Mainline Decline

2017: What The (White Protestant) Church Must Do

By Rev. Mindi

I read this post shared by an Episcopalian friend this week, and along with some online conversations on “what is the future of the church?” with declining attendance and resources, I’m wondering what has happened to our ecumenical movement? What has happened to our movement for unity?

As an American Baptist pastor married to a Disciples of Christ pastor, I can tell you that not much really separates us. We all do baptism pretty much the same way. We do communion the same way, albeit Baptists tend to only do communion once a month. We aren’t opposed to doing it every Sunday, we just make it out to be more work than it really is. We have some common roots in history. We have faced some of the same struggles on inclusion and diversity in recent years, and as both denominations have taken steps to truly live into God’s ways of love and justice and the teachings of Jesus, some of our more conservative kindred have gone out the door, or have simply stopped talking with us.

And it’s not only American Baptists and Disciples, but Presbyterians, Lutherans, Episcopalians, Methodists, Congregationalists (and other UCC-ers), and the list goes on. While we vary in our ways of baptism and communion and vary in our liturgical rigidness, when we start talking about issues of justice, Black Lives Matter, inclusion of transgender and lesbian, gay, bisexual and other queer folks, and welcoming refugees and immigrants, we have so much in common. I regularly have conversations in ecumenical gatherings of clergy (especially fellow clergy in a similar age range to me, but not always) about the same issues facing our churches. The same issues facing our communities. The same longing to follow Jesus and being held up by resources.

So why oh why oh WHY ARE WE NOT WORKING TOGETHER? Why are we still separated on Sunday mornings? Why is (as the author of the blog post I shared stated) Sunday morning still the most segregated hour, decades after Martin Luther King Jr. called us out on it?

I know I am not the first to say it, but as a response to white privilege and white supremacy, perhaps those of us in the traditional white protestant churches, as we face closing down and shrinking numbers, need to go join a Black church. Perhaps we need to listen to someone else preach on Sunday morning and tell us how to be involved in the community. We can do this within our own denomination to start with.

Secondly, we can join with our kindred down the street. While many of us have “full communion” with other denominations or allow for those of other ordination standards (or none at all!) to preside at the table and at baptism, we do not move beyond those relationships (as again, the author of the blog post I shared stated).

As we enter 2017, the future of the church doesn’t lie in us keeping to ourselves on Sunday morning. If we do that, we will continue to shrink, decline, and close. Those of us who are white Christians need to especially consider giving up our power and ownership of space to join with our Christian kindred of color to truly follow the ways of Jesus (who wasn’t white, as we keep pointing out but fail somehow to truly comprehend). We might find that the church isn’t declining, but thriving, if we give up our own vision of what the church is supposed to look like, and join in God’s vision:

After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. They cried out in a loud voice, saying, “Salvation belongs to our God, and to the Lamb!”

~Revelation 7:9-10

Getting Depressed By Yearbooks, Again (Sort of)

By Jeff Gill

Being a bit of a history geek, I was tracing developments a century ago in the congregation I serve. This had me reading through old Yearbooks, 1914, 1915, 1918, 1923 (they’re all easy to find on Google Books, just look for Christian Church, American Home Missionary, and Yearbook as search terms).

It was kind of, well . . . depressing, in an unexpected way.

Perhaps you remember Derek last year talking about getting his new Disciples Yearbook:

He was, at least at first, a little bummed out. The numbers (with the help of a stats geek friend of his) are cratering for the objective measures, at least, for our institutional life. We’ve gotten a newer Yearbook in the last few weeks, most of us, and the rate of descent is still, in Tom Wolfe’s description of the Mercury astronauts returning to earth, that of a ring of car keys flung onto a parking lot pavement. Anyhow.

Statistically, things 100 years ago were quite different. “Men and Millions” is the big thing back then (yeah, yeah, we’ll come back to that in a moment), and the relatively anonymous writers of most of the content, speaking quite self-consciously as the voice of our Brotherhood (okay, okay, I’m getting to that), are optimistic about being able to mark those millions in almost every category, if not now, then by the end of the decade or so. Remember, this is when a) “The Christian Century” was mainly our sandbox as a publication, and b) we were quite sure we were IN a Christian century. That theme’s been done, but it’s worth noting again.

Today, we have a million of just about nothing. A quarter mil in worship on an average Sunday, maybe realistically half a million members, but that’s probably not true today and won’t be tomorrow. Say 450,000 tops.

