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.


  1. If we are not a part of setting the mission for the church, the presidency cannot expect us to simply buy into their vision.

  2. Exactly, BTC. The leadership has spent a half-century teaching us to put the mission of Jesus ahead of any denominational uniqueness. Are they now surprised that we got it, and are now putting our efforts where they told us to put them? They have now defined the mission of the church (correctly, IMO) in a way that makes the continuation of the institution not clearly necessary to completion of the mission.

    Now they have to find a new role, or let us go on with our own callings. Ironically, the policy of demanding support to WC-level programs for ordination within the church comes mere weeks after Section 164 acknowledges the reality of priesthood sources outside the denomination. I don't think that genie can be stuffed back into the bottle again.


  3. BTC,

    This is a clearly stated and thought-provoking post. Thank you! What you have stated here is along the lines of similar conversations that I have been having with Fire Tag and others, some CofChrist priesthood and some not.

    To some extent, I understand what Pres. Veazey is saying about not wanting to compromise mission or turn mission into a product or service that is designed around the customer. Otherwise what we do is form God in our images rather than allow ourselves to be formed in God's images. Following the Spirit is absolutely critical.

    Our church, better than many other church's that are primarily top-down (Catholic, Mormon, etc.)place a great deal of value on a bottom-up structure or even a less hierarchical structure where there is no such thing as bottom or top. For example, the church leaders (however you're defining or categorizing leaders) talk about the worth of all persons, place strong emphasis on lay priesthood, and have been talking about how the priesthood is more of a circle or made of interdependent parts rather than a hierarchy. We are also moving more towards being a prophetic people, rather than a people with a prophet. For support of this I'd bring to your attention to the fact that the words to the song "We Thank Thee O God for a Prophet," what is always sung when a new counsel to the church has been approved for inclusion in the Doctrine, have been changed to something like "We Thank Thee O God for our Prophets," to recognize that there is more than one and we come from a rich prophetic tradition.

    Speaking of that, it is the duty of the World Conferece to approve, or have the last say, on what is inspired counsel to the church from a scriptural canon standpoint. So, it would make sense that the church body also gets a say on what the mission is.

    Isn't that what the whole discernment process has been about as well as recent scriptures about the importance of understanding different cultural contexts and the diversity of relationships (grounded on certain principles like mutual affection and fidelity) and other forms of moral behavior?

    So, it seems inconsistent to me that at the same time, movements from International Headquarters seek to affirm the power of the professional ministers and equate spiritual power with role in organizational hierarchy.

    It seems to me that one thing that would make our church distinct from many other churches is that the people would get to decide on the many missions that are done, and not simply send money to IHQ which then gets to set priorities.

    With that said, I do think the organizational leadership of the church does a relatively amazing job of seeking feedback, being accessible, and supporting local missions that are set up by the people.

    Still, there is huge room for really becoming a prophetic people where the Spirit is recognized as speaking to all and each supports the missions of the Spirit according to his or her individual callings and interests.

    The task for the organizational church, in that model, lies in helping and encouraging and empowering individuals in being better able to discern the Spirit's call and to mobilize in accordance, allowing the function of the call to determine the structure of response.

    As the now apostle Richard James said, our job is to figure out where God is working and to be a part of that.

    However, we must learn how to hear that for ourselves rather than wait for people at IHQ to tell us. They can't possibly know, even as wonderful and intelligent as they are, all the God is doing and how God calls each of us.

    Those are my 2 cents.

  4. A few more thoughts regarding priesthood:

    As an organizational psychologist, I understand the importance of having "employees" who are loyal to the organization. Organizations want committed, passionate people who exhibit strong what is called organizational citizenship behavior--individual behaviors that are discretionary and are beneficial for the organization.

    With that said, our tradition/theology on priesthood has always been, to my knowledge based on the notion that God calls people to specific priesthood roles and the church then recognizes or accepts those callings through ordination to a specific office. God can call someone to the role of elder and a person can function in that ministry whether or not the church approves it, but if the church approves that call, then that person is allowed to offer church ordinances and be an official member of that office according to church and church membership understanding. In our church, one does not become ordained by completing seminary or jumping through other hoops.

    As a pastor, I was told to respond to the Spirit when making priesthood calls, and of course there is a lot of other administrative guidance that goes with that.

    Here are the things that I find troubling with Pres. V's comments regarding priesthood and tithing:

    1. There seems to me to be a paradox regarding priesthood. In one view, the church recognizes that God's priesthood is not limited to CofC. An example of this is accepting baptisms not done by CofC priesthood. In the other view, priesthood are members of the church's organizational hierarchy with a chain of command that goes up (church professional ministers and staff up to the presidents of the church) and down ("lower offices" and non-priesthood members).

    2. The latter view makes sense from the standpoint of any organization, but is the church supposed to be like any other organization?

    3. If we believe that God calls an individual person to a particular office, isn't that enough to recognize that calling and ordain the individual? What is the benefit to then checking the financials on that person? Are we saying that God won't call someone to office who isn't a regular contributer to the church? If so, then are we only checking to ensure that we haven't misheard God? If we do think that God has called someone to an office, why would we block that because of money? If we're not worrying too much about God making the calls, then why not just have a progressive priesthood system like the Mormon's do or base it entirely on some other system?

    The only thing that I can think of is to return to the paradox...their is the church's mission, and then there is the church as organization. The two should go together and allow the function of the mission to determine the structure of the organization. However, it becomes confusing to people, I think to talk about priesthood as divine and then to put lots of rules on who can be ordained and who cannot be.

    I have not received satisfactory clarification on this and most responses are usually something like, "well, the organization does a lot of good and the presidents have a responsibility to the institution, just like a college president has a responsibiltiy to perpetuating a college."