Carol Howard Merritt: Supporting startup congregations

What role does financial independence play in defining a church?

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.