As “Men and Millions” was firing up to bring together the multitudinous, various, fractious programs of missions and education and “church extension” (as we called our building campaign and church planting program back then), there is clearly excitement in those long-deceased voices speaking from the page.

“Chief among the benefits accruing to the Society from the Men and Millions Movement is the wide and sympathetic hearing its work was given. Never have the great claims of the American Christian Missionary Society been presented to such multitudes as from the platform of the movement… The Joint Apportionment Committee was devised by the General Convention to mollify evils of competition growing out of multiplied missionary agencies. The Society has from the first championed the work with enthusiasm and its representative has served the committee this year with devotion. The present apportionment plan has failed to correct both the missionary myopia and the ‘lopsidedness’ in our churches. It begins to appear that if the churches are to be apportioned at all, the work should be done by a committee close enough to the local churches to be conversant with their ability… The remarkable results of the ‘Emergency Drive’ of the Men and Millions Movement not only revealed the large financial ability of the Disciples but points the way to better methods of calling it forth. Here again appears the wisdom of the county unit policy in our organizational scheme. The Joint Apportionment Committee is recommending through the Men and Millions Movement, The World-wide Every-Member Canvass, for an all inclusive budget for all the missionary, educational and benevolent agencies, to which the Society gives hearty approval.”

It goes on like that, pages and pages of it, in between the charts and lists and tables.

Sure, it’s dated language. Very Roaring Twenties, the religious side of The Great Gatsby, the not-so-creepy side of Elmer Gantry. But allowing for all that, the thing is: it’s so hopeful. So optimistic. And so certain that things will go a certain way.

And it’s not that they’re just affirming a status quo or a social quietism, either. Recommended reading lists for Sunday school teachers include Jacob Riis, author of “How the Other Half Lives,” and social gospel theologian Walter Rauschenbusch. The wording is most emphatically dated, but the passion is present to minister in minority communities of a wide variety of settings, from Bohemians in Cleveland (no, not those Bohemians) to Philippinos in California.

What the authors of this material don’t know, or are averting their eyes from, is the looming shadow of World War (the book “Preachers Present Arms” came to mind repeatedly); the racism and slavery behind what is called “Negro poverty” is unmentioned, although lynching is decried and economic opportunity is called for; and the eruption in 1920 of the “Fundamentalist-Modernist Controversy” may have begun in Presbyterian circles, but it was clearly visible to Disciples leaders of the day: not so in these pages.

In the authorial tone of the century old Yearbooks, even though self-evidently written by many different hands and with an assortment of styles, the Stone-Campbell churches are one. The Restoration Movement, even though by 1906 clearly divided already between the “a capella” and instrumental branches, is spoken of as a single unified force whose drive and capacity will only flourish as that unity of purpose and action is focused.

The fracturing, of course, was already going on, between cooperatives and independents, progressives and traditionalists, northern and southern ways of being church and doing missions. The role of most minority groups was still, even with the best of intentions, that of being the object of mission efforts, not as autonomous subjects themselves; the role of women was . . . well, it’s complicated, but the Yearbook’s narrative still seems to have much in common with Matthew 14:21, telling us about great things, “not counting women and children.”

Really, it’s amazing how much unity we had for how long, given the depth of the divisions that soon would be revealed. And it’s also got to be the case, I believe, that the shock of what the institutions of our “Fellowship” (or Brotherhood) realized they had supported through the war-fervor against “the Huns” (oh yes they go there, and they go there hard, “threat to civilization” and all that, “enlist now, young men”…), all of which had to have made many if not most of our leaders say “we have to stop pretending.”

Because the tone does start to change in the late Twenties. You can blame it on the Depression, but it starts well before October of 1929. There’s plenty to praise and congratulate one another about in those years, but the relentless boosterism, the almost-manic sunny optimism, recedes. We lose some optimism, but get a bit more realism in our outlook. Sharing good news into America, across the world, is going to be hard, and we probably won’t figure it all out by 1999. The Disciples are starting to come to grips with just how fractured the world is, and that as a movement for wholeness, it’s going to take more than just a plea for unity based on the New Testament model that, frankly, we ourselves didn’t all agree on in detail.

Like Derek, I got depressed, but this time it was from reading those warm, cheery, happy, sunny, not just hopeful but utterly certain Yearbook reports from 1915 and vicinity. Then I had to think about it a while. And as he ultimately realized last year, in the end, we are as Christians, as Disciples of Christ, given a very particular gift, and that is to preach the Gospel to our particular context, in this specific era. (He said it with seven points and different language, but that’s how I took it.)

