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Interview: Ashley Ellis, executive officer, Association of Church Accountants and Treasurers

29 June 2018

‘If you’ve got limited resources, that doesn’t necessarily mean you can’t do what you want to do’

Strong church administration is the foundation on which mission and ministry is built; so it’s exciting to have the opportunity to work with a charity that directly supports treasurers. It allows me to use my accounting and administration skills to directly support the mission and ministry of the wider Church, in all its denominations.

We provide advice, support, and professional expertise in the form of a regularly updated treasurer’s handbook, newsletters, an advice line, and training courses at various locations around the country throughout the year.

ACAT started in 1995 in the wake of the Charities Act 1992, and all the subsequent Acts that required all charities, including churches, to present their accounts to a much higher standard than most church treasurers were at that time. Being a treasurer is now more specialist, and, therefore, it’s much harder for churches to appoint one. ACAT established itself to provide treasurers with the help that they needed. We have over 17,000 members now.

We’re open to both individual members who are treasurers, or block members: dioceses or the overseeing bodies of Churches. For block members, membership enables all the individual treasurers of churches to benefit from our services. And we work with all denominations, including the Baptist Association, the Quakers, Catholic churches, house churches, and Anglican dioceses.

There are four employed staff including me, but its directors and trainers provide their services without remuneration, just being given their expenses. The directors and trainers are all professional accountants, lawyers, and adult educators. My job’s a full-time post, funded through subscription payments and grants. It involves increasing our membership, meeting them, speaking at national conferences of Churches’ bodies, managing the admin office, developing new ideas to help treasurers through training and communications, and so on.

I saw first-hand the demands and pressures that church treasurers were facing, and the general lack of support and training available to them in that role, when I was the finance director of Wakefield diocese and the diocesan secretary of Wakefield and Leeds dioceses.

I was brought up as a churchgoer. When I qualified as an accountant, I wanted to give something back by using my skills, experience, and qualifications for the benefit of the Church. Yes, I see this work as my vocation.

My best subject at school was maths, and my dad encouraged me and directed me down that line. It just naturally led on to accountancy. I studied at Leeds Polytechnic, and then went to work at an accountancy job in a firm — but I didn’t like the greed. I wanted to put my accountancy skills to use in a charitable Christian organisation.

Yes, we are called to be good stewards of God’s resources. That doesn’t necessarily mean giving all our money away and living by faith, but using what God has given us to get the best out of it for our mission and administering. I felt that, if the financial administration is right in a church or a charity, it’s part of the mission and ministry of that church and charity, and it allows everything else to grow.

If you’ve got limited resources, that doesn’t necessarily mean you can’t do what you want to do. Proper financial management can really help develop the parish rather than constrain it.

I do come down on the side of prudence and good stewardship, and I’m definitely prudent in my own finances. And that’s OK. It doesn’t mean being tight or stingy: it’s just prudent, because you’ve got to think about the bigger picture.

Some accountants and treasurers are seen as constraining ministry, because they’re always saying no to something rather than letting faith take over; but I think you can balance the two.

I come from 25 years in diocesan finances and admin; so I know that personalities are, unfortunately, critical in the management of a church. That includes the incumbent, and PCC secretaries, churchwardens. . . You’ll always get that dominant person in any church or organisation. Quite how you manage that, I don’t know, but you do have legal responsibilities to safeguard the assets of that church. So you do have to have tough conversations with such people, to say: “You’re not furthering the ministry of this church.”

That doesn’t make it easy — especially when you’re also responsible for their spiritual and pastoral well-being. Sometimes, incumbents rather expect archdeacons to intervene, but you are responsible for the bigger picture. We’re all human, at the end of the day, and you get this problem in other organisations as well.

Churches have come to recognise the importance of the treasurer’s role. They’re not just a constraint on what the church can or cannot spend: they’re the gatekeeper of the assets God has given the church. But many struggle to appoint a competent treasurer.

You may well have had a treasurer in post for 20 to 30 years who thought they knew everything about the job; but new legislation has put far more pressures on the post, and, sadly, a lot of treasurers need to have accounting and financial knowledge, which wasn’t the case before. Accounts need to be prepared in certain ways, and there are issues about funds and what they can and can’t be used for. It’s a bit like school governance: that role has changed considerably over the past ten years, and the demands on governors to manage a school now are very different.

If an incumbent or PCC find it difficult to appoint someone suitable, they can contact us for advice. We’re here to provide support for people and help them meet other people in the same situations, not just giving training offered from the front. I’d say a majority of churches have these problems in one form or another.

Falling attendance means falling income, but the costs don’t fall, and bills go up, not down. Incumbents want to provide the best for the parish, but, nowadays, a majority of churches struggle financially.

I don’t join in the debate over whether the Church or the State should pay for the maintenance of church buildings, but I know that churches are crippled by the need to maintain buildings rather than focus on the outward ministry. It’s a drain of resources, and holding back the growth of the Church.

I was brought up in Malvern, Worcestershire. Now I live in Sheffield and have two grown-up children who have left home. My daughter is getting married in October. We’re paying for it.

I enjoy playing and watching sport when I’m not working. I play golf at the moment — my limbs don’t work quite as well as they used to — but I’ve also played tennis and cricket, and I like most sport.

I’m happiest when I’m in Florida. We went 26 or 27 years ago, soon after we got married, before we had children. We didn’t know why we’d booked it, but a friend said we should go. We thought: “Wow! We like this.” l like the weather — you can live in shorts for the whole time — the variety of food, the atmosphere. One of the parks has a sign when you walk in saying: “This is a happy place,” and it really is.

This will probably be my last paid employment, but I would like to continue working on a voluntary basis for the Church.

What gives me hope for the future is the energy, enthusiasm, and commitment of many young people.

I pray most for my family.

If I had to spend a few hours locked in a church with anyone, I’d like it to be with my father. He was very strict — my brother and I had a very Victorian childhood in that respect — and we had a distant relationship. He wanted the best for us, though he never showed it. He died suddenly, and I was never able to have that serious conversation with him when we could have been a bit more open. Without a doubt, I get my skills in financial management from him, and never had that opportunity to say thank you.

Ashley Ellis was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.


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