Let’s Talk

Living Theology in the Metropolitan Chicago Synod

The Church’s Mission in Financial Recession

Issue 16.2

Time after Pentecost 2011

The ELCA and the Economic Downturn

What effect has the economic downturn had on the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA)? The ELCA is church in three interdependent expressions: the churchwide organization, synods, and congregations. Or, as St. Paul would have it, when one member in the body suffers, we all suffer. When we all suffer, well, maybe new life finally has its way with us too. This essay takes an embodied look at the multi-systemic and spiraling effects of the economic downturn, the future implications of a constellation of factors amplifying the downturn, and signs of a new economy emerging from the crisis.

What Happened with the Economic Downturn?

On November 5, 2009, I joined the ranks of 14 million laid-off Americans. My household’s hastily revised pledge forms, reflecting a two-thirds loss of income, resulted in reduction of $7,000 in undesignated offerings (tithe) to the congregations we support. Then there were the gifts, which we could no longer afford at all.

Tithes to two MCS congregations: $7,000*
Gifts in donated pulpit supply: $475
Gifts in service to world hunger: $250
Seminary: $780
Global mission: $200
Building inclusivity: $300
Immigration/border ministries: $60
Campus ministries: $120
Quarterly tax savings in Mission Investment Fund: $1,500**
Total: $10,685

* Includes $700 in mission support for the churchwide organization and Metropolitan Chicago Synod.

** Average available to new mission land/building

So, in my household example, one person’s entering unemployment in 2009 has meant an annual loss of approximately $10,685 giving/lending to ELCA institutions and ministries due to the economy.

That’s a story heard all over the country. In addition, because my spouse is also a rostered leader, that meant another $3,000 or 3% of budget drawn from dwindling reserves of his renewing congregation, a congregation already in a race against time, was moved to the fixed-cost column of ministry/mission for increased health benefit coverage previously shared, with impacts to that congregation’s mission. And because I am a laid-off rostered leader, the Board of Pensions is not accumulating pension contributions for me that will be the basis for my 2023 tithe in retirement, and would boost their current assets. Which brings the economic impact of my layoff to the ELCA closer to $18,000 annually, with a compounding future.

I don’t know how many of the millions losing jobs or homes are ELCA Lutherans, tithers, and gifters. But this exercise illustrates the effect job loss, housing insecurity, and the sharp decrease in investment and pension income have had on ELCA budgets. It’s not hard to see the necessity for steep reductions in and the loss of:

  • personnel in churchwide offices, synods, and congregations
    dedicated, paid expertise to spark, direct, inspire, administer and support mission/ministry
  • program support
    grants or gifts to “goods” such as campus ministries, seminaries, outdoor ministries that have been considered held in common and supported by all three expressions
  • major cooperative campaigns
    such as the Lutheran Malaria Initiative from which the ELCA withdrew, now re-conceived as the ELCA Malaria Campaign to assure our commitment to our companion churches in Africa.

Because I was laid-off from call as a rostered leader in the ELCA churchwide organization, the spiraling effect of economic downturn is even more clearly illustrated in my case study: less offerings given locally, less apparent ability or interest to increase percentages of mission support, less mission supported in the ways to which we have become accustomed through dollars and expertise equals less resources to support all expressions. It doesn’t take an economic genius to see how the ELCA as interdependent organism has been impacted by the ripples and whirlpools of economic downturn.

Is it Just the Economy, Really?

Perhaps you are tired of the phrase “the perfect storm.” So let’s call the much-reported confluence of a 30-year decline in mainline church involvement, the recession, and both the loss of congregations and withholding of money due to disgruntlement with churchwide assembly decisions to allow support of LGBTQ clergy, members, and families, a constellation of events instead.

Many have been interested in determining how much of the sharp decline in mission support and loss of “capacity” in all three expressions is “fallout” and how much is economy. When the ELCA treasurer suggests this will be difficult if not impossible to unravel because the interplay varies so widely across the church, I agree. For instance, in the Metropolitan Chicago Synod, the story seems much less influenced by events of Churchwide Assembly 2009 (CWA ’09). Indeed, there is new energy around the missional good of deepening the welcome in congregations. But at the epicenter of 130 churchwide jobs lost in the past two years, we can expect scenarios like the opening illustration playing out in MCS congregations with particular intensity.

I suspect much of this interest is rooted in attempts to blame or defend actions of CWA ’09. While I don’t think that’s a worthy use of time, there could be merit in considering which, if any, of these factors might change anytime soon. Is there basis for assuming things will go back to “normal”? And by that I mean the slower decline of the ELCA’s standard of living we all were enjoying when all the ELCA had to deal with was the 30-year falling interest in churchgoing and a style of churchmanship that went hand-in-hand with undesignated tithing to support common goods.