Who knows how our reports and Mission First! plans will look in 2115. It’s actually kind of helpful to ask that question of my own calling, this congregation’s mission, our denominational issues today. After smiling at the insouciance of 1915’s vision of the future, what will my take on where we’re going right now sound like in a hundred years? And does that tell me anything about what’s really moving towards wholeness in my plans if I ask it from that point of view?

That’s not exactly taking God’s perspective, but it’s getting closer.

Church, Go Back to School!

By Rev. Mindi

We checked in over coffee, talking about the start of the year, about what hadn’t been done over the summer. We shared our frustrations about things that were still the same, and celebrated the changes that have been made and places where we saw hope and opportunity.

We weren’t talking about church; we were talking about school.

Over the course of the conversation, as we talked about our admiration for the younger teachers who seemed to be able to adapt and adjust better, who could multitask and understand the differing needs of today’s children, of all abilities, I couldn’t help but think about church and how so many of the conversations we are having in the public education sphere are almost the same conversations we are having in the church world. While a younger age does not guarantee someone is open to change and adaptation, these observations came from parents at this gathering about younger teachers and administrators:

-Technology is seen as a necessity, not a luxury, especially for students with disabilities, and all students benefit from access to technology.

-They use social media as a teaching tool in the classroom, to share the accomplishments of the school with the public, and to connect with parents and families.

-They are able to multitask and maintain their presence of authority in the classroom, even when there are disruptions and distractions.

-They want to know about students’ lives outside of the classroom—culture, family, interests, progress they are making academically and socially.

 

In contrast, teachers and administrators that are “old school” tend to be:

-Unfamiliar with technology or supports for students with different and unique needs.

-Unfamiliar with social media—even afraid to use it for fear of privacy concerns.

-Using one-size-fits-all models of classroom instruction and behavior expectation.

-Unable to adapt to major changes—want to use same curriculum or method of teaching.

-Struggle with cultures that are different or new to them.

Of course, these are generalizations. Of course, every school is different, every administrator and teacher is different. However, public education in the United States is changing, and these conversations are eerily similar to the conversations I have with my colleagues in ministry.

There are plenty of factors that make a comparison between the church and public school a different one. However, in this conversation with parents, I heard many familiar themes:

-Struggle of an institution stuck in patterns of the past.

-Administrators unable to think outside of the box and try new ideas, or even see the reason for doing something in a different way.

-Teachers not being paid enough to live even near the communities they teach in.

-Not enough resources to go around.

-Access to technology lacking.

-Buildings in dire need of updating, but can’t due to lack of funds.

-Struggle of educating students in a rapidly changing multi-cultural community.

-The number of students on free and reduced lunch rapidly on the rise.

Change “Administrators” to “Administration Board” or whatever your governing body is, change “teachers” to pastors, etc. You get the idea. Our communities are changing with new immigrants and cultures and the number of families at or near the poverty level is on the rise.

What I see that is helpful in this comparison is that change is possible. As part of this group of parents, I am seeing significant change in our school district towards inclusion of students with disabilities. Younger teachers are being hired who are able to multitask and maintain their presence of authority in the classroom. More resources are being invested in technology, including an app for parents to keep up with what is going on at their child’s school and in the district.

At the same time, teacher salaries are low. Teacher turnover is high in the state of Washington, where I live, and more and more teachers are leaving public education altogether. Bonds are not passing at the local level and so buildings are falling into disrepair, and resources are stretched thin. Every year, there are teacher positions that are unfilled by a permanent teacher and instead filled by a substitute, sometimes for the entire year.

The conversation is all too familiar. All too close to home. What can we learn, and what can we do differently?

#MissionSummit2015

By Rev. Mindi

That’s an awfully a long hashtag. American Baptist Churches, USA, we still have a long way to go in using social media effectively.

American Baptist Churches, USA, we still have a long way to go in including our marginalized folks.

However, there was progress made at our biennial gathering in Kansas City last weekend. Besides more people tweeting this time, three out of the four general worship service preachers mentioned inclusion of LGBTQ folks. The first praised the SCOTUS ruling as a just and right ruling. The second said for far too long we have pushed LGBTQ folks out. The third said “If you have a problem with someone’s sexual orientation, go talk to Jesus.”

I know it made some people uncomfortable. I saw the walkouts. But I also recall sitting in far too many American Baptist biennial meetings and walking out with my lesbian and gay, bisexual and transgender friends as they were told, from the pulpit, that they were an abomination, full of sin and bound for hell. I have walked out to comfort so many with tears from the pain and violence of exclusion. So for those who felt they had to walk out, I didn’t have much sympathy. As another friend said, “For now, we get to stay.”

