessary to stay on top of what we’re doing,” he explains. “Plus, it’s the network of colleagues a person like me could build — not just locally, but nationwide — to help with real-world church administration experiences.”
Dr. Mark King, CCA, Conference Treasurer and Director of Administrative Services for Western North Carolina Conference for the United Methodist Church in Charlotte, N.C., has attended 17 annual conferences.
“The networking with other church administration professionals is invaluable,” he says. “In fact, there’s no way I would be where I am today — CFO of the fourth-largest annual conference in the United Methodist Church — if not for The Church Network. The training, education, resources, networking and the national conference ‘spirit’ is an inspiration and catalyst for my ministry on so many levels.”
For Bill Besalski, Executive Pastor/CFO at The Church at RB in San Diego, what he’s learned at the conference has even translated, literally, to dollars and cents.
“Five or six years ago, I attended and learned about a more cost-effective way to process debit and credit contributions,” he explains. “Within a couple months, we switched vendors. It has saved us more than $20,000 every year, and I haven’t missed a conference since.”
New name, expanded focus
In 2014, NACBA became The Church Network (TCN), primarily in reaction to the changing job structures and titles for administrative leaders in congregations. Although larger congregations had administrators with pastoral responsibilities, the title did not always reflect that distinction.
“In larger churches, there might be an HR director, a chief financial officer, a facility manager, and so on. The roles of church administrative leadership are broken out among various individuals,” May explains. “In a more mid-sized church, however, one person — a parish administrator or executive pastor — wore all those hats.
As these changing roles gained traction at churches across the country, the need to demonstrate that the association wasn’t only for individuals with “church administrator” in their title became clear.
“One of the reasons we rebranded was to broaden the tent,” May explains. “We needed to make sure that anybody, in any church administrative leadership role, would feel a part of the Association.”
Martin agrees, pointing out that the organization’s database had more than 600 variations of job titles at the time of the name change. “Some were very clear: ‘business administrator,’ ‘pastor of administration,’ ‘parish administrator,’ and so on,” he says.
Others? Not so much.
“’Minister of operations,’ ‘executive director,’ even ‘COO’ — they were all represented,” Martin adds. “People would call us and say, ‘I’m a financial director of my church. Can I join?’ As if they had to get permission. We wanted to signify, right up front, that there’s very much a place for them.”
Sherrie Turner, CCA, SPHR, SHRM-SCP, director of Business Operations at Calvary Chapel Newport News in Newport News, Va. — a TCN member since 2008 — lends a member’s perspective of the shift. For her part, she appreciated and understood the need for a branding change.
“It exemplified how TCN covers so many different areas of ministry,” she explains. “It’s not just the administration; it’s not just the finance. It’s the communication, the technology, the facilities, the children’s ministry. It’s legacy churches, and it’s historical churches. There are just so many communities of networking that happen within TCN to make it so powerful, effective and relevant.”
Evolving responsibilities = new educational needs
With the reimagining of the organization’s name came an impetus to broaden the educational scope of everything it does.
This includes, of course, chapter / local group meetings. It also extends to the job center; PRISM, a feedback tool for ministry; the e-learning lab; and more. All these offerings are accessible at any time to The Church Network’s nearly 2,000 members. (Note: While many local groups charge a small annual fee to support programming, joining a local group / chapter does not require national membership.)
These daily resources have proven invaluable to Turner, who first learned of the organization from an unlikely source: her church’s software provider.
“The gentleman who came to do my training learned about my background — that I came from the corporate environment and was called into ministry,” she recalls. (An understatement, to be sure: With a background in industrial engineering and organizational behavior, Turner had been a senior executive at a few different Fortune 500 companies, where she oversaw program management, HR, leadership development and more.)
Given the questions Turner was asking, he quickly recommended NACBA as a resource. Ever since, she has made maximum use of TCN’s literature, books, whitepapers, online groups and more — all of them dedicated to solving various challenges she faced as her church grew.
Bill Belaski, Executive Pastor / CFO at The Church at RB in San Diego, has also developed a real appreciation for TCN forums. “Churches come in many shapes and sizes, as do the staffs that run them,” he explains. “Through the forums, I’m usually able to find someone who has dealt with my challenges and can provide invaluable insights.”
