Tuesday, March 29, 2005

"It's Money that Matters...."

I started this rant over at Eschaton, but realized it was something I wanted to say something about, even though it is very "inside baseball." It began with this, from Professor Wombat:
That's why docs tend to circle the wagons rather than welcome the outside world. It's sad, really. They isolate themselves. And that's not why the best of them went into medicine, and that's not what most people want in a doctor.
Sadly, this analysis is not limited to doctors. It has become a commonplace of caregivers (and perhaps this is where it can be universalized) that money is what matters in the relationship; that price and value and cost and expense, have come to rule everything in ways that are absolutely shredding some of the fabric of our society. In short, we really do put profits above people; and, as much as we deny it, we continue to do it.

I know from my own experience that Protestant ministers face the same pressures as doctors. As their congregations shrink, their denominations, through whatever judicatory they have, press the pastors for more money (which aging churches cannot produce, for obvious reasons). This presses the pastors, who feel they must "compete" for parishioners. This pressure comes not just from the judicatories, but from the congregation as well, and from the culture.

The "mega-church" is, everyone "knows," the new model for the institution of the church. It is the sign of the "new Reformation" that even the most traditional Protestants think we have to embrace if "church" is to survive. (I have a good friend who is wiser than this. A pastor since he graduated seminary, at the same time I took my first graduate degree, he knows the future of the church is in congregations, not in judicatories or "mega-churches." He counts the number of such churches he has seen rise and fall in his time in ministry; while the small churches he pastors continue year after year, decade after decade, and sometimes past the century mark). It is well known, at least among church professionals, that mega-churches lose as many members as they attract; that the reason they spend so much on billboards and TV ads and broadcast, is that they need the money coming in from fresh pockets to pay for the billboards and the TV ads and the broadcasts. It's a vicious circle, but a profitable one, at least for a few.

But I was speaking of the isolation of the pastor: faced with the decline of congregations, and the likelihood that her church is dominated by people of retirement age, such churches face a "generation gap," an idea society left behind in the '60's, but one the churches continue to struggle with. When Mom and Dad still want to dominate and control "their" church, their children tend to leave church, or find another church. The younger church may or may not thrive financially (the "builder" generation is known for its generosity; the "boomer" generation for its stinginess), but both lose a great deal from the division. Some pastors are permitted to straddle that divide; some are not. And still the judicatory wants the money.

And so pastors wind up isolated. Their "work" is measured more and more by how many programs they implement, how many members they visit in homes and hospitals, how often they are at church when the doors are opened. Time to work with pastoral colleagues is limited; and every pastor has her hands full with the needs, demands, worries, and pressures of her congregation. Which is not thriving; or is not thriving enough; or is thriving too much. One of the problems of modern society is the breakdown of community, a situation T.S Eliot identified in the 1920's (in the "Choruses from 'The Rock'"), so it isn't new. But with that breakdown, the pressure is on the church to provide "community" where neighborhoods and cities don't, any longer. And it is a burden that falls, more and more, on the pastor. Who must keep the institution alive, keep it thriving, or surely be blamed for its struggle.

Because the only model for church now, is the business model: new members = "success." Falling membership = "failure." Whether or not the members actually give money is not even important; whether or not they come to church is often not even important (too many new faces! too many new people!). In fact, if money is a problem, that's the pastors fault, too. Her "job" is to inspire the congregation to give. If they don't feel so moved, why should they feel responsible? Which further isolates the pastor, until he becomes a football coaches without a football teams (because everybody wants to sit in the stands, nobody wants to play the game; they'd all rather watch you play).

Sociologist describe this as a group phenomenon: it takes less energy to be a member of the Church of Belonging than to be a member of the Church of Meaning and Belonging. Being social creatures, belonging obviously pays easy dividends to us; but belonging only if we acquire meaning requires effort, and quickly becomes too much effort. Far easier to belong, than to mean.

So pastors go into ministry because of meaning; but find the institution is all about belonging. They go into ministry to be part of the world, and find out the congregation is only interested in preserving their own bell-jar world. These things are not always or wholly true, but they are true enough, and wide-spread enough to be accurate. And the pressure now, more and more, comes from money. Churches are always a reflection of their culture, and American culture is all about money, and not much about anything else. Why can't we care for our elderly and retired? Money? Why can't we provide adequate healthcare to all? Money? Why do politicians hold onto office for a lifetime? Money. Are churches about bearing witness to the good news and being places of comfort and community to anyone who enters? Or are they about money?

Some questions answer themselves.*

*no, it isn't this simple, and yes, concluding that way is satisfying, but a cheap shot; and yes, there are remedies. But the problem lies in the culture, not just in the institutions. Consider this an opening toward developing a further line of discussion.

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