For now.

We still have a long way to go. As Baptists, we believe in Soul Freedom, and that means that I cannot tell you what to believe, and you cannot tell me what to believe. It means that you and your church are free to determine your theology and your stances on issues, and me and my church are free to determine our theology and stances. That is how it should be. And at times it may be uncomfortable when we express our Soul Freedom in ways that bump up against each other.

But will this progress continue? Will the ending of exclusion actually happen? Will our LGBTQ friends feel safe in attending a Biennial gathering without worrying about the threat of vitriol from the pulpit?

We still have a long way to go. We claimed #BlackLivesMatter from the pulpit but have yet to come out with a unified voice to work on racism within our own congregations and communities. Many of us signed a statement pledging to work on anti-racism but met resistance from some who felt it didn’t do anything. Thank goodness our outgoing President viewed this as an opportunity and read the letter from the pulpit, and we can continue the work long beyond our Mission Summit. You can read the Epistle of Metanoia from the 2015 Mission Summit here.

We still have a long way to go. We have fabulous young preachers who shared their gifts in the Festival of Young Preachers and young seminarians getting ready to enter the search process, but so many churches are cutting back salaries and opportunities. There are pastors retiring but then staying on or taking another church in their retirement instead of encouraging congregations to take the opportunity to call a young pastor. And as I’ve shared before, our definition of “young” sometimes stretches well into middle-ages, leaving the truly young pastors still looking for a call.

We have made progress. I believe it. I left with a lot of hope for our future and actual excitement about attending our next Biennial “Mission Summit” Gathering as American Baptists. But until we call younger pastors, have younger leadership represented at our national gatherings and in our national leadership, and work to include those who have been pushed to the margins because it makes some of us uncomfortable, we still have a long way to go.

Inside Out

By Rev. Mindi

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…

There stood a church by a major road that said they wanted to grow. They had a beautiful old building and everyone in the community knew exactly where the church was, but few knew there was a congregation that still met there. They tried making better signs, but still, people zoomed by in their cars. Sometimes, people would stop and visit, and now and then some would stay and join the church. This congregation was not too small, but not very big. They held a Bible study and a youth group and four Sunday school classes. Still, they said they wanted to grow.

And yet… the church did not grow very much. Some were puzzled by this. Others were concerned, worried about finances. Most didn’t know what to do, except to say that they needed to advertise more. The church often said they wanted to grow, and immediately afterwards would add, “But we don’t want to be a megachurch.”

The church had traditions it practiced for years—a yearly retreat, a Christmas party—but the folks who had been there a long time never talked about what they were. The folks who had been there for a long time lamented that the new folks never came on the retreat. The newer folks said they were never invited, and they didn’t know where it was or what happened on the retreat. The Christmas party was held year after year, and everyone knew what they were supposed to bring except the new folks, who felt out of place if they came at all.

But the kicker was the time the church leadership purchased new mugs with the church logo, but gave them only to members and told the pastor and the greeters not to give them to any new people that day, because they were a gift for the church.

The church claimed to want to grow, but what it really wanted was to stay the same and not die. It wanted to keep the people they already had, and while they were friendly they were slow to welcome newer people into leadership, and sometimes those newer people faded away after a few years.

Sound familiar?

Maybe that church isn’t so far, far away after all, but way too close to home. We have become an internal institution with insider speak, hell-bent (for lack of a better term) on sticking to what we know because we don’t know what else to do. We don’t want to die, but we don’t want to do what it takes to change, because it means we have to change, and it means that the whole understanding of church we grew up with has to be turned inside out.

The first place to start is to stop. Stop using insider language. Start from within and work on moving outward. Start making sure that traditions are explained and not assumed. Start by assuming that not everyone always knows what everyone is talking about. The worst place insider language is used is in the talk of church membership. We assume everyone knows what membership means and why it is important. Even in my current church setting, though I have invited people to become a member almost every Sunday, it was only recently that someone who has been part of the church for a long time asked me about what it means to be a member and wanted to know if they could join. Even our membership language is insider language that needs to be turned inside out.

Next, look at those traditions and see if they are only practiced by a few (usually the folks who have been there a long time) and if it is time to start something new. Then look to moving outward. Moving ministries from inside the building, inside the time constraints, inside the leadership that has always done things one way at one time in one place and move back into the community.

