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My Church Wants $250,000

stjohnslafaerial

I love my parish. I got to attend the Great Vigil of Easter Saturday night and it was great. The dean celebrated, the rector preached, we had three baptisms and the service was everything one could want. Christ is risen!

However, we’re going through a money crunch, and now we’ve decided we need to raise a quarter of a million dollars, on top of everything we’re already spending. I don’t get it.

We elected a vestry; they approved a budget that spends money we don’t have. The new campaign is designed to cover the deficit; bring in a consultant “to guide us through a period of self-study and discernment”; restore to last year’s levels what they allegedly cut from the current budget; and “restore depleted cash reserves.”

I don’t know how much of this is because of the Wall Street crash or how much is the result of overspending and undergrowing. So when another letter came today appealing for funds, I threw it out.

Then I dug it out of my recycling bin and called the lady who wrote it, Mrs. J. We have an appointment to speak next Tuesday.

She and her husband have been active in the parish, real leaders, throughout their adult lives. Their kids are communicants too. I am very grateful to this family for providing time, money, leadership and prayers all these years. I think of it as “my” parish, but of course it’s “ours,” not mine; in many ways her family has been more faithful than I have been. (I live 50 miles away in another time zone, so it’s always an event when I make it to church. It sure helps to have mass at night sometimes.)

But I am a “son of the parish,” and I don’t understand how we got ourselves in this hole. I don’t know what I can do about it, either; I’m already maxed out with church pledges. I’m helping a religious order in Wisconsin, which has a construction project going on, and I just don’t see how I can give any more. That’s why I threw the latest letter out. Then there were the brothers in California whose monastery burned down. Help! Whatever happened to all the millionaire Episcopalians?

(They decided they liked the megachurch better, without all those Negroes and Democrats and women priests and homos. We are fresh out of millionaires these days.)

All this gets me to thinking, What is it like for other people to get this kind of church financial appeal? It’s one thing when it’s “send money to Haiti, Sudan (or some other bottomless pit), they’re hungry, sick and desperate,” it’s another when it’s your parish church.

When did we stop doing pay-as-you-go? What could be stupider than running a non-profit with a deficit?

I don’t even know how to think about these issues. (I know I shouldn’t have said that about Haiti, but jeez, nothing is ever going to get better there. They don’t have the political system to support economic development; the government sucks all the money out of the country and always has. It’s as useless as pouring money into Africa; 98% of your donation will go to bribe someone, starting with the Gay-bashing cops.)

(And yes, I’m entirely aware that these are Black-majority nations. We can’t just write them off, no matter how much they deserve it.)

Obviously I have fused issues that ought to be separate. To help Haiti, give what you can to the Sisters of St. Margaret and no one else; they can teach you who else to trust. I mean, people need shoes and vegetables and a chicken wing. With SSM, they actually get a piece of chicken or a pair of shoes.

I have a friend who believes that all churches are financial scams. All of them, always, in every case. He believes in God, but not God’s supposed servants. How many other people believe that?

I don’t think my parish (diocese, denomination, communion) is scamming anyone, but how are 300 Hoosiers supposed to come up with a quarter-million dollars? And what for, exactly?

The building’s in good shape (that took a million or more, a few years ago); the rector gets a 3% raise every year and he’s not doing too bad. We have a half-time priest associate, shared with the campus ministry across town; she supposedly works with children and youth and college students. I don’t see that she’s pulling her weight particularly, but we’ve got “godly play” bags hanging from hooks now, and special services on holy days for younger families, so maybe she’s worth her weight in gold. I wouldn’t know; serving heterosexuals is not my issue, so I’m uninformed. That’s why I’m having the phone conversation next week with Mrs. J.

I do know it’s vital to all parishes to attract younger people, so if Mother H. is doing the job, hallelujah and amen. I don’t care if they’re Straight or Gay, as long as they’re not gray.

