An Economy of Grace
Some thoughts that have been rattling around in my brain…
I’ve preached a number of times over the past couple of years on what I would call a theology of “giving ourselves away” (I think I have also blogged a bit about this, too). What I mean is, perhaps more than sacrificial living, that we are called to give generously to the point of not necessarily seeing an outcome, but risking all that we have on others who may or may not thank us for what we’ve given.
I bring this up because All Saints is at the end of its first year of part-time ministry – or, at least, part-time salary paid for ministry – and we’re entering into our second year of part-time ministry. It has meant a few difficult decisions, this year, and it’ll mean a few more difficult decisions over the coming year: what continues and what doesn’t? …what is key to our existence, and what is lower on the list of priorities?
A problem that has developed within church circles over time is that we’ve taken on a business model. A business model is one way of creating sustainable growth (see my blog about growth for some thoughts I have on different kinds of growth) but it invariably requires that input costs be recovered and, ideally, that a profit be made. Perhaps you’ve been a part of this model in your church, or organization – and perhaps programs have lived or died based on how they have ‘sustained themselves,’ in terms of profits and returns.
The thing is, churches (and I’m speaking especially about ELCIC Lutheran churches, since this is the context I know best) have been experiencing decline for at least a couple of decades now. To their credit, programs have continued with lower and lower numbers of people and resources – and our broader church is to be commended for keeping on as it has. But the reality is that we can not – and we won’t – be able to keep on as we have.
We can not always have growth. We have not had growth, and we can not pursue a model of growth.
Effectively, we must engage a ‘reverse economy’ of sorts. It is not an unknown fact that North Americans live well. And, I think it is also true that a majority of our established church-goers in ELCIC congregations are well-educated and of reasonable means, even when compared to North American standards. So, to engage a ‘reverse economy,’ we must consider that our input costs are going to be above our recovered costs: we will be losing money, in a traditional business sense. And, it’ll probably also mean a continuing declining number of people in our pews (so there won’t be noticeable changes that might give hope to a future for our church institution as we’ve known it – ie. no foreseeable longer-term return, either!).
This puts us in a tight spot. Some of us will want to hang on to what we’ve got. Others will want to toss everything out with the hope of starting again from scratch. So what do we do? I don’t claim to have a clear answer, but my hunch is that things will be different for different local communities. We need to be clear, corporately, as to what we’re about – so having some well-articulated ideas of what it means to be Lutheran would be good for our ELCIC. We need to be clear, locally, as to what we’re about – so having a good sense of identity, and living out our Lutheranism in our local contexts, is key.
If we give ourselves away, we model a different thing for culture around us. It’s worth pursuing! Instead of hoarding what we have, or conserving and restricting, we live lavishly and generously, trusting that all have a desire to be good.
If we engage a reverse economy, we show our country what we – as not-for-profit charitable organizations – are about. We don’t preserve buildings for our own, individual use, but we open our doors to need in the community (especially in situations where our church buildings are likely to be sitting vacant most of the six days between Sundays). We don’t invest our congregational budgets in developing our programs, but engage in community activity that connects with people who may be in need. We may find ourselves partnering with groups and organizations we’d never considered before!
These become models for how we might do more with declining numbers, and how we might be seen to have more relevance in a day where more and more people have less to do with faith community.
But this will, without a doubt, take effort on the part of those of us who have been a part of Lutheran community in North American culture. We will have to see our roles, as individuals and households who form congregations, as contributors to a different way of being. We will have to share more generously of what we have, and be willing to loosen the purse-strings – corporately – when need comes knocking from places we hadn’t previously considered. We will have to free our clergy, and empower them, to be voices for those on the margins in ways we haven’t done before. (And if we can’t pay clergy full-time salaries, we’ll have to have more lay involvement with things like church administration – so who will step up to the plate to help with the work that needs doing? More and more pastors are finding themselves in positions where they’ll be taking up second-income jobs to maintain household expenses, and their 10% tithe to the church!)
I don’t know if we can make a change like this, corporately, in a few years. I think stressing factors are, however, forcing change on us, and we’d be wise to engage the change instead of resisting it and circling the wagons as – it seems – some are doing. An economy of grace, where we give ourselves away, can be a freeing way of living what we believe as Lutheran Christians!