God's Word for today

Monday, 2 June 2008

Hell hath no fury like a minister who doesn't get paid!

One of the dangers that has always concerned me when becoming a minister is that I have often seen how the congregation tends to put their ministers on a pedestal. Needless to say, I can always thank Mom for bringing me back down to earth should I ever get above myself. Her views on "all being created equal" can be summed up in her statement: "It doesn't matter who you are - when you go to the toilet, the result stinks equally as much for everyone!"

With this earthy but accurate analogy bouncing around in my sub-conscious, another area where people don't differ too much is in their approach to money. Or more particularly, when there is an expectation of seeing a sum of money in one's bank account on a particular day, and said amount does not appear at the appointed time (unlike the vision in Habakkuk 2)...

Allow me to explain. For my many and varied sins, I have been the treasurer of our Circuit for the past five years, and one of my responsibilities is to pay our ministers' travel allowances each month. The standing practice in our Circuit has been to pay these allowances on the first day of each month. Unfortunately the calendar doesn't always co-operate with the 1st often falling over a weekend or on a public holiday, and for some weird reason known only to the banks, electronic transfers done over the weekend only take effect on the first business day thereafter. However, this apparent failing never seems to afflict bills that are due, and it's often a case of "pay now, or else".

Last month was particularly bad with all the public holidays, and so I made the rare concession of paying the allowances early so as to avoid debit orders and the like being shot down by the Russians over Siberia due to lack of funds. (Insufficient funds? Change banks! How can you deal with a bank that has no money?!) But this month I reverted to the normal pattern, with the allowances being paid this morning.

Now evidently there are a whole lot of bills to be paid between the 25th of the month (the day the Methodist Connexional Office pays in the stipend portion of a minister's package) and the 1st of the next month, because invariably I receive at least two frantic calls on the 1st (and sometimes before the 1st) from panicking ministers enquiring after their allowances.

This time of the month is even more stressful for those ministers who don't bank with Standard Bank (where the Circuit account is held), because while those who do have their accounts with this bank receive their allowances approximately five seconds after I click the "Pay Beneficiaries" icon, those who bank elsewhere have to wait until the next day.

Paying the allowances earlier brings its own set of problems, particularly since Circuit assessments are only due to be paid by Societies on the 7th of the month. Societies are in turn unable to pay assessments any earlier, since they are invariably reliant on the month-end offerings to bring in sufficient funds to pay the Circuit assessments.

This monthly payment ritual has often left me in a quandry. For instance, I have often wondered why we persist with the practice of paying certain amounts at Circuit level, and others from MCO. As Circuits we are required to inform MCO of any amounts paid to ministers - why not go the whole hog and let their payroll department make the payment as well? This, together with a blanket prohibition on payments to ministers other than via MCO, will go a long way towards bringing to an end the making of undeclared payments to ministers at local level.

In many instances such payments are made out of ignorance for the wider issues involved, such as tax compliance and the potential impact on a minister's eventual pension. Besides, this should also not create any additional administrative burden on MCO, since (a) they already record the travel allowance in the payroll system currently, and (b) the effort involved in making a payment does not vary by amount - particularly since this now happens electronically.

Such a process will also ensure that all payments due to ministers are received on time (provided that the Circuits concerned make their payments to MCO on time - but that's the subject of a different rant).

Now I suppose that those of you reading this will ask why I cannot simply just pay the allowances on the 25th as well. Trust me - I've been thinking along those lines already, but need to look at how to balance things out, largely because I inherited a system whereby travel allowances have been paid in advance, while stipends are paid in arrear. In the event of a change-over, paying two lots of travelling in the same month will place severe financial strain on the Circuit. However, the ministers concerned would face an equal degree of financial strain if one had to, say, pay the June allowances on the 1st of June, and the July allowances on the 25th of July!

Believe me - I have empathy with our ministers, for two reasons. Firstly, I have had my own business for the past three years, and so I have much experience of the strain of not having certain clients pay on time. Secondly, I will shortly be a minister myself, and will have first-hand experience of being on the opposite end of a Circuit treasurer who is trying to balance his or her books.

I suppose the answer is to come up with some sort of hybrid approach whereby one can gradually shift the payment of allowances towards the 25th of the month - perhaps the Circuit and ministers can meet each other half-way so that there is no financial hardship on either side. I haven't quite got my mind around how best to do this, so if there are any financial Solomons out there, I'm all ears.

Once I have managed to align the stipend and allowance payment dates, the next step would be to request MCO to pay the whole lot. Life as a Circuit treasurer will be so much simpler then. Just think - once the money has been collected from Societies, there will be just one debit order on the 18th!

Of course, by the time this system is in place, I'll no longer be Circuit treasurer. However, being a minister brings its own set of responsibilities...

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