July 2007
Creative Outreach

Feed the Poor or Fix the Roof?

There wasn’t a cloud in the sky, but it was raining at St. Tiffany’s-in-the-Fields. Inside. From the leaky Sunday school bathroom above to the parish hall floor below, the water, a trickle at first, had become a stream. 

The deluge didn’t affect the nearby furnace boiler. It had stopped working during the Christmas Eve service, when the outside temperature hovered around 18 degrees. 

The sexton had quit too, but not because of the water or the furnace. Tom simply couldn’t live on the pittance St. Tiffany’s was able to pay. 

Aghast, St. Tiff’s vestry sprang into action. Bold steps against this literal sea of troubles were required, and the vestry’s financial engineers (this was St. Tiffany’s after all) had a bold solution: cut the outreach budget, including the diocesan pledge (“Does anybody know what they do with that money?”) and bring the resulting savings home, where charity is said to begin anyhow, and where the plumbing needs repair. 

Hyperbole? Perhaps a little. Apocryphal? No doubt.

Maintenance vs. Mission
Most everyone who sits on a parish vestry has experienced, or will soon, a variation of the dilemma faced by the good folks at our fictional St. Tiff’s. Maintenance vs. mission is one way the issue is framed, and it can lead to some lively parish annual meetings. Do we keep God’s House in good repair and appearance — honoring holy ground, enhancing worship and attracting newcomers, not to mention the budget balm of their pledges — or do we follow Christ’s commandment to feed the poor, care for the sick, clothe the naked and otherwise seek justice and mercy for someone other than ourselves?

It’s at bottom a phony debate, but one that reoccurs as often as the liturgical calendar changes. And as one who has witnessed more than one brouhaha over attempts to cure parish budget deficits by cutting back on outreach, I know such arguments can suck the spiritual life out of a congregation, not to mention make enemies out of friends and cause rectors to wish they had gone to business school.

Parish outreach, the willful and cheerful giving of a parish’s time, talent and treasure to people and organizations outside the parish walls, separates our congregations from social clubs. In parable after parable, Christ either hints, suggests or, in some cases, demands that we reach beyond yourselves and our own needs and wants, and help those less fortunate. 

Christ never said, don’t fix the parish roof. Christ said, think of others first — do unto them as you would have them do unto you — and the roof (or the leaky Sunday school bathroom) will be taken care of soon enough. In Matthew 6:33, for instance, Jesus says it this way: “But strive first for the Kingdom of God and his righteousness and all these things will be given to you as well.”

Put another way, parish outreach is how parishioners learn to practice the Christian faith by making that proverbial leap of faith, and by trusting in God first.

Faith as a line item
I once served on the vestry of a parish suddenly beset by hard economic times — the local industry had collapsed — and the threatened loss of pledge income had sent us back to the budget, red pencils in hand. The alternatives were all awful: cut outreach, cut maintenance, cut salaries. In the end, we prayed, and then we introduced a new line item to our revenue budget: “Faith.” This figure represented the difference between our projected lower pledge income and our current expenses.

Our budget thus “balanced,” we prayed some more and launched an outreach program aimed at helping families whose breadwinners were losing their jobs. Our average pledge did decline, but the loss was largely offset by the number of new pledges attracted to our now visible community of faith. 

Thus, to the vestry at St. Tiff’s, and to any others who might be wrestling with maintenance vs. mission issues, some advice:

  • Connect the dots. Outreach, whether funding a local women’s shelter, organizing a food pantry, or pledging support for diocesan programs, is a teaching opportunity no parish leadership should pass up. That your parish reaches out to others in a significant way also can be a compelling story at Stewardship Campaign time, and a strong answer to the question, “why give?”
  • Set an aggressive goal, and stick to it. Giving away 50 percent of pledge income through outreach programs is a typical “stretch” goal: it’s breathtaking, gets attention, and is an unequivocal statement about what your parish leadership thinks is truly important.
  • Start somewhere, and commit to improvement. If you’ve been budgeting 10% of pledge income for outreach, try 11% next year. And so on.
  • Don’t backslide. That sends a message too, and there’s nothing Christian about it.
  • Pick outreach programs that are visible, understandable, and give parishioners the opportunity to respond with time and talent as well as treasure. A homeless shelter or soup kitchen staffed with parish help, clothing drive to which all can contribute, and social justice ministries that need funds and volunteers are some examples. These don’t have to be local: witness the many parishes that have sent volunteers into Katrina-ravaged areas in the past year.
  • Get the parish youth involved. The idealism and energy of the young is not to be wasted, certainly not by a church!
  • Be responsible. When giving away money, make sure that at least 80 percent of the money is going to those served, not to administration or marketing. Think about impact: Sometimes, one gift of $2,500 will make more of a difference in your community than ten gifts of $250. 

Dan Austin is a board member of the Episcopal Church Foundation and worships at St. George’s Episcopal Church in Maplewood, New Jersey, where mission and maintenance currently live in harmony.

This article is part of the July 2007 Vestry Papers issue on Creative Outreach