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Carl Barks was one of the earliest and most productive of the cartoon artists who worked for Walt Disney. He was known as the “Good Duck Artist” for his renderings of McScrooge Duck and many of the other “bird” characters shown in Disney cartoons. He lived to be 99 years of age and only became well known for his cartoon work late in life. He coined the phrase, “work smarter, not harder.” That phrase has become a meme and has caused the invention of entire cottage industries devoted to helping everyone work smarter, not harder. Churches are no exception to the desire and need to work smarter rather than harder.

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Churches survive because of volunteers and their labors. Overworking volunteers is a bad idea but often churches end up depending on a few people to work hard. This article suggests ways that churches can work smarter, not harder.

The first observation is that church buildings are empty most of the time. Even busy active churches do not have their spaces in use throughout the week. When buildings are empty of people, no one is present to notice and act upon problems. Heating units fail but no one is present to notice. Water leaks occur but no one is present to notice. With COVID, this absence of “eyes” on the state of the buildings has grown more common. And even renters, using the building at different time from parishioners, seldom report any problems unless it is an emergency.

One option now available for churches is “smart technology.” Many companies produce equipment that can monitor systems, report problems, enable individuals to make changes from afar, and provide records for later evaluation. Modern HVAC systems have links to smartphones and computers and can change temperature programs to reduce energy usage. Modern lighting fixtures can be programmed to work on a schedule or via motion detection such that lights are never left on for hours simply because the last person to leave forgot to turn off the lights. Modern plumbing appliances can be fitted with leak detectors so that any water leaks are reported to a smartphone or computer. Given the astonishing damage a single water leak can do in hours, churches would be well served by such devices. Video cameras, smart doorbells, and other devices are remarkably inexpensive these days and can provide useful information and coverage. Other alarm systems can provide security around the campus or within buildings.

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In addition, simply walking the building and grounds once a month or more often can reveal problems before they become emergencies. Regular maintenance of all building systems – HVAC, filters, smoke detectors, CO2 detectors, grease traps in parish hall kitchens, gutters and downspouts and moss on roofs, all can help congregations work smarter rather than harder.

There is a large caveat to adopting smart technology as a means of working smarter. If no one pays attention to the devices sending the information, then there is little benefit to the smart technology. Humans must notice the information and initiate a response. There are companies that will gladly perform building management, but they are expensive to employ and manage. What most congregations depend on is a group of people who are willing to get the messages or reports, have some knowledge of who to call to get help, and who are willing to be responsible for periods of time, to be “on-call” as it were.

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Every congregation needs to have an emergency call list – HVAC, plumbers, roofers, and the group who has responsibility for the state of the buildings needs to have that list on their own phones as well as in the church office. Every congregation needs to have an emergency checklist that clearly shows how to turn off water and gas, how to shut down electrical systems safely, and the location of sewer traps and internal water valves inside the building.

Most of us are willing to work hard for things, people, and organizations that matter to us. Churches have survived for two thousand years because people of faith did work hard for the congregations they love. When we have fewer hands to do the work, then we truly do need to “work smarter, not harder.” Unlike McScrooge Duck, few of us have swimming pools filled with money. We must make do with smaller budgets and more modest ideas. But we can take advantage of the smart technology available these days to be both a wise and smart church. Carl Barks would be pleased, I think.



On Working Smarter, Not Harder with Church Property: Occasional Paper on Property Management in the Diocese of Olympia Series

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