Reading the title for this issue of Let’s Talk, “The Church’s Mission in Financial Recession,” my mind wanders in two different, though not unrelated, directions. As a pastor who has spent almost 30 years in congregations living in impoverished conditions or in relationship with people critically impacted by the systems and structures of poverty, I understand that this is our opportunity to share some pragmatic and valued “best practices.” There is nothing like a negative bank balance on payroll day to inspire creative and expanded stewardship strategies — to say nothing about a deepening of one’s prayer life. More and more congregations are finding it necessary to think outside the traditional offering plate as a way of gathering resources to simply pay the bills. We can talk about that. But this financial crisis also opens the door of the faith community to wrestle honestly with our relationship to money, and what may be our deeper crisis of identity — who will we be without all our stuff? — which may be a new prophetic mission of the Church.
The question I am often asked is, how does a small, transitional congregation find the resources to survive? This may be the most important lesson that congregational life has taught me: Money follows vision. Vision does not follow money. There is nothing exciting (to most people — apologies to accountants and actuaries) about a budget or a spread sheet — unless they are connected to a deeper sense of purpose. People want and need to know that they are about something meaningful and purposeful. Yes, we all need to pay the bills and be fiscally responsible. But even these matters take on a new energy when we are able to connect them to a greater purpose.
When I first came to Lake View Lutheran, the congregation was working through an era of transition that was not uncommon to a number of churches at the time, one that included a changing neighborhood (ironically, it wasn’t an economic downturn but a gentrification that brought the biggest challenges). At first glance, the future of the congregation appeared bleak: worship attendance was minimal at best, and the congregation’s financial stability rested on a handful of givers and the rent we collected from the use of the building. Not particularly the most attractive qualities for congregational growth.
In the months following my hire, we sat together as a congregation and talked about the life of the church. Stories upon stories were shared that spoke of how important the church had been in people’s life and in the life of the community. We remembered how the congregation had invited folks in who had been marginalized or neglected, how the congregation had spoken up against injustice, how this congregation had provided leadership in matters of spiritual and communal development. In this process a vision began to emerge that inspired a new generation of people to invest not simply their financial resources but their hearts. The shelter renting space became more than a tenant of the building. It became a partner in our rediscovery of the congregational identity and mission.
Vision is critical to a congregation, especially in times of struggle. The disappointment of changes and the anxiety of money erodes the spirit and energy of our people. In this environment people begin to believe that we are only as powerful as the balance in our checking account or the attractiveness or location of our buildings. Reading through the Scriptures we find that this is nothing new. In Egypt or exile, the people of God have often struggled toward that bigger vision of who they are and who they are not. Slavery, homeless, powerless these are conditions that can easily rob folks of their true sense of their human value and measure of God’s image.
This is often the place where God sends a vision or visionary to reinvigorate people. Prophets, priests, pastors, peasants — unexpected voices — that wake up a sleeping people with new or renewed ideas for living faithfully, powerfully, and joyfully into who they are as God’s beloved people. It is often a chance for experiencing the creative faithfulness of God. I truly believe that we have everything we need to do what God calls us to do even though it may not come in the form or timing we initially imagine.
When we have a sense of God working in our lives and through our commitments it becomes easier to make the harder decisions. Last fall, our congregation was faced with the challenge of finding space for a new opportunity to serve homeless young adults in our community. At the time the majority of our space was occupied by other programs and ministries. The only space available, the largest remaining space in our facility, the most underutilized space in our building, was our sanctuary; however, its use of was limited because of the pews. When faced with the dilemma of providing space for 20-25 homeless young adults or retaining our beloved wooden benches, the congregation unanimously voted to remove the pews. Doing so would demand one other courageous act — taking on debt. Preparing the space to accommodate new guests and worship would require not only removal of the seating but repairing the floor and purchasing chairs, a movement not imagined in our annual budget.
Vision not only inspires but it informs. Discussing our various options and weighing the consequences of one choice over another, we were able to come to a decision based not on fear but rooted in a deeper understanding of our congregation’s journey. We realized that we had been able to sustain our life because of the risk that people in the past had taken when they borrowed money to build our current building, a building that housed us debt-free while we were in transition. Following their example and learning from their confidence in faith, we could imagine ourselves taking on this risk. In fact, it became clear that the risk of NOT investing was greater than the small debt we would incur. The decision to remove the pews was met with a vote of confidence and not one vote of resistance because we were committed to the opportunity to provide gracious hospitality to a part of our community in desperate need.
Pragmatically, all this translates into interesting, creative, collective, and (may I add) fun ways of finding resources for supporting the mission opportunities that come from our sense of God’s call. The seemingly mundane tasks of fund-raising, grant-writing, volunteering, maximizing the use of all our assets (property and people), and even pledging take on new dimensions as they invite the sharing of our vision and the heart and passion we have in living into that vision. These tasks, events, and strategies have generated new members as others connect to various programs, new friends around the area as we invite broad participation in the issues, and new focus on the church as a voice of leadership in shaping how we as a community care for all those who live and work in our neighborhood. We are often surprised at all we are able to do with what little we seem to have. Oh, and did I mention, we seem to just have a lot more fun?
The current recession may provide a powerful catalyst for the church to engage with these kinds of conversations about vision and mission, more so than we have had in the past. When there is an adequate cash flow it doesn’t seem necessary to think about or strategize about how or where resources are allocated. We can take a bundle of things for granted including understanding what is a fuller expression of God’s vision of justice for the world, a vision that addresses gross inequities, abuses of power, and responsibilities for the well being of the whole creation. What may appear to be our loss these days may be just what we, the broader Church, have needed to return to our deepest sense of mission in the world. In an unexpected consequence, we may find greater freedom to share what may feel like small loaves and fishes remembering how God not only seems to bless this generosity but also appears determined to build the kingdom upon it. That is a vision worth exploring.