This semester I’m teaching a class called, “Starting New Missional Ministries,” a course on new church development and the redevelopment of struggling congregations. We read scripture (Acts particularly) and the latest missional church literature. We also have class visitors who are beginning congregations themselves. And, wouldn’t you know, the topic of money and finances comes up nearly every class period. In today’s newsletter, Lura Groen raises an important set of questions about the assumptions we have for funding congregations. Are we willing to put our money where our mission is?
Adam Copeland, Center for Stewardship Leaders
Presuming a Middle-Class Church?
Rev. Lura N. Groen
The funding structure of our mainline congregations is built upon an assumption of a largely middle-class church. These assumptions limit our ministry, prioritizing congregations made up of middle-class people.
Take my denomination, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in American (ELCA). Our model of ministry — 100+ families who give a percentage of their income towards the budget of the congregation, and that the congregation will use that money to maintain a building, pay at least one full-time pastor, a number of full or part-time staff such as musicians, parish administrators, and Christian educators, and give to the larger denomination and other benevolences — is by no means the only way to fund a community of faith, but it remains our dominant model.
This model has worked in the past when 100 or so families had a middle or upper middle-class income. (As well as in the more distant past when Lutherans in America were working class but costs for building maintenance and pastoral leadership were lower.)
Many of our congregations today are experiencing not only a drop in the number of families who are contributing a regular portion of their income and a decrease in the percentage of family income given to the church, but also a decrease in what the middle class income from which they give. Stewardship discussions in the ELCA have thus far focused only on how to get people to give more, without addressing the larger economic realities or asking what this structure means for our attempts at ministry with racially diverse and impoverished communities.
Congregations of predominantly middle class people can easily absorb one or two families at low incomes, and historically have. But congregations that are made up of mainly working class or poor people are unable to sustain the same budgets as middle class congregations, even if each family gives a generous portion of their income. As many pastors in other denominations can attest, this often leads part-time, bi-vocational pastoral leadership.
Median household income in the United States (not necessarily the same as a middle class income, but a less debatable number) in 2017 was $59,000. A congregation made up of 100 families making the median income, each giving 4% of their income (about double the norm for mainline congregations) could have a budget of $236,000.
Imagine, however, a congregation made up of families living at the poverty line. For a family of four in 2017, the poverty line is defined as an income of $24,600. Again, a healthy congregation of 100 members generously giving 4% of their income would have a budget of $98,400. (This is excluding the fact that giving 4% of one’s income when one lives in poverty means basic needs will not be met.) No congregation can support a full time pastor and a building at a budget of $98,400.
The ELCA claims to have a commitment to communities in poverty and seeks to start congregations in these areas. But do our assumptions that new mission starts also become self-sustaining in 5-10 years mean, in reality, that the long-term sustainability of these congregations is highly questionable? What do these practices mean for our mission developers seeking a fair wage for their pastoral leadership, paying off student loans, saving for retirement, etc.?
As long as we continue to expect each congregation to fund itself under our old assumptions, we will remain a church of middle-class people and, because of the interaction of racial and economic injustice, disproportionately white.
There is no easy fix here, no solution as long as we expect each congregation to be largely financially independent from each other one. Nothing short of a redistribution of the church’s resources will allow congregations made up of people living in poverty to have access to full-time pastors and the other resources necessary to do effective ministry.
The reality is that the few congregations in my denomination who are made up of people living in poverty have found extraordinarily creative ways of doing ministry with fewer resources and thrive with extremely dedicated and underpaid clergy in deteriorating buildings. Although their resourcefulness and creativity has introduced the church to new models of doing ministry, they also bear disproportionate burdens that replicate economic inequalities the church claims to oppose.
It’s time for a new model: a stewardship theology that fits our mission priorities.
For More Information
Rev. Lura N. Groen is serving as an intentional interim in the suburbs of Baltimore MD. She previously served Grace Lutheran in Houston Texas, and with Grace, founded Montrose Grace Place, a ministry to vulnerable homeless youth of all sexual orientations and gender identities. She is a proud member of Proclaim and of Decolonize Lutheranism.
Executive Certificate in Religious Fundraising: Luther Seminary, in partnership with the Lake Institute on Faith and Giving, is hosting a four-day intensive course, May 7-10, 2018. Click here for more information.
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