We have to turn the church inside out in order for the church to be what it was intended to be: the body of Christ, the community of faith.


“But what about the people who have been here for so long? What about the people who have been part of this church their whole lives?”

When I’m asked that question, I often ask the person who is questioning me if they have talked to the senior generations in the church. In all of the ministries I have served, the oldest generation in the church has never been afraid of change—because everything already has changed.

We need to speak the truth. We need to stop talking about growing if we really just want things to stay the same. If we are the ones afraid of changing, then we must turn that fear inside out into hope. And if there is just one thing to change, one thing to start that you can do, its stopping our insider language.

Change and Control

By Rev. Mindi

Recently I was part of a conversation with someone about a local nonprofit advocacy organization. The local nonprofit has had ups and downs but is less than three years old. It’s doing amazingly well for a new program. And yet, they told me that one of the founding board members feels the organization should fold because “it’s fizzling out. No one wants to be involved.”

I and others look around and see the amazing work this organization is doing, how it is reaching new people all the time, and wonder how in the world a founding member could say that. Then we realized that this founding member is tired and doesn’t want to be involved any longer, but does not want to see the organization proceed without them, and does not like the direction it is going with the new folks that have become part of it.

Immediately a little bell rang in the back of my head. This is just like church.

A lot of churches have people who are on the governing board who have been part of the congregation for a long, long time. They remember how great the church used to be, and all the programs it once had, and all the things they used to do—and because the church is no longer doing them, the church is fizzling out. Dying. Even if new people are coming in.

Now, we all know churches that hold on so dearly in hopes of not dying that they don’t ever change and eventually do end up closing. But I have seen a few churches in which those in leadership clung so tightly and were ready to have the church close and die as long as the hymns didn’t change. As long as the pastor they loved could bury them. As long as they could still sit in the same pew. And the leadership board never changed because they never asked anyone new, or made assumptions that new people couldn’t fulfill the commitments.

I guard against jumping to the conclusion that this is all elderly people in the church. Some of the greatest supporters for change in every church I have ever served and in many churches I have known have been my 80+ folks. While they love the old hymns they haven’t been afraid of trying a new song, or a new way of worship, or a new way of community involvement, even if they cannot participate at the same level any longer. I have found it doesn’t matter what age the person is; what matters is control.

Are those in leadership willing to let go of having control and allowing room for the Spirit to guide change in the congregation? Are we willing to let go of having control and allow room for new people with new ideas, insights and energy to move an organization forward? Are we willing to let go of “my way” or “our way” or “the right way?” And perhaps the greater question, for both the nonprofit organization and for our churches is this: can we be part of something we don’t have control of?

I see churches closing, but I also see a number of churches managing a great shift, from inward focusing to outward focusing, to finding new ways of being part of the ever-changing communities we are in. While these congregations may dwindle in numbers on Sunday morning, the impact they are making on the community is increasing tremendously. Making this shift does not mean these churches won’t close; but it does mean they gave the opportunity for the Spirit to be at work.

Churches, community organizations, nonprofits and others can learn from this: when we try to control and put our vision in place as the right one, it may work for a while but eventually it will fail. Because the Spirit works in community (we see this all the time in the book of Acts). The Spirit works when we come together and build vision together. When we try to maintain control, we have lost sight of the work of the Spirit among us. When we only have the same people, the vision grows stale. Leadership must change and grow, just as the church or organization must change and grow, and just as the community already is changing and growing.

Trust the Spirit; trust the process; trust that new leadership in the church will not let it fail. Even if they don’t do all the things you once did. Even if they don’t continue all the programs you did. Even if they come up with something very different than what your vision of the church should be. Trust the Spirit, and trust that new leaders will be open to the movement of the Spirit of God just as you are.

Grow up, Grownups!

By Rev. Mindi

I went to hear a prominent Christian speaker today and she was excellent.  She spoke about our current cultural dynamics, broken down by generation and religious affiliation, and that the future of the church is now. 

The speaker mentioned how those in the 18-29 age range are adults.

Then an older woman made the comment, “Legally.”

SERIOUSLY?

And we wonder why millennials are not in the church?

Right after the woman made that comment, several people shouted back, “NO” to the woman, and “They are adults!” The speaker confirmed gently that yes, they are adults and we need to reframe our thinking.

But this comment by one woman is a symptom of a much greater problem in the church. The fact is, we treat young adults like they are children and what used to be middle-age like they are adolescents.

Look at your church board. Is there anyone under 40 on it? Anyone under 30?