Writing under the influence of Easter, I don’t think things will go back. Jesus, our new life, goes ahead to Galilee … to the margins, not to the empire. Clinging to his feet isn’t going to stop that trajectory, or reverse the direction. Nor will the dragging heels of aging builders and boomers keep things static.

If you prefer a more economic than scriptural analysis of the time, the arc is pretty much the same.

  • The New York Times suggests that in this edge of my prime, I’ll never work again.1 For those who will, analysis of the ’80s recession suggests their income will forever be disadvantaged by about 20%.2
  • Millennials are facing the highest unemployment rates in 60 years, with college grads among them already burdened with large debt.3
  • Though investment income is rebounding, we whisper double-dip. Time isn’t on our side with the most faithful givers supporting ministries from this stream.
  • The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, notably holding the traditionalist line, just published a special issue of its house organ to outline difficulties in raising undesignated mission support to keep the lights on in its offices and their resultant restructuring, or redesign if you prefer.

Graphs from ELCA Research and Evaluation show the substantial rise of per-baptized congregational giving — $51 in 1965 to $482 in 2009 — close to a ten-fold increase. But the amount that ends up in mission support is virtually a flat line — $9 to $26.31. From a roughly 30% synod versus 70% churchwide split in that support in 1965, to a 60/40 split around the merger in 1988, the balance shifts in 2009. The amount of mission support remaining in synods is now averaging just over 50%, nosing ahead of churchwide remittance. In the household example, out of the $10,000+ in giving lost to the ELCA in my unemployment, only a little over $350 had ended up as churchwide undesignated giving that had formerly supported positions like mine as well as program support in grants etc. Telling the story of wider ELCA ministries louder or even better has had some but little effect. Doing more with less, or even less with less, isn’t going to do it. We really do need to do something new.

New Economy Emerging

Joseph Sittler noted the word emerging connotes that which is pulled out from in front, rather than pushed out from behind. While some have been trying to prepare for, construct, and push out a new paradigm, the economy itself now seems to be pulling us into that future. For example, new economies are emerging …

… for Mission Support and the Goods We’ve Held in Common

The new economy concedes givers want direct relationships and immediate experiences in ministries formerly supported remotely from pooled resource in an effort to spread the wealth. We’ve been telling folks mission support did all these things, but in truth we were doing it less and less. Institutions left to the mercy of the market were encouraged more and more to tell their story for and to potential donors so new donors would step up and give directly and philanthropically. The announcement in April of the ELCA’s churchwide reduction in grants aligned with new strategic directions puts the last nail in that coffin and frees us to tell a new story. We should realize givers may choose non-ELCA-related efforts with which they have another relationship and work outside ELCA-designated companion relationships in their gifting.

Drumbeats that for years have messaged networking not silos, and creative cooperation, collaboration and strategic partnerships within and across church institutional lines may finally be heard. Two seminaries recently announced such merger plans. One churchwide advocacy staff position now operates ecumenically.

With the new prime directive to support congregations, the co-equal trinitarian economy of the three expressions appears to be over. Given the historic flatlines in undesignated mission support, and given new fundraising patterns for ministries formerly held collectively, what level of mission support should now reasonably be expected for keeping synod and churchwide offices open, toward what roles? In my own household example, given the givens, I most likely will lower the proportion of my undesignated offering in order to directly support specific projects and institutions no longer supported by that offering. That’s a new economy.

… for Worship & Outreach with Neighbors

Where once the local church was the hub or anchor of moral, ethnic, charitable, or social community within a city block/cornfield by virtue of its Sunday morning worshippers and their offerings, that is no longer true. At the holidays, Subaru will donate $250 of my car purchase to a choice of charities. USA network, using my favorite television actors, does an amazing public service announcement on diversity with reach I only wish my church had. I hope we’re on our way from regretful shame when we rent our facility to make ends meet until we can build our worshipping community of givers up to be self-sufficient again. The new economy has us consider how, when we partner and share with community groups that also truly call our space home, facilities become a sacred, healing space for an entire neighborhood and how, when we host another worshipping community (or two or three!), we are multiplying ministry. The new economy also has us considering calling community space home to worshiping communities , or calling our homes worshiping space for communities, not temporarily but unapologetically and by design.

Rembert Weakland talks about the church as Eucharist without walls. The new economy realizes the church is at large outside the stained glass walls in and through everyday lives and work. It invests in that church. It reprioritizes our concern, time, and other resource.

