I’ve had it about up to here with the endless articles and forums talking about why the Church in the West is in decline. And its not because they’re wrong. We’re losing numbers. We’re losing money. We’re losing parishes. The outlook isn’t great for our denominational structures right now. And nothing that we’re doing in response to this makes any sense.
We’ve got Joseph over our shoulder telling us about lean years ahead, and we’re calling committees about whether or not we should maybe build some silos.
This way of being isn’t just the Church’s problem. I’m really concerned that we in the West are losing the capacity for making strategic sacrifices in the short term for the sake of our collective long term health. Our inaction around Climate Change is case in point, but its not the only example. The Great Recession, infrastructure backlogs, even Congressional deadlock are all symptoms of the same underlying issue.
We’re hamstrung by self-interest. And why wouldn’t we be? A good number of people are making a good bit of money off of the way things are. Even in the Church. We are more willing than ever to fork over big numbers for Church growth gurus, “dynamic” clergy, and pre-packaged programming. Whether they know it or not, and I’m sure most of them don’t, a good number of the leaders in our Church are profiting from our collective fear of decline. And we’re more than happy to let them.
Lessons from the Middle of a Hurricane.
I used to spend a lot of time in Southern California. When folks out there heard I was from Florida they would always ask about how scary the weather was. Didn’t Hurricanes make me nervous? All those high winds and storm surges… I never really understood the question. These people who are more than happy to tell me that earthquakes are “no big deal” are worried about Hurricanes?
Earthquakes can happen anytime, and without warning. You get to see a hurricane coming for weeks. You even get to know about how strong that hurricane is going to be, and have more than enough time to respond appropriately. If you didn’t board your windows when a cat 4 was coming through, that was your fault. (There are exceptions, like Katrina and Andrew. Although most of the damage from Katrina can be blamed on poor preparation and differed maintenance on the part of the Army Corp of Engineers and the City of New Orleans.)
Hell, once we got the windows boarded and the lawn furniture inside we threw parties. We rested well knowing that we were prepared. So we poured a few drinks, and waited for the storm to blow in.
Eventually you get so good at the process that it only takes a few hours. The boards are pre-cut. The generator’s oil is fresh and the fuel is treated. The hurricane kit is stocked and ready to go. It becomes a way of being. Just a fact of living in a sub-tropical climate.
A New Way of Being Means a New Way of Doing.
So the storm is coming. We can all see it coming. We can see it’s going to be pretty bad… We can either make preparing for the storm a way of being now, or we can open up the windows and leave the lawn darts out.
Here are a few places where I think we can start preparing in earnest: (And I’m going to be painfully practical about it.)
1.) Stop spending down the principal on our endowments.
If we don’t touch that money it will last forever. Take the earnings and spend it with impunity, but every time that principal takes a hit, that money is really difficult to get back. Our endowments are the hold over of giving habits that just don’t exist anymore. I sincerely doubt they will exist again. My generation is making less money than our parents did. We have more debt. We give substantially less. That money may be the only reason the doors stay open a few decades from now.
2.) Build for ease of maintenance and longevity.
Buildings are money-pits par excellence. (I know, I’ve got one.) Time and time again I’ve seen people make decisions about building and maintaining churches that they would not make for their own homes. There are a number of exciting new materials on the shelves at home depot that are a lot easier to care for, and that last a lot longer than their predecessors. Yes, they come at a premium, and they tend to not be as pretty as the alternatives. But when your parish has a steel roof that’s held strong for 30 years, they will be praising your prowess and forward-thinking, instead of cursing their need to re-shingle yet again.
3.) Clergy, we’ve got to get serious about restructuring our compensation.
This is a post unto itself… All I can say now is this; We can either get proactive and work to restructure our compensation on our terms, or we can hold on tighter and tighter to what we have until it gets restructured for us. We can’t sit up and say that we’re willing to lead the Church into a new way of being when we’re insistent on getting paid the same way we have since the 1940’s.
All Growth is Local.
You’ll notice that none of these suggestions are addressed at General Convention, or even at Diocesan bodies, and that’s for a reason. Whatever we do to restructure the Church for the future is going to have to happen at the Parish level. This one is on us. Its on Parish clergy. Its on Vestries. Its on Lay leaders. We’ve got to become counter-cultural pockets of active hope that are sure in the Truth we live on, and are willing to make the hard calls to preserve our mission into the years to come. This isn’t just about maintaining an institution. It’s about making sure that the people who come after us have a better set of tools to serve the world than our predecessors gave us.
There’s a lot to all of this. And its worth spilling the ink. But for the love of God, please stop telling me that the Church is dying, and let’s start talking about how we should live.