I have seen this happen in the churches I have served. As a young pastor, I’ve been called “kid” many times. Ironically, when my hairdresser recently asked me about coloring my hair I said no. I need my grays that are streaking in. However, the larger issue is that regularly, people in their 30’s and 40’s in the churches I have served and known are referred to as kids (because everyone probably remembers when they were kids and their parents probably still attend that church), but what’s worse, they are often treated like kids.  I have seen adults in their 70’s and 80's scold the 40-year-olds in the church over various things—their attire, their tattoos, the way they teach Sunday School—and we wonder why even younger adults are not there.

We have to stop this symptom. We have to change our attitudes. We have to treat millennials and Gen-Xers as adults. Gen-Xers are middle-aged. Millennials vote and work.  We are adults. We have a vested interest—perhaps even more than others—in the future of the church and if we are not included right now, treated with equal value and respect—then why in the world would we want to stay in an institution that doesn’t treat us this way?

This symptom, of course, is a symptom of a greater issue—power and control. I remember in a previous church a group of young 30-somethings complaining about some of the decision-making in the church and how they were excluded from it. Even though they served on the board, their ideas were dismissed and opinions ignored. They often joked, “When we get to be their age, then we can be ornery and stubborn and make the church the way we want it!” That was said tongue-in-cheek, but it reflected the behavior of the boomers and the seniors in the church leadership at that time.

We shouldn’t divide on generational lines, and as was shared by another participant in this conversation, the church is one of the last institutions that can be truly intergenerational and was intended to be that way. There is value of all people of all generations being together, and we know the value of diversity within those generations. But all too often, we are dismissing “younger” adults as not being an adult, not capable of participating or making decisions or being trustworthy or having the right skills. News flash: if your church is in decline and all your leadership is above fifty, you might want to consider that you may not have the right skills for leadership today.

We cannot change all of the reasons why younger adults are leaving the church, or why they haven’t come in the first place (that would take another article, plus we would need to address the assumption that we still need to get people in to the church, and that perhaps we need to rethink our models of church, but I digress). But we can do better. The first step is changing our attitudes about younger adults. The second is to be intentionally intergernational and to break down our stereotypes of all generations.  It’s going to take all of us, together, to nip this in the bud.

Clergy Compensation, Debt, and Poverty

By Rev. Mindi

There have been a number of articles about clergy compensation in the past few days. First, there was this article in the Atlantic on the Vanishing of the Middle Class Clergy, followed by a response in the Christian Century “Pastors in Poverty” from Carol Howard Merritt, then a number of responses on several blogs and on Facebook.

I have only served in Disciples and American Baptist congregations. The region that my first two churches were in published a minimum suggested salary for starting pastors. My salary never met the minimum requirement in either church, and the first church I served was a well-known and well-off suburb church. The housing allowance offered did not even cover a studio apartment. Not only did I have to have roommates, but now out of seminary my student loans from college were due, and once meeting my rent, my share of the utilities (this was just electricity and heat and phone—we did not have cable), my student loans, my car payment and insurance—I had $175 left. That was to pay my food, my gas, and any other expenses. Thank God I did not have a medical emergency. Unfortunately, my used car did have a few repairs that had to be made. So what did I do? I opened a credit card.

With only $175 a month to live on after bills, I only paid the minimum on the credit card, meaning my debt accumulated drastically. I began babysitting on my days off to earn extra money. But by the time I met my husband, I had almost $4000 worth of credit card debt.

I did not have loans from seminary—I was fortunate enough to not only have great financial aid from my seminary, but the wonderful financial aid officer at my seminary would put a little note in my box about every single scholarship or grant opportunity she came across, and I applied for them all. I also worked two part-time jobs (three the year I did Field Education, as I received a stipend for Field Ed). My student loans were not from seminary, but from college.

Contrary to popular belief and even the line on the FAFSA (the Free Application for Federal Student Aid form), there was no great contribution from my parents—my dad paid my application deposit, my mom paid my books every year and my plane tickets home—and that is because my parents were not able to contribute more than that.  I had two scholarships and a grant and I still had to take out loans to go to college. Poor begets poor. There is no leg up or hand out simply because we receive financial aid.

My salary and compensation package from my first church did not cover my expenses. After I graduated and later married my husband, also a seminarian with a lot of student debt from seminary, we had difficulty keeping up. We had to borrow from another credit card in order to pay taxes and make our bills. The good news was that we had a lower interest rate and therefore were able to borrow to pay off the higher interest rate cards I had borrowed on.

