Karen Karafa likes to use an analogy to explain her role at St. John Lutheran Church.
Paramedics and EMTs regularly use their medical training to save lives, but without a good mechanic working on their ambulance, those lifesaving skills will never get out the door.
“I think the best part of my job is to support everyone in ministry, and be able to free them up to go about their ministry without having to do all the business end of church work,” Karafa, the church’s business manager said.
Karafa crunches numbers for a living but is involved in a whole lot more at St. John. In her second floor office she does the church’s bookkeeping, oversees the physical plant, is the congregation’s human resource person and handles insurance and tax matters.
“It’s true that the church is not a business in the sense of selling a product to make a profit for a group of owners,” David Walz, St. John’s chairman said. “But a congregation is an organization that needs some administration; that needs to meet its legal and financial obligations. And that ministers best when there is good organization.”
Karafa realizes people may not often think of a church as a business, and because of that, her position is viewed with some skepticism. But without someone tracking the finances and worrying about health insurance, the Lord’s financial house would be in disarray.
“It’s just like running a corporation,” Karafa said. “You have all the same things to tend to.”
She laughs and adds, “It’s the tearing down of houses.”
The hardest part of razing the house immediately west of the church building to make room for additional parking was getting everyone on the same page, she said. Karafa not only has to work with a board of directors but also a voters’ assembly, which includes most St. John members.
When Karafa took the business manager position at St. John in 1995, there were some in the congregation who criticized her for bringing business concerns into the discussion of church matters. Although she knows that many in the congregation aren’t sure just what she does in her second floor office, those who do know are appreciative.
“Karen is strictly business when it comes to the congregation’s affairs and is a very pleasant and caring individual,” David Kluge, St. John’s pastor, said. “I enjoy working with her. She was instrumental in overseeing the repair of the church boiler last summer and a serious water leak that developed just before Christmas.”
Karafa’s star shined brightly in 2006 during the dark days preceding and following the dismissal of their pastor last January. Kluge came out of retirement to act as the only pastor for the congregation, which has often had two clergy on staff, and he was half-time. Karafa and the rest of the veteran staff, however, picked up much of the slack.
“If pastor didn’t have a business manager,” she said, “so much of his time would be taken up with mundane things. We all here try to pick up as much as we can.”
Church leaders often see visions and dream big dreams of where God wants the church to go, Karafa said, but someone has to pay attention to the details, to the steps that need to be taken in order realize the dream and to the resources that will be needed.
For example, St. John’s school principal Monique Nunes might want to give more hours to a staff member at the church’s Early Childhood Center. Although she never tells another staff member whether they can pursue their vision, Karafa’s job is to raise questions about insurance costs, funding and other arguably mundane items.
“Things like that happen all the time,” Karafa said.
And that’s why she is a part of the weekly staff meeting that includes the pastor, the principal, the praise band leader and the director of music and liturgy. As they coordinate their ministries the rest of the staff looks to their business manager to tell them if what they are dreaming is doable.
Karafa understands the mission of the church is about changing reality, i.e. about bringing God’s presence to bear on the “reality” of this world. But, she insists that in order to do so, the church needs resources.
“Although the church doesn’t have a bottom line in terms of net profit, you still need to be able to fund your ministries, so the church is a business,” Karafa said.
In his epistles in the Bible, Paul compared the church to the “body of Christ” which has many members. Karafa says she is one those “members” who enjoys working behind the scenes to enable the people who are “on stage” to perform well. She doesn’t have to be in the spotlight.
“When I do get in the spotlight, it’s usually rewarding,” she said. “Like when an auditor will praise my work at a board meeting and they give me a round of applause and thank me. That’s enough. I pretty much know if I’ve done a good job or I haven’t, and I’m fine with that.”
Karafa did admit that there is one time when she really enjoys being on stage, and that is at the Boar’s Head Festival, which St. John put on last December.
“I started out as a wench, but this year I was a lady,” Karafa said. “It was like I married up! My husband played a beggar. I like participating in the Boar’s Head, because we start out having such a good time and end up talking about what’s really important.”