aefenglommung (aefenglommung) wrote,

My two cents in the offering plate

In a recent Facebook post, a friend noted that 51% of congregations in the Indiana Annual Conference did not have a single new member join on profession of faith last year. I replied that not all of those churches that failed in this important area were small churches, either. In response, several folks posted weaselly things about "saving souls" vs. "joining the institution" and other such claptrap. Hey, I've pastored tiny churches and even a few medium-sized ones, and in all my appointments I can count on one hand the number of years we didn't have at least one profession of faith. "It's what the job's about," as they say.

Now, that said, this brings up a related topic, that of effectiveness of congregations generally. And on that topic, I think all of the stuff on "re-thinking church" a gigantic misdirection. For one thing, we don't need to re-think church, we need to do the job that was there to be done. Slapping a new set of slogans on things or renaming committees or changing the style of music is irrelevant to looking someone in the eye and asking, "will you follow Jesus (with us)?" For another thing, the leadership (mostly clergy) are very carefully not allowing us to "re-think" our own contribution to our decline, along with possible corrections.

Look at this way. The average church is no more complicated a social institution than a good-sized Kiwanis club. There are two main differences between a church and a Kiwanis club (organizationally speaking): the church is saddled with the ownership of property -- often large, aging property; and the church employs paid staff -- often full-time paid staff with benefits. That puts a significant burden on the church that the Kiwanis club doesn't have. And I'm not making any kind of argument that hinges on money. Let's not chase that rabbit. This is not about how much money we have, but about our priorities. If we have too much building or too much staff, then paying for their maintenance becomes the central task of the organization.

Fundamental to the vision being promoted by Church leadership these days is the idea that a "real" church -- a successful church -- must have a lot of physical plant (including parking) and a full-time, fully-ordained, resident pastor (and even better, associate pastors and other ministry specialists like music and youth directors). To support all that in the typical congregation usually requires about 300 members or so, half of whom (at least) show up on Sunday morning. 500 members or more are even better. Small churches that can't do all that are considered poor cousins. We assign them part-time and/or less-than-fully-credentialed pastors. And still they struggle to keep up with the vision that is dangled in front of them. Meanwhile, the big churches with all the bells and whistles -- those we assume are doing it right -- congratulate themselves on the great job they're doing for God.

Here's the ugly little secret. The biggest single strain on every church's budget, large or small, is its clergy costs. Now, it used to be said (back when I started) that a healthy church should be spending no more than 35% or so of its total budget on pastoral salary, even while most churches were spending upwards of 50% on that item. The largest single item in every church's budget is pastoral salary. But then, you have to add housing costs onto that (parsonage or housing allowance). And you have to add expenses (business mileage, continuing education, other reimbursements). And, of course, there is pension (12% or so of the Denominational Average Compensation for us UM clergy). And, finally, the outrageous costs of insurance (don't even get me started). When all is said and done, the costs of employing one full-time, fully ordained pastor is over 150% of the stated salary, sometimes more, which makes the true cost of placing that pastor in that church something like two-thirds to three-fourths of the entire congregational budget.

Small churches can't keep up with that. And the proportion of budget spent on staff costs is the same in large churches with multiple staffs. Large churches generate a lot more dollars in giving to do stuff with because they have more people, but the percentage of giving that's available to do other stuff with is not generally more than that of a small church. (Any savings on parsonages and stuff is often soaked up by the large mortgage that Big N Shiny UMC is carrying.) The bottom line is, our clergy deployment system burdens all our congregations and hampers their effectiveness. We have made it all about us -- which is pleasing to our egos no doubt, but I wonder what Jesus thinks of it. Hardly towel-and-basin ministry, wot?

Not only do we like this kind of ineffective, all-about-us work, we have got the laity to buy into this as well, which insulates them from the need to do it. Lest you doubt this, look at what the Obama recession did to some of the Mega-churches. Disposable income shrank and members couldn't give as much off the top as they had been. Staff had to be laid off. Now, all those members should have been able to carry forward ministry even if staff had to be laid off; however, when a large church loses staff, the congregation inevitably declines. It is hard to escape the conclusion that most of what Big N Shiny UMC gets for their pastoral dollars is program that makes them comfortable and keeps them entertained. That's what they're paying for, and that's what we're providing. If you actually looked at how many members it takes to produce a new member, or a call to ministry, or who needs the least assistance per member from the Annual Conference, the most efficient congregational size for ministry is probably the church of about 125-175 in attendance: just large enough to not be struggling, but not so large that they are entirely staff-dependent.

There is another way. I look back to St. Cuthbert walking around Northumbria with his little portable altar, bringing communion to the village folk. I recall the Circuit Riders wandering the forest paths of the American frontier, baptizing and preaching and calling people to follow Jesus. If the clergy did primarily what clergy exist to do, then the laity could cover all the administrative stuff and routine care that now consume so much pastoral time. Clergy exist to preach, teach, and celebrate the sacraments. We could do that in a variety of ways, in multiple-church circuits, and save everybody a boatload of money. We could help every size church succeed in their ministry according to their capacity.

Why don't we do that? Because clergy don't want to do it. We want to be programmatic leaders, rather than sacramental celebrants. And we don't want to work very hard. We are willing that all the churches of the Annual Conference should struggle rather than see us dropping non-essential tasks to go out and do what we were ordained to do. "Re-think church," indeed.

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