It wasn’t until my second calling that I finally received a salary that we could live on. And by living I mean we met our bills every month and we started to pay down the credit card debt. We even opened a savings account. Still, we did not meet the minimum salary requirement of my region.

Both churches had the ability to meet the minimum salary requirements, but chose not to for one main reason: they were afraid of running out of money. Budgets were tight and they were afraid that paying me too much would stretch them too thin. Never mind that in both locations, I made less than others with a college degree in our neighborhood (and I had a Master of Divinity). But both congregations were not in a do-or-die mode. Both had endowments, both had savings, both were running a balanced budget. But fear of not having enough made them hold back on their resources, unwilling to meet even the minimum recommendations.

Now I am serving part-time in a small American Baptist congregation in a different region. What I have seen happen over the last ten years is a dramatic decrease in salary and benefits across the country. More churches are unable to meet a minimum requirement because they cannot. Their endowments and savings have dried up.  I am serving a church that has simply run out of money. Members are no longer able to tithe what they used to.  The church needs a full-time pastor but cannot afford one. Instead, I give about the same amount of time I would to a full-time position, but receive only half-time pay. I am grateful my husband receives a full-time package, but it is by serving two churches to create a full-time position. And we have a son with a disability. It seems that we may never get out of the cycle of debt.

The truth is it is not only the pastors who are becoming poorer but the middle class is disappearing all around us. My church cannot afford to pay me a full-time salary and is being stretched thin on a half-time salary because most of the church cannot afford it any longer. Credit card debt is rising. The number of people in the community I serve that live on food stamps and other government resources is rising. While pastors are becoming poorer, so are all of the people around me.

This is not just a pastor problem, this is not just a church problem; this is a problem for us collectively as followers of Jesus: the poor are getting poorer. We can call upon churches to pay more but in many cases that is not possible. We can call upon our people to give more but in many cases that is not possible.

The question we should be asking is much more difficult: how do we tackle poverty? How do we tackle the cycle of debt that many individuals and families in America face today? We are not college kids taking out credit cards to buy stuff we can’t afford, as the media might suggest: we are people who go into debt in order to survive. We are not addressing this question adequately at all.

We have not worked towards a solution to the growth in poverty and debt. The poor are getting poorer, the rich are getting richer, which is the antithesis of Mary’s Magnificat: “He has filled the hungry with good things, and has sent the rich away empty” (Luke 1:53).

We must work to alleviate poverty and debt, for all people. This must become a collective responsibility. Pastoral compensation must become a collective responsibility of the church, and poverty and debt must become a collective responsibility of us all. 

A New Set of Eyes: Discovering God’s Vision

by Billy Doidge Kilgore

A few years ago, I interviewed with a search committee for an associate pastor position. As I was answering their questions, a well dressed and refined elderly woman asked me a sharp, direct question. "What do you have to offer this church?" Feeling caught off guard, I scrambled to think of something to say. After hesitation on my part, she said, "I bet you could offer us a new set of eyes." Around the table I heard snickers, because some thought she was making a joke about the graying of the congregation.

To the contrary, she was making a serious observation. She went on, "As a young adult, I bet you could help us to see our ministry from a new perspective. If you are given the opportunity to be our associate pastor, I hope you will use your unique experiences in life to help us better understand how to minister to the world around us." Sensing her wisdom and authority, I nodded my head and agreed. Her words still stick with me today, as I think about what it means to be the Church. God's people are at their best when they are eager to see the world through the eyes of others. Jesus spent a great deal of his time inviting those who gathered around him to see the world through the eyes of others, especially the poor, downtrodden and marginalized. Our faith grows and deepens as we step into the shoes of those who are different from us.

Do you think it would make a difference if your congregation made the effort to see the world through many different eyes? I am not asking you to look at the stereotypes that our culture often uses to describe groups of people, but to make an effort to stand in the shoes of individuals who are often complex and multifaceted. Ask yourself what life is like for a young adult, a gay or lesbian person, an unemployed person, a homebound person, a person outside the Church, or a person of another ethnicity. I am willing to bet that if a congregation empathizes with those who are different than their average member, it would reshape their ministries for the better. 

