Thursday, November 12, 2009

Hard times on Higgins Road

ELCA churchwide headquarters in Chicago is not a happy place these days as the Higgins Road office tower has been rocked by major layoffs. I haven't heard a hard number but one estimate from a reliable source is that the reduction will be at least 20%. Yikes.

Revenue to the national church has dropped significantly in recent months. Everyone is making the obvious correlation with the August vote of the churchwide assembly to approve ordination of gay clergy. While that very likely is the immediate cause of the current financial crunch you can't lose sight of the bigger picture. We are, of course, in the midst of the worst recession since the Depression. More importantly, the ELCA has been in a numerical decline since the day it started more than twenty years ago. While this staff reduction is painfully sudden, it was almost certainly inevitable in the long run.

The ELCA is past-due for a major restructuring that will reflect realities that have been denied from the start. In addition to a leaner churchwide organization, the ELCA's 65 synods probably need to be reduced by at least a third and mergers of its eight seminaries should reduce their number by at least half. Unfortunately a well thought out process would take years--time the ELCA may not have. As a result, its organizational shrinkage may be more abrupt and more painful, as is happening right now.


David Corliss said...

This is not the worst recession since the Great Depression - it has very closely followed the length, depth and effects of the severe recession in the early 1980's. Study of the 1983 recovery has provided very useful advice for my professional clients (e.g., Ford Motor Company _ I am very proud to be one small part of the team doing economic analysis for the guys who didn't go bankrupt).

So, we need to look at the need for any layoffs at ELCA predecessor bodies around the end of 1982 through the early 1983 - that's where we are in this business cycle. A difference between that recession and now will be specific to one-time current challenges facing the ELCA independent of economic conditions.

Doug said...

Well David, economics obviously isn't the primariy topic here. As I said, I think the ELCA's longterm decline is more at issue here than either the current downturn or last August's churchwide assembly.

That being said, I'll just offer my view that I don't believe this recession is over though it may have taken a pause. I think a "double dip" is a very real possibility. In any case, I think unemployment will remain high well into 2011. Residential and commercial real estate construction will remain very weak and consumer spending will come back very slowly.

The primary difference between now and 1983 is that there is no apparent engine for a recovery. The Federal stimulus spigot cannot remain open indefinitely. Exports and technological innovation are probably our best hopes.