Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Responding to Budget Woes

A conference minister within the United Church of Christ gave a workshop presentation a couple of weeks ago and left the attendees with, what he called, the “one thing” they could do to ensure healthy and growing congregations. It was for each adult in that congregation to get to know one child or youth in the congregation by name, to know what school they go to, what grade they’re in, what their teacher’s name was, and what they were interested in – and then to talk to that youth each Sunday, calling them by name and asking what is happening in their lives.

The concept is not profound, but I know I don’t know any youth in my congregation that intimately. But his next point struck me even more. Someone responded cynically that, with soccer and baseball and other Sunday sports activities, their youth were rarely around. His response was to recount his own testimony about attending his grandchildren’s t-ball games. He said that, when each child went up to bat, every grown-up there, from her parents, to her coaches, to the other players’ parents, to the parents of the other teams’ kids, called out her name, shouting encouragement and voicing their support for her success. “Perhaps,” he said, “if Church were more like that, it would make a difference.”

I thought about this story as I read President Veazey’s address to the Community of Christ Finance Board regarding the latest woeful budget numbers. What strikes me as concerning is the overarching paradigm of leadership that current mission and work is above reproach such that the status quo is not only important to maintain, but the lack of response by the members is solely a result of their lack of awareness of how good this mission is or a lack of personal responsibility for the success of this mission.

The response of Church leadership to fiscal troubles appears to be almost entirely uni-directional. Diminished funds are a result of a failure in response of the membership and needs to be addressed by an increased response.

I desperately want to believe our people will respond to the vision and case for giving that we will be presenting to them.

I am going to trust the Spirit to bless the church and turn our members’ hearts to increased generosity in support of our worldwide mission.

I also will talk to people who are deeply devoted to this work who need some extra “inspiration” for increasing their generosity to reflect their full capacity.

To the extent World Church or leadership should be engaged, it is for the purpose of helping individuals better respond.

I am asking the Presiding Bishopric and Integrated Communications to reformat the FY 2011 budget you have just approved to communicate clearly the ministries supported by WMMT in contrast to those supported by other income sources.

Be a positive spokesperson for our worldwide ministries and the importance of supporting those ministries through tithing.

Be proactive in your public teaching and preaching ministry to bring positive witness to bear on Disciples Generous Response principles, World Church mission, and the need to support worldwide ministries that are making a real difference in the world.

Let me be clear: I do not mean at all to imply that world ministries specifically, or the Church’s wider mission in general is not laudable or even superior. I know many who work diligently in this area and are rightly committed and proud of this work and I am not meaning here to disparage it in any way.

But couldn’t some of the lack of response to the mission be attributable, in even a small part, to the mission itself? After all if we subscribe to the theology that tithing is a response, rather than merely a responsibility, then it stands to reason that the two sides of the coin should be examined in the face of decline – the response, and the mission to which we are asked to respond.

Imagine parents stop signing their kids up for a particular local t-ball league after years of full membership. To what would you attribute this decline? Do you suppose it’s because people have forgotten how much fun the league was? Have they forgotten how good the league is for their kids? Have parents made other choices, poorer choices even, at the expense of their children? All of these are perhaps possible and certainly, any good strategy for recovery would include a campaign to remind past members and inform new membership.

However, if support is waning for the league wouldn’t it make just good common sense for the league to take a look at its own product for potential problems? Has the t-ball league changed in a way that people didn’t like? Has the league failed to change in ways that made it less competitive relative to alternative sporting activities?

Shouldn’t the Church be asking itself these questions? And perhaps they are – but if they are, shouldn’t they also be communicating this to the members? Because it sure doesn’t sound like it – to the contrary, it sounds like it’s all the members’ fault: they’re not generous enough; they are unaware of the importance of the mission; they need extra “inspiration.”

Moreover, President Veazey is resolute that he will moralistically stick to the mission notwithstanding any contrary opinions of the members.

A nonnegotiable for me is that I will not compromise vision, message, and the Spirit’s clear guidance in the face of threats from individuals that they will withdraw their financial support if they do not agree with church direction or certain decisions.

I’m not saying he should not take this approach in the face of individual threats, but the optics are that Leadership sets the mission and we are to follow. If we elect not to follow, however, President Veazey makes it clear that threats can go both ways.

Another nonnegotiable for me is priesthood support of World Ministries Mission Tithes. Soon, we will put in place an administrative policy that will state clearly that we will not approve the ordinations of people whose understanding of the gospel and ordained ministry does not include awareness and support of the worldwide ministries of the church through tithing.

Again, this is not to say that the Leadership does not have the right mission and the right policies. But this message by President Veazey comes across as arrogant and elitist, and certainly doesn’t inspire me to increase giving.

If the President’s goal is not first and foremost to maintain status quo – then don’t open your budget address congratulating yourself that “[t]his budget decrease was achieved without staff reductions” - because members that aren’t close friends and colleagues with world church staff, probably don’t get passionate about increasing giving so that more church employees can keep their jobs. (Imagine President Obama having a press conference saying he managed certain minimal budget cuts – but “good news!” – they were all from cuts to programs and none of his staff will have to lose their jobs!)

If the President is examining the mission of the Church to see if it can be more meaningful in order to elicit a more meaningful response from members, then don’t dismiss concerns of members with regard to that mission as being “non-negotiable.”

If the President wants tithing to be a response to the ministry of Jesus, rather than admission to the club, then don’t threaten to deny what are supposed to be calls of God due to a failure to pony up in a sufficient manner.

The Community of Christ is not alone in this struggle. All denominational churches are seeing membership and giving decline – and have seen this for decades. But note the following contrasting response from the UCC:

Minister and Team Lead for Financial Development, Donaldson Hill, will provide leadership to a team exploring a broad range of alternate income streams and says that the projected budget shortfall "reflects the redefinition of the role of denominations."

Hill maintains that attitudes in the church and throughout society have shifted in such a way that the funding of ministry and non-profit organizations is changing dramatically. "We need to catch up with and build our organization around this change," says Hill. "That will be our task over the next few years. Going back to old funding models will not work."

The Church needs to implore those who use the services of the Church, who value it’s mission, to understand their responsibilities to support those services and the mission. But I don’t hold out a lot of hope for anyone who looks at the problem of declining interest, declining membership and declining donations as solely the problem of those who don’t feel compelled to give.