But why do we need a quarter million dollars just to get things back to where they were? That’s what Mrs. J’s letter is saying; just to maintain.

And what’s up with the consultant and the self-study and discernment? Will he or she help us figure out why we’re deficit spending? No-o-o, we gotta spend ten grand on navel-gazing so we can replace the rector once he retires.

I wonder when Episcopal churches decided they had to have $10,000 consultants to hire a new priest. We have to do “self-studies” and “discernments” now, we can’t just find an up-and-comer with a few pastoral notches on his or her belt. How did we ever function before we had consultants?

Talk about a scam (although I’m sure they’re all nice people who pray every day and give sacrificially)!

Why doesn’t the self-study just come out of the box? Why have a diocese with, say, 80 churches, who have to hire 80 consultants just because they need to hire a new priest? Are there questions somehow we’re going to ask ourselves that have never been thought of in the entire history of Christianity?

Or are we going to come up with our own answers to the same exact questions everyone else asks?

(It should be in a box.)

WHO ARE WE?

• We’re one of the oldest churches in town, started by Bishop Kemper on horseback.

• We’re a downtown church without a parking lot. Megachurch ain’t us.

• We welcome homos. (See above.) We ask them to keep fairly quiet, but they’re all quiet to start with.

• Our city is small (150,000) but growing rapidly because of a billion-dollar university.

• It’s one of the cheapest places to live in the United States.

• We’re in a progressive diocese with a woman bishop.

• Our churchmanship is broad and comprehensive. We’re actually more Catholic than ever before, but we’re relaxed about it.

• We’re far enough away from the see city that we don’t get too involved in diocesan politics.

• The flip side is that we are far enough away from the see city that no one ever gets elected bishop from our place. We’re a destination, not a stepping-stone. That’s why Fr. E’s been with us 20 or 30 years, and why we’re paying top dollar for him to hold his hands up and bless the bread and wine.

• We have a good music program that’s probably more than we can afford. We have a fine musical instrument and a good amateur choir, and we’re loath to give them up. Thus we end up worshiping the details, not the essence. (And I’m as bad as anyone; give me that string quartet at Christmas and I am a weepy blubbering fag.)

• The building’s in good shape, but it’s old and you know what that means; there’s “always something.” For years now we’ve had these pulleys in the rafters that keep the walls from falling down.

• We can’t do evangelism to save our lives. (Solution: hire Mother H., string up “godly play” bags.)

• We seem to think people will find us by the holiness of our lives. Somehow people never do.

• The rector is a technophobe who won’t even allow his picture to be taken. You can imagine what a dynamic website we have.

• We have the same parish secretary (oops, sorry, she’s now the “administrator”) since the day E. arrived. Doubtless she gets her annual raise too.

• Somewhere we picked up a parish nurse. Demoniacs have yet to beat down our door. (If they ever do, I could send a few more.)

• We spend thousands a year to mail out a 12-page newsletter with no news.

• We’ve always been neurotic and we always will be.

SO: would you give a quarter-million for that?

No? Does it help if I tell you we were once a stop on the Underground Railroard (but we’re too polite to say)?

Does it help that we started the Urban Ministry, the Food Bank, that our former education minister was once an associate of Martin Luther King Sr., that he finally left the South after too many Klan shootouts, that he nurtured a Gay teenaged acolyte to become an activist and author, who now finds himself wondering how to fill a quarter-million-dollar budget gap in his old parish church? Does that help?

Here are my conclusions, FWIW.

1. Don’t decide anything until I’ve talked to Mrs. J. She knows the parish backwards and forwards, and I have to encounter her faith to understand why she believes this will be money well spent.

2. Don’t be surprised, in the last years of a long incumbency, when the parish goes into deficit just before the priest finally retires.

3. Remember him for the good things he did, not the bad things. He’s a man; priests always screw up. Remember Fr. B., back in the 1970s; we all knew he stayed too long and grew increasingly incompetent, but he was the best at priestcraft there ever was.

