Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Annual General Meetings: Why Sometimes I Wish I had Scrooge McDuck as a Congregant


I get it.

Love of money is the root of all sorts of evil.  Jesus Himself said it.

I don't think I love money.  But I know I need it.  My landlord won't accept free Bible lessons to pay the rent.

So I need money to live.  We all do.

Including churches.  Which means we have to budget that money in order to be accountable and transparent to the people who generously give us their money as sacrificial offerings to God.

So, like a lot of congregations, we passed a yearly budget at our annual general meeting yesterday.  And, like a lot of congregations, our budget for the year has a pretty big deficit to it.  I won't say how big, but suffice it to say you could fit a camel through it easier than through the eye of a needle.

This year's budget, like the past three, included no raise in my own pay either, if for no other reason than I know full well that my loving little congregation cannot afford it.  We live in a town that has been beaten senseless by the loss of manufacturing jobs over the past two decades, and now the majority of us here are suffering.  And they look the church for help.

But it means that our church is suffering, too.  When I came here in 2011, I didn't realize just how much deferred maintenance I was inheriting, or how desperate and acute need existed in the neighborhood for basic necessities like heat and water.  You wouldn't think it to look at the stretch of street my church is on, but everyone here was, and is, hurting.

And I am rather entirely unequipped to change that reality.  Which means maybe I am paid what I should be paid, which isn't a ton, but it also leads to this particular reality of many an annual general meeting elsewhere, which the Presbyterian pastor/writer/speaker, and a patron saint of the Theophilus Project, Carol Howard Merrit captures fantastically:

The personnel chair gets up and informs the gathering that the pastor is already at the minimum salary, and there is no way to cut the salary any more. Unless, of course, the pastor goes to part time, for instance. The pastor begins looking to see if there is an insurrection brewing. 

The budget passes, with a reluctant majority. The pastor sweats as the whispers continue. No one knows how they’re going to keep their pastor. The pastor becomes very anxious, but doesn't know how to respond, because the minister has not done anything wrong. There has even been growth and vitality in the last years. But that still can't make up for the last couple decades of decline or keep people alive. The pastor has mouths to feed and loans to pay. The message is clear. The church will not be able to afford their leadership for long. It's hard to focus on ministry, so the pastor begins putting energy and effort into looking for another call. 

The problem is that there are so many churches in this same position, a call to a stable congregation is becoming more rare. There are some really cushy positions. In fact, the income inequities are quite startling—even on the same church staff. But those positions are getting fewer.

So what do we do? Do we go the way of attrition? Do we allow pastors to be starved out, until we all get jobs as baristas? Should churches all hire lay pastors? Then what’s the role of our seminaries? Will we close them down? What about our historic commitment to theological education? Do we just turn our backs on our historic commitments? Is there another way out of this?

Now, this isn't quite my own situation: I'm not looking for another call, and there is no insurrection brewing.  But the "there has been growth and vitality in the last years but that still can't make up for the last couple decades of decline or keep people alive" bit?  100% hits the nail on the head.  As does the reality that I don't know for how much longer my dear congregation can afford me at my (modest) full-time wages.

This isn't to air dirty laundry because I don't think there is any shame in this, or, at least, there shouldn't be.  It isn't like my congregation is a kid who has blown its allowance on Funyuns and Pokemon cards.  It's that the church was built to be a much bigger thing than it currently is, and a much wealthier thing than it currently is, and that people who through no fault of their own have lost out on higher-paying jobs or on any job altogether cannot afford this church as it currently exists.

It's not that we don't have Scrooge McDucks anymore, people who could obsessively tuck away their savings.  It's that we have so, so many folks who have nothing to tuck away at all.

And we don't know what to do about that.  Carol wrote that church planting wasn't even mentioned in her seminary education, not even one class on starting a new church; I would go one further and say that fundraising, property stewardship, and the other nuts-and-bolts types of things that are inherent in running any nonprofit organization, including a church, are not mentioned either, much less taught.  For instance, I was taught nothing about online giving and stewardship, even though increasing amounts of commerce and charity take place online, and even though many, many young people (myself included) do not regularly carry cash or checks on them.  But we are still teaching our pastors from an outdated perspective that is firmly planted in the era of collection plates and donation boxes.

I talked about this some with my regional minister today, even.  I've said it before here, but I'll say it again: I can tell you about the theology of rutabagas during the Council of Nicea, and maybe even come up with a haiku about it, but I went into this gig completely ill-equipped for the practicalities that I imagine the vast majority of solo pastors like me face.

And it is genuinely difficult for me to not feel resentful of that sometimes.  I spent three years and thousands of dollars on that education.  Not only are we not paying our pastors adequately, we are not educating them adequately.  We are asking them to give years of their lives and incredible sacrifices of their resources for a credential that falls short.

Which is why I'm not sure the way that Carol is that the answer lies within the resources possessed by our denominational bodies, because they are the ones who are (usually) the ones providing the inadequate educations our seminaries are offering.  And maybe that is the bottom-up-rather-than-top-down Disciple of Christ denominational partisan in me talking.  But I think the answer is going to have to come from us.  Our denominational bodies may have the funds, but our regions don't necessarily--just last year, the neighboring Disciples region of Southern Idaho dissolved and was absorbed by several neighboring regions because, in part, of an acute lack of resources and of a lack of a base of congregations to draw resources from.

In other words, if our congregations cannot help prop up our denominational infrastructures, maybe our denominational bodies are going to go the same way that we are.  As are our seminaries.

I said in my sermon yesterday that perhaps we get the prayer we deserve.  Well, maybe we get the levels of giving that we deserve as well.

Except that increasingly, those levels of giving do not allow for us to abide by Paul's dictum that those who preach the Gospel should earn their living by the Gospel.

And that problem is always going to grow if our individual congregations, pastors, and seminaries do not change, regardless of how much Scrooge McDuck gold our denominations are sitting on.  That I'm willing to bet on.

But not too much, because I still can't offer my landlord free Bible lessons to pay my rent.

Yours in Christ,

(Scrooge McDuck image source: Gawker Media)

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