November 25, 2016

Looking Back and Going Forward

Almost like those moments that begin sometime late at night Christmas Eve and continue the next several days, the world begins to hush during Thanksgiving week. People re-connect and spend precious time with their loved ones, and there’s not much noise or commotion. I really like this time of year. I like it for so many reasons – great feasts among them – but I also like this pause, this hush.

A harvest festival, such as what we’re doing this week, does that to us – gives us pause to consider, encourages us to take stock, provides a moment to focus, even strategize about how we can best invest in what really matters. It’s significant that the Thanksgiving holiday and our own stewardship/fundraising practices in the church fall in the same timeframe. For one, they’re both connected to ancient harvest practices. On another level, though, they’re both about healthy practices of looking back and going forward, a dynamic, communal motion that is really one and the same – giving thanks for what God has already provided and, based on God’s good generosity, making sure we’ve put those resources toward where God is leading.

I was awfully intrigued, as I often am, when Tom Ehrich’s ‘Church Wellness’ blog dropped into my inbox on Tuesday, 22 Nov. In “Beyond business as usual,” Ehrich writes: “Events cascade into our plans and desires… What seemed okay and important yesterday now appears irrelevant or not so urgent. At that moment, the healthy church changes course.” Healthy congregations are those who are flexible, easier to pivot in a mission-focused direction. I suppose un-healthy ones are those more set in their preconceived plans and ways. I’d be equally as unimpressed as he was if the first message I received from my church following the recent national election was a questionnaire asking for my “opinions on capital improvements”! I take his point. It’s a good one.

But what if we just simply cannot get out of the way of our own messaging? What if all of these things as we’ve conceived them actually need to happen, and happen on our ready-made timelines? And what if we realize that what’s standing in our way is the house we’ve built? What then?

In part that’s what has already happened, and it’s only now at such an elevated pitch that we’re feeling it more deeply. Thom Rainer’s post from earlier this month speaks to those of us putting together church budgets for next year. Not only does Rainer’s “Six Surprises about Church Staff Salaries and Budgets” help compare our institutional economic model with congregations across the board, it also shines light, for me at least, on how profoundly we adhere to the obvious limitations of that current model. I’ve worked for years to cut down my church’s reliance on any other stream of income other than congregational giving – a focus to raise generous giving – but I’ve only whittled it down to 6% of total income. Rainer points out, meanwhile, that “[o]nly two percent of the church’s budgets are funded outside congregational giving.” Looking at staff salaries, I recognize that we haven’t had significant pay raises in years but my congregation’s projected staff costs will be 83% of total congregational giving next year. In the types of churches Rainer studies, “[o]verall church staffing costs have declined to 49 percent of the budget.” And, he notes, “[g]rowing churches pay their pastors and staff slightly less than declining churches.” This is not good news to those of us in ordained positions of leadership in The Episcopal Church.

Allegiance and, even worse, unquestioning adherence to the economic model which underpins activities in most every community in The Episcopal Church today is precisely what keeps us, in Tom Ehrich’s phrase, stuck in ‘business as usual.’ There are any number of perfectly coherent solutions to these manifold issues, and most depend more on context than principle – a larger congregation can take under its wing smaller neighbor churches; veritable institutional collaboration can replace the one-parish/one-priest model; bi-vocational clergy can be raised up, while not displacing clergy who are not and have not been called into bi-vocational ordained lives; clergy and congregational clusters and regional ministries can be intentionally developed by the concerted agency of a diocese and bishop. The list goes on.

But we’re never going to get to that list until we, first, acknowledge the problem and, second, ask the God who has blessed us already to show us the way. That is to say, we’ll need these precious, quiet times in the year – these times when the world around seems to hush, even for just a bit – so we can come indoors, reflect, give thanks, and look forward – this dynamic communal motion which is really just one and the same.