Saturday, August 30, 2014

Problems at the Plate

Progressive Presbyterian minister and Facebook friend, John Shuck, recently shared this blog post link: Why More New Members Won't Fix Church Budgets. His introductory comment was, "One of the issues that keeps clergy up at night." It's no secret that church and denominational budgets are tight and have been for quite awhile. And while the 2008 recession and continuing economic sluggishness haven't helped, church financial problems go beyond economic cycles.

The blogger writes from a somewhat conservative Protestant perspective and doesn't say anything especially new or profound. Her concerns are legitimate, however. It is indeed becoming questionable whether "congregations as we know them [are] financially sustainable" and for many of the reasons she cites. Here is my perspective which differs somewhat from hers.

Denominational finances have been under stress for decades, primarily due to shrinking congregational memberships. Another factor is that congregations are keeping more of their money at home. Some of this is due to distrust and/or disinterest in denominational programs, but the larger factor is simply that parish ministry costs have risen faster than their income. The cost of clergy salaries and benefits especially have become difficult to support.

As a result, most denominations have gone through major restructuring and downsizing after multiple rounds of painful budget cuts. It seems that things have stabilized but I suspect this is a calm before the next storm. As this blogger says, and most church people know, congregational memberships have aged considerably. Ironically this has actually been a short-term financial blessing.

Retiring Baby Boomers now dominate most congregations and they are relatively well-off, even in retirement. They are now the primary source of many congregations' volunteer time and budget support. But their commitment is not the same as their "greatest generation" parents; they like their toys and vacations. A continuing sluggish economy is also putting new demands on their resources, including helping out their children and grandchildren. Still, they will support congregational ministries for some time, including perhaps with generous bequests at the end.

Yet, as this blogger indicates, even Baby Boomer time and money aren't enough to keep churches afloat in their current form. There are simply too many buildings and staff to be sustainable. As one of the comments says, the church is over-franchised. In addition, it's true that the under-65 population is more discriminating in its support than previous generations. They do tend to support causes over institutions. Church loyalty is getting weaker all the time. Churches treading water are actually going to sink pretty quickly as active and engaged members get frustrated and leave for other places (not necessarily other churches) and remaining members are unable to provide the necessary organizational time and money. It's become common to hear members of struggling congregations refer to themselves as "too few, too old, and too tired."

The blog post and some of the responses make a few proposals for righting the ship. While possibly helpful they all accept that the church's future will be about (as one ELCA denominational official said a few years ago) "doing less with less." This path may lead to churches achieving a new equilibrium but I suspect it will be at a level far lower than many expect.

Ultimately, the church's problem is not finances. Lack of money is a symptom of a much larger issue, namely the church's declining importance in people's lives and in the culture generally. This trend actually has been underway for a long time, since the Enlightenment at least. Until now the church has been able to hide itself from this reality but it's becoming harder to do, though this blog post basically is an attempt to do just that. Ultimately the only answer is a dramatic transformation of the church into something genuinely new, which most current church leaders and members likely won't recognize.

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