A large part of our struggle as mainline Protestant congregations is our unwillingness to see the world through the eyes of others. Recently, I met with a group of faithful church people who happened to be significantly older than me. As a young adult in the Church, I have grown accustomed to my interests and concerns being underrepresented in church meetings. After I finished introducing myself to the group, a middle-aged person said to me in a dismissive tone, "How old are you? You don't look old enough to be a pastor." This individual's tone suggested that not only did I not have the experience to be part of the group, but I did not have anything of value to offer. As I tried to remain calm, I thought to myself, "Yes, you're right. The last thing the Church needs is the voice of a young adult at the table. It is doing such a wonderful job of attracting people my age on its own!"

I wonder if this condescending remark could have been avoided if this person had dared to see the Church through the eyes of a young adult. This individual's limited perspective is part of a larger mindset that is driving young adults away from our congregations. The reality is that young adults have much to offer. In case you are wondering what a young adult sees when they look at your church, let me offer you some perspective. Often, we see churches that are either trying too hard to attract younger generations by turning the church into entertainment centers with large screens, high-energy bands and perfectly constructed stages, or congregations that are not trying at all and seem content to pretend we are still living in 1955. As a young adult, I don't want to participate in either one of these congregations. Instead, I am seeking a congregation that is willing to engage the 21st century, foster deep relationships, minister beyond its four walls, and dare to share God's love with everybody.

I believe that if the Church wants to thrive in the 21st century, especially amongst Generation X and Millennials, it must boldly look through the eyes of others. It is in the intersection between those currently in the pews, and the needs, interests and dreams of those outside the church walls that we will encounter the living God and discover the future vision many of our congregations desperately need. Then, the Church will have no other choice but to let this holy energy spill over our walls and into the world.

Billy Doidge Kilgore is an ordained minister in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and affiliated with the United Church of Christ through an ordained partnership. Billy blogs at ourdeepestselves.com.

The Problem is the Answer

By J.C. Mitchell

I grew up in the Roman Catholic tradition, which for my family was more of an ethnic identifier than a faith community.  The church was there for special rituals in life, but it wasn’t until I lived in Ireland that I discovered a more intense relationship and thus I began my search for church in my adult years. 

I will never forget the great performances done by my peers in Connecticut through the Walter Shock School of Dance.  I had only participated in ballroom dancing, as everyone in my town of affluence did, but I simply enjoyed the larger theatric performances.  I can recall the time break dancers came to our school, and when we went to see a Soviet dance company share mostly traditional dances.  This started my love of dance that brought me to love ballet.

So both of these important parts of my life now were not part of my formative years.  Most people that love dance as an adult danced as a child, and constantly in the church I hear about youth church camp experiences and/or how one was raised in the church.  Neither of these is true for me, but that doesn’t make me any less of a fan, and the best fans are actually critics.  I think there is a unique perspective from those who discover church as an adult rather than those who have grown up with it. There is an outside appreciation that may be overlooked. The same may be said of fans of dance who were not dancers in their youth—there is something unique that draws them in.

Recently I was reading Jennifer Homans’ Appollo’s Angels: A History of Ballet, and when I read these words about ballet, I could not help but also think of the church:

Today’s artists [PASTORS]—their students and heirs—have been curiously unable to rise to the challenge of their legacy. They seem crushed and confused by its iconoclasm and grandeur, unable to build on its foundation yet unwilling to throw it off in favor of a vision of their own. Contemporary choreography [WORSHIP] veers aimlessly from unimaginative imitation to strident innovation—usually in the form of gymnastic or melodramatic excess, accentuated by overzealous lighting and special effects. This taste for unthinking athleticism and dense thickets of steps, for spectacle and sentiment, is not the final cry of a dying artistic era; it represents a collapse of confidence and a generation ill at ease with itself and uncertain of its relationship to the past.[i]

I read this over and over, and I could not help but change the word artists with pastors and choreography with worship.  And I must say this applies equally to ballet as it does to the church.

Is this a pure coincidence? 

 Is this a problem of post-modernity? 

Is this a problem of consumerism? 

Is it a problem at all? 

Honestly I think there is more hope for ballet, for it is an artistic form that can explore the divine and humanism equally with no dogma, while the church has found itself stuck in a battle of dogma rather than following the one that preached against organized religion: that Rabbi Jesus.  But maybe we can take the forms and discipline of church, as with ballet, to new and very different ways we cannot even imagine.

Perhaps we can remember in both dance and church, but more importantly in life, what George Balachine asks, “Why are you stingy with yourselves? Why are you holding back? What are you saving for—for another time? There are no other times. There is only now. Right now.”

 

 

 

 

 

[i]Homans, Jennifer (2010-11-02). Apollo's Angels: A History of Ballet (Kindle Locations 10507-10512). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.