Church Life, Ministry

Friday Mom asked…

…and I will try to answer. What follows is a lengthy post about life in a small church and one pastor’s discernment process, so please know that if you skip it, my feelings won’t be hurt. (Unless you’re one of my revgalpals, and then you’d better read it!)

Friday Mom wrote: “I’d love to hear more about your church’s recovery from the financial problems to a new enthusiasm about stewardship.”

The root of the financial problem was low institutional self-esteem and a history of feeling like the “can’t do” church in town. Always the smallest and least affluent of four UCC churches in City By the Sea, Small Church members seemed to feel they would always be behind, so there was no point trying to catch up at all. They also had pastors, or so I’m told, who didn’t talk about money.

I do, and I own up to how uncomfortable it can be. I think that has helped. And it is uncomfortable. I grew up in a family where you would no more talk about money than describe your latest bowel movement at the dinner table. It just wasn’t done.

But the truth is that New England Protestants have an average giving level of about 1%, and 102 church members can only come up with so much money while giving at that level, and it’s not likely to be enough to cover the costs of a fulltime pastor’s salary and benefits. The health insurance is a killer for smaller churches, and even after they pay so much, I am still paying 20% out of pocket on top of Office Visit co-pays. I can’t afford to go on working for the same salary I got in the first place, and the church can’t afford to remain stagnant on salary while the Conference salary recommendations go up each year, leaving them a larger gap to overcome when at some point I do go somewhere else.

And, gosh, these are touchy issues for a beautiful night in July, and really for any night. Telling 11 people who have worked really hard on every kind of thing you can imagine at the church that they need to pay you more for everyone’s good is not fun. I had no idea what the response would be like.

As it turned out, they all understood. And what’s more, they are ready to go to work and try to raise the difference. One of the reasons the attitude toward stewardship is more optimistic is that our financial picture is much better than expected as of July 10. The Annual Meeting approved a budget that included a $15,000 shortfall for the year. Now in a big church, with a budget of $500,000 or so, that wouldn’t seem unmanageable. But in a smaller church, with a total budget of about $80,000 (most of which is related to the pastor), that gap is huge.

There are some limited back-up funds totalling about $45,000, and the church voted to use those as needed to make up the difference this year. I would have anticipated needing a significant portion of that money at this point in the year, especially since our rental property (the parsonage) was empty for two months. But when we looked at the financials, the news was very good. Pledges are $6000 ahead, based on an average for the 12 months, which is great and shockingly good news. If you know anything about churches, they don’t usually run ahead at this time of year. Many people give most of their pledge late in the calendar year, as is the case for so many non-profits. I’ve never seen a trend toward paying earlier. I’ve also been told that some of our more modest pledgers have already given above (some considerably) their pledge amounts. I know this isn’t happening because of an overall economic upswing, since there isn’t one going on at the moment. It’s an upswing of Spirit.

And I think that in part explains the new enthusiasm for Stewardship. We recently re-organized our committees into a structure of Ministries, and the new Council of Ministries is composed of church officers and representatives from each Ministry. They are all involved in a variety of hands-on ways. The new by-laws give them the responsibility for naming a Stewardship committee. I suggested that they show their leadership by being that committee themselves and each inviting someone else to serve on it as well. We had six Council members at the meeting and five other invitees, and they were all willing to volunteer for a committee to get the campaign underway, and to host dinners or brunches in various homes to talk about Stewardship this fall.

I was flabbergasted.

The second key, however, is critical mass. When you get two or three people together to talk about fundraising (the most who have been involved in recent years), you’re lucky to get a letter mailed out to the congregation. But 11 people is 10% of our membership. That’s a great size group to get things done.

Now, it remains to be seen whether it’s really possible to raise the needed funds from this particular congregation. In fact, it will be pretty amazing if we do. But if we can cut down the gap between expenses and income by a good chunk, I don’t think it will seem like such a bad idea to cover the difference from the “nest egg,” not to them or to me. I must admit that I have felt hesitant to have them spend more of it on me; I have wrestled with whether this feels ethical, with whether it’s good stewardship.

But when I started talking to them last night about how changed they are, how bright and open and warm the church feels, how well they have incorporated newcomers–and when they talked in ways that sounded future-oriented (as opposed to seeking to recapture the glory years of American mainline churches, in which their membership was around 300), and when they named the ways they feel the same changes, I knew we had to try this together. I knew, suddenly, that the Spirit was moving us together and not apart, at least not yet.

And I realized that if I was complaining that the church felt too small, maybe I wasn’t being called to go somewhere else, but rather being called to invite more people to come in and join us. And that thought broke my spiritual logjam, thanks be to God.

Up to this point, I’ve been a pastoral pastor, kindly and gently moving things along in a manner designed to make people feel good about God, their church and each other. And I think I’ve begun to chafe at the restraints, restraints I had placed on myself. “It’s not a prophetic call,” I muttered to myself. “I really should be talking about things that matter.”

“Look to the rock from which you are hewn, and the quarry from which you were dug.”

That verse (Isaiah 51:1) has been on my mind. My father and my grandmother were people of conscience, Methodists as it happens, people who understood their faith as a call to getting this world set right. In particular, they both stood up for the rights of all children to receive equal educational opportunities. They did it at a time and in ways that put them at risk. I want to be like them. I want to take the risks.

At the same time we are preparing this Stewardship drive, we will also be conducting educational sessions about Open and Affirming. The church has published a statement on every Sunday bulletin for the past 7 or 8 years welcoming everyone and specifying a welcome to people of all sexual orientations. But for some reason they didn’t choose to submit the statement to the denomination and get on the official list of ONA churches. As we strive to grow in faith and Spirit and, yes, numbers, it would make sense to get the word of inclusivity out there. I don’t think this would have been all that controversial if not for two things: the UCC General Synod Resolution in favor of marriage equality and an upcoming Civil Rights ballot question at the state level this fall. The former has already caused one long-term member to ask me if we can get out of the UCC; the latter campaign is going to include an attempt by the religious “right” in the state to associate rights for GLBT people with gay marriage, which is not part of the current ballot question.

As if that weren’t enough, we’re also going to be raising money for new hymnals, often a controversial move in any size church.

For the past few weeks I had been thinking that money being tight, I probably would have to look for another job, so it wouldn’t matter if some people wanted to be mad at me about hymnals or ONA. But if I’m *staying*–well, that’s a bit different.

“Look to the rock from which you were hewn, and the quarry from which you were dug.”

I know where my father and my grandmother got their courage. The rock was Jesus. The quarry was God’s. They didn’t worry about being popular; they answered the call, my saints of God. And I mean, God helping, to be one, too.