Let me repeat that; the best there ever was. He should have been a bishop, but he came to Lafayette.

4. Be resigned to the fact that they’re going to pry the money out of you. The Lord loves a cheerful giver. If you don’t want to pour your money into a sinkhole, move to Florida, go to some church where you have no history, where your mother isn’t buried in the churchyard. I mean, get realistic; as long as you stay here you’re going to give no matter what.

5. Yeah, it’s a scam; but that string quartet!

6. Consider this; you’re going to be a dead rotting corpse someday; and “home is where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.”

7. Turn down the thermostat; insulate the attic; kids need shoes. You can curse their feet for growing, or you can kiss their toes and go to Wal-Mart. Joining a church means emptying your wallet. Just hope you can kick the bucket before another consultant shows up to study you into “discernment.”

God gave you the dang money; fork it over.++

3 Responses

  1. “I have a friend who believes that all churches are financial scams. All of them, always, in every case. He believes in God, but not God’s supposed servants. How many other people believe that?”

    I do. I’m sorry, but I wouldn’t give your church a dime.

  2. Oh, incidentally, I see on your blogroll there’s someplace called Cathedral of Hope UCC. I didn’t know the UCC had bishops. Do they? If not, how can this church call itself a cathedral? If you don’t have bishops, you can’t have a cathedra, and if you don’t have a cathedra, then how can it be a cathedral? Or perhaps we’ve reached the point where any mega-ultra-wealthy-with-broadcasting-parish calls itself a cathedral?

  3. (Note: I am josh with a small j, while this replies to Josh with a big J. Then again, we’ve never actually compared j’s; it might be fun.)

    I cannot speak for the Cathedral of Hope, but your points are well made. The UCC (formerly Congregationalists) don’t have bishops, so it isn’t a cathedral in the usual sense. But it is Gay, they do broadcast services online, they reach out to isolated Gay people and are blessed for that, and they’re really good about begging for money.

    Episcopalians do “consultants” and undergo “discernments” and never but never say from the pulpit, “By the way, we’re broke.” It’s the single best way to pry loose more money, but we think it’s in bad taste.

    The one thing we’ve never quite grasped is how tied we are to class aspirations, just like the Mother Church in the Old Country. (For those of us who are ethnically British, it’s even worse.) This is the bane of the Episcopal Church’s existence, and not one of our leaders will say so; there was I a few paragraphs above, going weepy over the string quartet. We all want to be lords and ladies, which is why we can’t do evangelism to save our lives; we give each other the peace, but then we rub ourselves with sanitizer.

    Still, we do manage to employ the occasional civil rights leader, and we do create the occasional food pantry, and we do consecrate a Cate and a Katharine, a Chilton and a Gene. The core of faith we have is utterly inspiring, even if it’s only a core. Find me another church with even that much!

    The key thing, I think, is the ongoing influence of Cates and Katharines, Chiltons and Genes, the women and Gay guys who are transforming this Church. Over time (maybe I can see 50 years), they will steer us in the right direction, backed up (and led) by a fierce gentle army of laypeople, women and men, who will not let us wander off The Way.

    We screw up constantly, we don’t even know we’re doing it. We’ve got this sin problem.

    BUT: we have the only system of governance that works. We are democratic; we elect people. Sometimes we get a Bush, but sometimes we get an Obama. We get a Cate; we get a Katharine; we get a Gene. And they actually lead; that is, they keep the people on the path that is The Way.

    We don’t know where we’re going; but we do.

    And someday, I believe, a Kirsten or Kerry or Ken will call us out on our classism, “the worst choice we could have made, the opposite of Christ-likeness.” And we’ll all go to confession, in serious mourning and repentance, be reconciled and chrismed, and take up our journey again.

    If I didn’t think my parish and my Church are walking The Way, I wouldn’t give them a dime either. But they are, so I do. God gave me the money, so fork it over.++

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