Where we see mostly scarcity in time and money resources in siloed communities of faith organizations, increasingly we find we can get a hand in cooperative efforts with neighbors, be they other congregations, community partners, or unchurched individuals. Millennials are conspicuously absent from our worshipping communities at present.4 But this connected, optimistic, creative, socially- conscious generation — a generation at a crisis point in rethinking values and making sense of what the economic meltdown means for the rest of their lives — might be attracted by the freedom of these openings in the walls and are and could increasingly be leaders in this church and culture pulled into a new economy.5

While within the church we search for identity, purpose, and meaning, the world calls out our vocation. The new MCS Latino Ministry Strategy, for instance, presents the gifts of the growing Latino community of neighbors. How is that opportunity fully engaged, among others in diverse and diversifying neighborhoods, for the flourishing of the world God loves? A recent blog summed up an A Renewal Enterprise workshop on “post-missional” economy: “[W]e need our neighbor in order to understand our mission. Therefore the neighbor isn’t an object that needs to be conquered, but rather the means through which we discover who we are and what God is doing.”6 While it remains to be seen if pushing everything to local mission tables convened by synodical directors for mission will accomplish this, or if folks will buy it, this is the principle around which we’re building a new church economy.

… for Church-worker “Social Security”

Economic collapse reminded those depending on the church for current and future income that there are no guarantees or government insurance backing unemployment and pensions.

  • Those experiencing reduction in force across expressions who have received some compensation at termination, are in many cases receiving about a third of what the government has extended for unemployment support in a catastrophic economy.
  • Pensioners were shocked by deep cuts announced in annuity checks (9% each of the years 2010-2012, though 2011 was only 6%) with one-time payouts from the ELCA Special Needs Retirement Fund for the most adversely affected.
  • Others in collapsing church-related pensions were cashed out at a fraction of the dollar.

Along with holding fiduciary insurance, what steps can or should the church be taking? How could, or should, we be more ready to meet or exceed what society considers just and necessary for workers in this type of formerly unimaginable economy? Will the growing discrepancy between areas in the church which continue to work and provide well under current systems and those already pulled into a new and marginal economy, mirror the national economy’s increasing divide between haves and have-nots and disappearing middle class? How would this discussion relate to the church’s advocacy for worker justice and life-giving sustainable economies for all? Or is this type of security and expectation a middle-class prop that has no place in the new economy of the church on the margins, an American dream the church and its workforce painfully needs to die to, not aspire to, or make any claims with the empire about, as a new economy emerges?

… for Leadership Development, Deployment and Support

Seminarians and newly ordained leaders bear the brunt of the old economy’s failure and a glacial transition to new systems. They remain passionate about ministry. They just wish they could do it. Recent articles in The Lutheran7 and Facebook threads on ELCA Clergy and other circulated blogs8 have now widely and succinctly articulated the dilemma. Crippling debt. Restrictions for spousal vocation. Housing market. One-to-one ratios for candidates and first-call openings. Retirements on hold possibly creating a bubble of need but in a horserace with congregations on the bubble of being able to call M.Div. leaders. Or call them full-time. With a professional wage.

We’re finally talking out loud about bivocationality, encouraging undergrads to get degrees in a marketable trade, thinking outside the box about combination calls and new patterns of appropriate education. The new economy invites us to work toward equipping not just one wage-earning word and sacrament pastor per congregation, but parish teams to create worship, form faith, build neighborhood coalition, work at the intersection of oppressions, work ecumenically and inter-faith, write grants, and start 501c(3)’s. What’s hard to come to terms with is the fact that it is likely the majority of ELCA rostered and perhaps other leadership in the coming decades will be done on a part-time basis in multiple sites or working in other jobs that pay bills and, hopefully, benefits. Many denominations and cultures have worked and lived in this way for a long time. The structure we’ve built for candidacy/education/mobility/roster has a ways to go in re-imagining, not just tweaking itself toward the future God and this economy is pulling us into. For the sake of our emerging leaders, as well as of our institutions, we need to align our processes and expectations toward these new realities and prepare seminarians and congregations for that kind of career and congregational life now. The millennial generation uniquely has the desire and characteristics to flourish in this environment and conceive just that new reality, as these gifts are released for mission and ministry.

Those of us making decisions, well, we’ve loved those days. Now we need to embrace and support a new economy and a much more rapid rate of change and evolution in our agreements about standards and formation. And establish benchmarks for readiness and thriving in the new context.

It’s a rich time to consider the life for us in new economies unashamedly on the margins. We are not defined by the rubble, but have newly freed up building materials to consider God’s new city.


  1. http://nytimes.com/2010/09/20/business/economy/20older.html

  2. http://economics.harvard.edu/faculty/katz/files/jec_testimony_katz_042910.pdf

  3. http://huffingtonpost.com/arianna-huffington/dear-class-of-2011_b_863743.html

  4. http://elca.org/Who-We-Are/Our-Three-Expressions/Churchwide-Organization/Research-and-Evaluation.aspx Comparing the 2008 age of ELCA Attendees and the U.S. Population

  5. http://usatoday.com/news/nation/2009-06-23-millennial-recession_N.htm

  6. http://brian-beckstrom.blogspot.com/2010/02/seeing-with-new-eyes.html

  7. http://thelutheran.org/article/article.cfm?article_id=9908

  8. http://blogs.forbes.com/jerrybowyer/2011/04/20/the-seminary-bubble/