Welcome to Issue 16.2 of Let’s Talk, theological discussion in the Metropolitan Chicago Synod. The topic for this issue is “The Church’s Mission in Financial Recession.” We invited our authors to address this topic as it affects the expressions of the church, institutional and congregational, as well as its ministry of stewardship.
“What is a recession?” According to the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER), a recession is a prolonged economic retraction conventionally defined by two or more consecutive quarters of negative GDP growth. Recessions are marked by declines in productivity and investment and by high unemployment. They have a negative impact on industrial production, employment, real income, and wholesale-retail trade.
According to the NBER, a recession began in the United States. in December 2007. The following year brought with it sharp increases in oil and food prices. Then in September 2008, with declining share and housing prices and mounting loan losses, there was a sharp decline in the economy. This affected not only the United States but the entire global economy. It became a global recession referred to by many as the Great Recession; however, if we use the economists’ definition of recovery as two consecutive quarters of GDP growth, this “Great Recession” ended in this country in mid-2009 (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Late-2000s_recession).
Yet, the reality is that economic hardship remains. We see persistent unemployment, continuing decline in home values, escalating federal debt, inflation, and rising gas prices. To non-economists, it looks as if the Great Recession continues. In fact, according to a Reuters April 28, 2011 article, a 2011 poll found that more than half of all Americans think the United States is still in recession or even depression, despite official data that shows a modest recovery.
“What is the Church’s mission?” Might we use Micah 6:8 and Matthew 28:19-20 for our definition? In Micah we read, “[W]hat does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” In Matthew 28 we read, “Go, therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.” In other words, “In Jesus’ Name: Proclaim the Gospel, Make Disciples, and Do Justice.”
Meet the authors and their topics
Writing from the generality of one of the millions of displaced workers in the United States as well as the particularity of a laid-off ELCA Churchwide staff member, Kim Beckmann discusses the effects the economic downturn and displaced workforce has had on the ELCA as interdependent organization. In describing herself as “a displaced worker living as Eucharist without walls or cube,” she also discusses the reality of new economies that are emerging.
Nicholas Zook, pastor of Concordia Lutheran Church and chairperson of Concordia Place in Chicago, discusses the effect the economic downturn is having on community ministries. He describes the effect on the families served by Concordia Place, and Concordia Place’s capacity to meet the needs of the community. Zook ends his article with a quote from former Chicago Mayor, Richard Daley, who said, “[O]ur city and our country will be measured by what we do or fail to do for the most vulnerable of our citizens — the children and seniors of our neighborhoods.”
Now the National Director of the Lutheran Volunteer Corp (LVC), Lauren Sanders highlights how the economic downturn created an “unexpected struggle” for LVC. This struggle was not only a struggle of capacity but also one of mission. She reminds us that we cannot lose sight of our mission for “[i]f we lose sight of our mission, we lose sight of Christ.”
Mark Van Scharrell is Vice President for Advancement at the Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago, president of Lutheran Campus Ministry of Illinois, and a member of Mediator Lutheran Church in Chicago. In his article, Van Scharrell shares observations of the recession’s affect on ministry in general. He uses scripture from Romans, his favorite book, and passages from Romans 12, his favorite chapter, to encourage us “to never flag in zeal,” and also uses the directive found in both the Old Testament and the New, to remind us of the divine directive, “Be my people.”
Congregation / Stewardship
An ordained minister in the Reformed Church and pastor of Lake View Lutheran Church in Chicago, Liala Beukema examines how the recession affects the vision and mission of a transitional congregation. She describes how members of her congregation wrestled honestly with their relationship with money to embrace a vision of who they are and what mission they are called to do. “What may appear to be our loss these days,” she suggests, “may be just what we, the broader Church, have needed to return to our deepest sense of mission in the world.”
Serving Shekinah Chapel in Riverdale, Yehiel Curry considers “Rods and Blessings” during a recession. He uses the example of God’s asking Moses what Moses has in his hand. When Moses replies, “A rod,” God uses the rod to set God’s people free. Curry uses God’s declaration of the impossible through something as simple as a rod as an example of how God is also declaring the impossible through a growing congregation living in a cycle of economic strife. He writes, “I invited the people of Shekinah Chapel to imagine what God could do with the ‘rod’ in our hands . . . how God can take the part to bless the whole.”
Robert Klonowski is the pastor of Faith Lutheran Church in Homewood. In his article, he delineates the elements of a theology of stewardship in hard economic times. Defining and holding up a biblical image of stewardship, Klonowski discusses stewardship as theological praxis, i.e., as a response grounded in the Theology of the Cross and as a stance that takes evil seriously. He concludes, “What a faithful stewardship stance must look for then . . . is a theology that is just as passionately oriented towards humanity as liberalism but is also perfectly alert to the negative, sinful dimension of human behavior and experience.”
The pastor of Grace Lutheran Church in Evanston, Dan Ruen describes a recent “Epic Fail” conference in his article. With irony and humor, he applies the term to his congregation’s response to the “Great Recession.” Ruen relates how in planning its 2013, 75th anniversary observance, the congregation decided not wait until 2013 to establish the Anniversary Mission Fund it had planned. Instead, it decided to raise funds now to aid in disaster relief and for the provision of food and shelter. The Courage Fund that was set up and funded by the members of Grace and their efforts has so far given away $30,000 in the form of local, national, and international assistance. Ruen observes, “There’s no copyright on Christian insanity,” and adds: “What we’re attempting may indeed be folly, but is it ever folly, really, for people who call themselves followers of Jesus?”
Let’s Talk columnists
Let’s Talk’s regular columnists, Frank Senn and Ben Dueholm, use recent events in their lives to reflect on larger issues.
In his As I See It column, “Not the Way to Show Compassion,” Senn relates a personal cautionary act of compassion recently undertaken — an act of compassion that underscores a need for the church and its pastors to reflect on, and possibly rethink, the way they and we carry out the compassion that, as Christians, we are called upon to do. Dueholm’s On the Way column, “‘Religionless’ Again for the First Time,” recounts a second retreat this past spring to St. Augustine’s House, “North America’s only Lutheran monastery.” During this second retreat, as at the first, he reflected on Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s understanding of “religionless Christianity.” Dueholm shares the new and very relevant insights that emerged from that reflection in his column.
The Great Recession may be technically over, but this country continues to navigate uncharted financial waters that will have a continuing impact on the church in all of its expressions. This is an exceptionally timely issue of Let’s Talk, one that addresses virtually all aspects of the church’s life and mission as they are affected by the country’s past, present, and continuing financial uncertainties. Some of the articles are challenging; some, inspirational; others, sobering. We hope that you find that they are catalysts for new thought and possible change. Let us know what you think!