Even so, for Belaski, it was the proprietary MinistryPay.com church salary survey that first inspired his TCN membership 15 years ago. At that point, he was developing a salary matrix for his own church staff using MinistryPay.com as a data source. “We’ve included it in our analysis ever since,” he says.
For Dr. King, who has a long history with NACBA / TCN (having first heard of the organization in the late 1980s, when he was in seminary), certification training has been a lifesaver. True to form, he earned his Certified Church Administrator (CCA) designation in 1992.
“I’ve learned all kinds of practical and strategic information that I hadn’t received in seminary,” he points out. “The continuing education requirements for retention have also kept me on the cutting edge of church administration.”
Having this advantage has also been a priority for Turner, who earned her CCA designation in 2013.
“It gives you a stamp of validation about the level of excellence and the information that you bring to bear,” she points out. “In business, you get your MBA. In accounting, you get your CPA. In the church world, many people think you can just fly by the seat of your pants. But, as churches grow and the level of scrutiny increases, it’s really great to have an organization that supports being very equipped for all that.”
A more complex calling
Martin, too, has heeded the expanding complexity of the church administration role. In fact, he says it’s the biggest shift he’s seen in 18 years with TCN.
“There are more laws related to HR. More accounting principles that need to be applied. More legal issues,” he explains. “To do the administration of the church well today — and within regulations and laws — it takes a lot more understanding and professional expertise than it used to.”
In the next five to 10 years, both he and May expect the administrative function of growing congregations to become more decentralized and, frankly, more similar to for-profit entities.
“There’s not a direct translation of the business world to the church business world,” Martin clarifies. “The bottom line is different, of course; the metrics and the accountabilities are different.”
Even so, May and Martin agree that while some people come out of the pew to do this work — and make the transition well — others become frustrated for this very reason.
“They want the church to work the way they’re used to things working in the business world,” May explains. “Part of what our certification program is about, is trying to create the foundational framework to understand the unique side of doing administration in congregations.”
Forecasting what’s next
In the next five to 10 years, Martin and May expect church administrative roles to involve more volunteer engagement, a shift driven primarily by the rising cost of employee benefits.
“Whereas you used to have one person who would be considered a part of the professional ministerial staff, you might, at some point, have four or five people involved in the functioning,” Martin says. “Some might even be lay volunteers.”
May agrees, and says he’s already witnessing this shift in many mainline congregations.
Consequently, The Church Network’s educational and training offerings will follow suit. Key and critical to that adaptation: the continued advancement of church administration as a ministry, not just a function.
In Martin’s own administrative experience, he has always been considered clergy, receiving clergy training and subject to clergy accountability. “However, in many congregations, the administrative staff — even someone with a parish administrator title or business administrator title — are not.”
As such, he says The Church Network will strive to clearly articulate the significance of ministry around the role of administration.
QUICK FACTS ABOUT THE CHURCH NETWORK:
Year Established: 1956 (known until 2014 as National Association of Church Business Administration, or NACBA)
Local chapters / chapters: 50+
Staff: 5 full-time + “an army of volunteers”
For membership information, or how to join:
“This is one of the struggles [we face],” he adds. “But, as we look at the scriptural references around spiritual gifts, there’s not a hierarchy of those spiritual gifts.”
As May, Martin and the TCN team adapt to these changes in church administration, one thing is for sure: their members agree and are in step with them.
“Back when I joined, there was no educational track for folks like me to become [church business administrators],” Taylor says. “Then and now, the broadest attraction is that there’s a continuing resource I can draw from to do the job.”
For Belaski, getting to know hundreds of exceptional men and women — all of them making invaluable contributions to advancing the Kingdom — has been the biggest membership benefit of all: “They’re doing it by bringing leadership and efficiencies to their respective churches. It compels me to take my game to a higher level.”
For Turner, it’s the quality and caliber of information at her fingertips, on a wide variety of topics, that keeps her coming back year after year.
“I’ve said it over and over: When you’re looking for an answer, you can feel extremely confident that the information provided has been vetted,” she says. “And, it’s presented with such excellence that, if you follow it, you’ll be on track, above par, and — in many instances — at the cutting edge of what’s being done in ministry.”