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January 17, 2012

Carol Howard Merritt: Supporting startup congregations

I learned in seminary that a church is a place where we proclaim the word and administer the sacraments. I’m now learning there’s another criterion: financial sustainability.

When does a new immigrant fellowship or a young church development become a “church”? It’s not when hundreds of people worship together, hearing the word and partaking in the sacraments. It’s when those people can support a budget.

It’s odd, especially in light of the fact that most of our congregations would not be financially independent if it weren’t for the kindness of previous generations. Existing congregations have been blessed with property, buildings and (sometimes) endowments that have been passed onto our generation.

It’s also strange since we began as a church with people sharing all things in common and we describe ourselves as an interconnected body. Now we’ve become a place where financial autonomy and independence has become the key to making it.

Where did this idea that church needs to be self-sustaining come from?

Partly from simple pragmatism. Once a community becomes a church in full standing, we have certain obligations to pay the pastor a fair wage and benefits. We want strong, vibrant congregations, and a stable budget can reflect part of that vitality.

The other part comes from a broader cultural expectation (particularly from the middle class) that financial independence is a key goal of adulthood and success. What is happening with new immigrant fellowships and new church developments often mirrors what is going on in our larger societal conversation about adulthood.

I was shocked to hear a story about “Boomerang Kids” on the Diane Rehm Show. The show was about adults, from 25 to 34, moving back in with their parents. Not only was the program title calling 34-year-olds “kids,” but Carolyn Hax (a Washington Post columnist) repeatedly referred to 23 or 25-year-old adults as “kids.”

Why on earth would a 34-year-old adult be referred to as a “kid” by some of the most reputable media outlets in our country? Because the subject was about sons and daughters moving back in with their parents after college. They don’t gain status as adults until they have financial independence, a marriage certificate or a mortgage. (If you listen to the show, you can hear the cultural differences. Many of the people of color who spoke did not have the same ideals as the white experts.)

Likewise, some sociologists are scrambling to add a new phase to adulthood -- extended adolescence -- to describe young people who can’t “settle down” with a job, a house and a family.

The problem is, in our church and in our society, there’s a huge financial crisis negatively impacting full-grown adults and churches. Complete financial independence is no longer possible in our current economic climate.

When we see pictures of men eating at a soup kitchen during the Great Depression, do we think of them as less than adults? Do we imagine the churches in Acts as less than church? Why is financial independence the key to adulthood and our definition of church?

The current crisis does not have to do with how responsible, smart, generous, hard-working young adults are. It has to do with the fact that they have been burdened with huge educational debts, high housing costs, limited access to medical care and an increased cost of living. It is because wages have gone down and the unemployment rate is as high for young adults as it was during the Great Depression.

New churches often reach out to young adults, new immigrants and diverse communities. And it’s not as easy for them to become financially independent. The challenge of starting congregations often reflects what’s going on with our larger society.

Can we imagine a church where we can share resources? Where our definition of “church” does not depend on financial independence? Where a community’s status as a “congregation” is not based on how much money it has?

If we can, not only will we begin to model what a new generation will need in order to bear this financial crisis, but we may also have much more theologically sound congregations.

Carol Howard Merritt is pastor of Western Presbyterian Church in Washington DC and author of "Tribal Church" (Alban). She blogs at tribalchurch.org.


Why be independent?

Hey Carol,
Great blog. I'm a second pastor in a nomadic church that rents a school and sets up and tears down every week. We've done a capital campaign and are in the process of saving for a building. Many in our church are realizing now as they drive by other church buildings that someone in the past gave that building as a gift to that current church community!

I wonder if there isn't another question here to be contemplated. Why be independent to begin with? Why not remain connected in some very organic ways? Why not retain the same leadership structure? Why not have one set of trustees for many churches? Why not have one finance team? Why not build satellites rather than "independent" churches?

One of the fundamental practicalities we're dealing with in United Methodist polity is that we require a full-time clergy with all the base salary requirements that go with it. But a satellite of an already existing church could hire a bi-vocational (or volunteer) "lay pastor" and side-step the whole morass of those polity issues. Sounds like John Wesley all over again!

Clergy, Music, and Space

We've professionalized religious leadership (I'm working on a PhD, so I'm not complaining; I'm just sayin'). We've professionalized music ministries. We've insisted on specialized spaces for our liturgies. Oh, and in the US, we won't accept direct state monies though we like the tax break. This is all incredibly expensive...and congregations take pride in being able to provide these things for themselves...

Money assumptions

Thanks for challenging our unrecognized assumptions, once again, Carol. As mainline church finds itself at the cultural margins, it is necessary to ask what aspects of the dominant culture we took on from the days when we were popular. We are still holding on tightly to professional class financial expectations when it comes to deciding what makes a church and what makes a call to a church. It seems to me that the time is right to let go of some of these assumptions.

The problem is not so much

The problem is not so much the idea of financial sustainability or independence (which is linked to any congregational ecclesiology). The problem is the expensive "pieces" we have added on to our ecclesiologies -- expensive buildings, expensive staff, etc. Reduce those and the needs for financial sustainability become manageable, even for "marginal" churches.

Our churches are like "silos"

When I was teaching at the University of Cincinnati colleges were often referred to as silos -- each had its budget line and had to fight for its money from the state. As I observe our churches in a presbytery or synod or the nation they too are like silos. We somehow need to break through our "silo" mentality and work to build a stronger, broader community of people who call themselves Christians. Professional salaries are important so people can live, feed their families, etc. But perhaps we need to think through who does what and when and where for their pay. I don't have any good answers yet, but you definitely are asking the right questions.

An Alternate Economy

It is perhaps time for us to start taking seriously the idea that the church is supposed to be an alternate kingdom, an alternate society to the one that dominates this world, where the rules are different. In Acts everything is shared, not out of charity, but because that is the way it is supposed to work in God's kingdom. Everyone gets fed. No one goes hungry.

Perhaps the realization that we cannot survive living in the ways of the world will encourage us to consider a more dramatic and widespread sharing of resources. Many people such as myself would be content to live a very simple lifestyle if debt was relieved and necessities were ensured. Many churches could do a lot of creative ministry if they weren't convinced they needed land and facilities and giant parking lots. Many congregations could support several house churches and small fellowships if they weren't maintaining an organ. etc...

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