Annual meeting provides encouragement, instruction for church professionals

The Rev. Jasmine Smothers addresses the annual meeting of the Arkansas Chapter of PAUMCS, the Professional Association of United Methodist Church Secretaries. AUM PHOTO BY AMY FORBUS

The Rev. Jasmine Smothers addresses the annual meeting of the Arkansas Chapter of PAUMCS, the Professional Association of United Methodist Church Secretaries.
AUM PHOTO BY AMY FORBUS

By Amy Forbus
Editor

More than 85 administrative assistants, secretaries and a few pastors gathered Sept. 24 at Philander Smith College for the ninth annual meeting of the Arkansas chapter of the Professional Association of United Methodist Church Secretaries (PAUMCS). Attendance surpassed last year’s record-setting gathering of 73 participants.

Arkansas attendees of the organization’s national meeting in July secured one of the speakers from that event as the keynoter for the Little Rock gathering: the Rev. Jasmine Smothers, associate director of connectional ministries for the North Georgia Conference.

A child of two pastors and now a clergywoman herself, Smothers first addressed the crucial, above-and-beyond nature of the job that PAUMCS members take on day in and day out: “You make financial sacrifices, you make time sacrifices, you make all kinds of sacrifices, and I can’t say thank you enough,” she said. “So if nobody else says ‘thank you’ to you, hear my words of deep gratitude for your commitment to this crazy life.”

Smothers spoke on the importance of the Vital Congregations Initiative, and on the use of social media in ministry.

Count what we value

Smothers called out the reluctance of many churches to keep up with the demands of the Vital Congregations Initiative through its reporting tool, known as the VitalSigns Dashboard (accessible at http://goo.gl/jXEKGd). The Arkansas Conference is among those using the dashboard as a resource for identifying trends in local congregations. What’s more, congregations can learn about themselves by reviewing their own statistics.

In the North Georgia Conference, Smothers leads the charge to increase the number of vital congregations. Part of that task involves measuring discipleship.

“The Vital Congregations Initiative is a call to intentionality around what we’re doing,” she said. “It values an intentional discipleship process. If we don’t make disciples, then what’s the point of being the church?”

One complaint Smothers hears about the VitalSigns Dashboard is that it’s too difficult to keep up with counting people each week. Yet, she pointed out, almost all churches have a team to count the offering, and to log where it came from and where it’s going. The Vital Congregations Initiative exists to help churches pay attention to what matters. If we value spiritual development, she says, we should pay attention to it.

“Money is not as important as people,” she said. “And we have all of these elaborate systems to track our money, but we don’t have systems to disciple our people…. That’s the line of work that we’re in, so somewhere along the line we’ve gotten this twisted.”

Analysis and goals

Smothers walked attendees through a business process churches can use to prepare for setting goals: the SWOT analysis (SWOT stands for Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats).

“What are you attempting to do that is so big that without God, you’re bound to fail?” she asked. At the same time, she encouraged them to be kind and realistic as they set faithful goals.

As PAUMCS members shared different items to place in the categories of the SWOT analysis, the phrase “That’s the way we’ve always done it” emerged in the “Weaknesses” category.

“Whether they’re 1,500 members or five members, I know that a church is in trouble when they tell me, ‘Because that’s the way we’ve always done it,’” Smothers said. “I’d put that down under ‘Threat.’”

With the analysis complete, Smothers guided the group through setting SMART goals: Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic (or “Realistically Faithful,” she says) and Time-bound. She encourages churches to include benchmarks in long-term goal-setting to ensure that progress evaluations happen regularly.

She then walked attendees through the VitalSigns Dashboard, reminding them in the financial reporting section that “we’re focusing on people here, primarily, and money as a result of people, not people as a result of money.”

Smothers answered questions about what type of gathering may be counted as a small group (if it includes prayer or study, yes; if not, no), and how to count the number of persons engaged in mission. She also encouraged PAUMCS members to share the responsibility of keeping statistics up to date.

“Do not do this by yourself,” she said. “There are people [in your church] who enjoy this kind of thing.”

Social media matters

During her presentation on social media ministry, the 32-year-old Smothers explained that she is a “digital native”—someone who grew up with access to computers and the Internet. She encouraged attendees not to mail printed church newsletters to digital natives, or to expect them to stop in the hallway to read a bulletin board. Instead, use a variety of tools—email, mail, text messaging, social media—to push news to a diverse audience.

Regardless of format, she cautioned against using unexplained acronyms and listing locations without directions.

“Our communications strategy is dependent on people coming to us,” she said. “It uses insider language—‘We’re going to have the UMW potluck at Mrs. Such-and-Such’s home; bring what you brought last year. Oh, yeah, everybody’s welcome.’ Well, who is Mrs. Such-and-Such? Where is her home? And I didn’t come last year, so I can’t bring what I brought last year.”

Most people perform a Google search as part of deciding whether to visit a church, so one of the worst things churches can do is leave old information on their websites, or have no online presence at all.

“If your church doesn’t have a website or some social media account and they can’t find out any information, they’re not even going to bother to darken your doorstep,” she said.

Smothers stressed that social media should extend invitation to people who are not yet a part of the church, rather than post insider-oriented information.

“Make sure you’re making the most of social media by presenting a message that matters,” she said.

Smothers emphasized using the right tool for the intended audience, and reviewed which demographics of people use which social media platforms (for data from Pew Research, visit http://goo.gl/MUlhTQ). She recommended signing up to receive emails from mashable.com as a way to keep up with social media trends.

The group also heard presentations covering a host of other matters related to church administration, including recent changes to clergy compensation and how local churches’ apportionments are calculated; a review of this year’s required forms for charge conferences; and information on the professional certification program PAUMCS offers.

The day closed with a celebration of Holy Communion led by the Rev. Richard Lancaster, superintendent of the Central District.