The Rev. Carol Howard Merritt: Church for the 21st Century: Finances

This is the 2nd part of a series of posts that I'm doing as our denomination explores what it means to be a church for the 21st Century. Many denominations have been joining in, so please don't feel left out if you're not Presbyterian. I'm reflecting on the first question: What is your vision for the church in the 21st century?  I encourage you to reflect on this question and I'll be happy to link your blog.

As we think about a church for our century, most members of mainline denominations can look back at the Post World War II era as a time of abundance for their churches. We need to remember the things that have changed since those vital days of our congregational life. What has evolved since then?

We looked at our work. We also have  finances, family structures, and racial ethnic make-up.

As we turn our attention to finances, I know that it's a tricky subject. As we wade into it, I should make it clear that I'm not saying that this generation is worse off than other generations, but I am saying that our financial situation is different. And if we're looking at the changes in the last 50 years, we have to look at some of those differences.

There are good things. More people go to college now. Home ownership rose. People can borrow money, which can give them some economic freedom. Lending to racial-ethnic minorities increased, which allowed many people of color to buy homes, get higher education, or have credit cards-many things that were only for the privileged fifty years ago. While kids used to get an orange for Christmas, our children get actual toys.

There are more difficult things.  The chasm between the rich and the poor has grown.

While more people are getting higher educations, the  cost of education has gone up and so many people are entering adulthood with a tremendous amount of unsecured debt (some say $37k).

The  cost of housing has increased,  especially in urban areas where people need to move for good jobs. Some of the housing issues have leveled off, which is a good thing for those who don't own homes, but it causes more problems for those who bought at a high and find themselves underwater (they owe more than the house is worth), for Boomers who were counting on housing equity for their retirement, or for those who need to borrow against the equity of their homes. Because of the housing bubble bursting, I have friends who owe $650k on a house worth $150k.

While education debts increased, housing has been on a roller coaster ride, our  salaries have maintained stagnant.  In fact, with all of the layoffs happening, people are forced to pick up workloads and increase productivity, but they don't have better incomes to show for it. Emerging adults who enter the workforce are expected to labor for free at internships (and increase their debt load even more) in order to make the connections they need to even get a job.

It often takes two incomes to maintain a household,  but we still have a societal expectation that a person needs to be financially independent before he or she gets married.

So we all know that it's a difficult economy. What does all of this have to do with the church? Sometimes we mirror the worst of our culture, and other times we are completely ambivalent to it.

First, the gap between the rich and poor is in our denomination.  We have huge economic disparities among our clergy. For the PCUSA, in one geographic area, it's not difficult to find a highly educated pastor with years of experience, laboring next to another pastor with the same education and experience-one is on food stamps while the other is making a very healthy six-figures. Even on the same staff, we can have one clergy person who is making a top salary in our denomination and another who does not have health insurance. Often times a Head of Staff make more than double what his or her Associate makes.

Some will say that the inequities are due to talent and abilities. But when we look at the gender and color breakdowns, it's pretty clear that they also have to with whether or not you're a white guy with nice teeth.

Second, we ask money for things that people don't always care about.  One major cultural shift between the "Builders" and emerging generations is that the Builders tend to put resources into buildings (thus the name). Need a new pipe organ? It's going to cost a million dollars? No problem.

In a new generation, many people question how we spend our money. It's not a given that we will want to set aside 10% of our income in order to make sure that the huge edifice surrounding us will stay maintained for the next twenty years. People who care deeply about the church may not care much about the bricks and mortar. They might be aggravated by the environmental inefficiencies of our sanctuaries.

Their ecclesial concerns reflect their personal concerns. Do people have enough to eat? Do they have shelter? Are we reaching out to those who aren't quite making it in our communities?

When we're drowning in debt, it's hard to go to church. Our congregations often mirror the financial anxiety or oblivious denial that exists around money in our culture, so it's often easier to not attend. I know that sounds wrong. But before we start pointing fingers and wagging our heads at a new generation, we might want to ask ourselves why. And we might need to ask some difficult questions and clean up our own houses before we fault a new generation.

What do the salaries look like in our church staffs? Do the inequities reflect the worst of our culture or the best? Do people have medical care and a way to support themselves when they are too old to work?

**What does our budget look like? Has our building gotten too large for its purpose and use? Are we sinking too much money into an environmentally inefficient space?

Are our money, space, and staff resources going into helping the needs of the community? Are we speaking out for the poor, the hungry and the homeless in our writing and preaching?**

Do we care for the least among us? Do we expect people to be financially stable in order to attend our churches? In what ways to we communicate that they should be part of the upper-middle-class in order to be a part of us?

[Taken with permission from Carol's blog, Originally posted July 9, 2011.]