Thursday, April 30, 2015

Poverty, Lutheranism and a Circle Round-Economy: Is it Time to Reform Again?

Almost 500 years ago Martin Luther began a reformation centered on the idea that paying money for forgiveness was not the way a church should operate.  

After a near death experience with a bolt of lightening, Luther reversed course on his overly anxious, rule following faith.  He believed that God had already gone all-in to forgive and reconcile people and there was nothing we could do to screw up this reconciliation that God had already assured through Jesus' life, death and resurrection.

Lutherans, and I speak primarily about the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) where I am rooted, have echoed this reformation spirit on in our singing, preaching and praying.  

Yet, almost 500 years later, we haven't figured out how to reform the economy of our churches.  

If all people are equally deserving of access to God regardless of how much money they have or can give, then why are so many churches closing when their economic ability to pay the full time salary of a pastor or paying for their church building dwindles?

What happened to the idea that a pastor was in charge of a parish, or a geographical region?  That meant that when someone in the neighborhood was in need, the pastor was there for them and their family.  If pastors invested as much time learning to love the things that the people in the neighborhood love as we do in learning about the hierarchy's plans for raising money from the dwindling congregants and congregations, perhaps communities would feel like a church in their neighborhood was a gift. 

Some congregations believe that a successful pastor must spend more of their time "on the clock" in the congregation where the trickle up money was offered to them.  Letting this big givers shape the clock of the pastor and determine the issues that are important to them is sliding back to the very thing Luther inspired reformation against. 

If our offering is truly going to God and the pastor's job is to serve God's people then giving money to the church is not a democratic vote on how the pastor spends their time.  I believe that God loves all the people in the neighborhoods around the church.  And if the money that pays the pastor is God's money in action, then God would likely vote that the pastor love and serve all of God's children, not just those who make it to church on Sunday.

Grace Lutheran in San Francisco:
I'm not suggesting pastors never care about their members.  My congregants will tell you that I love them mightily.  I'm learning to love what they love, I'm working to repair, repaint and ensure that our property is safe and welcoming.  I also made the budget the main focus of my first year at the congregation.  Together, in my first ten-months at the congregation, we shrunk the church's 2014 deficit from about $50,000 to about $2,000. 

We did this by partnering with other congregations and non-profits, caring for the poor, through wise investments and only spending the interest of our savings.  In addition to decreasing our deficit we also raised over $30,000 for other groups.

Lest you think this is the kind of economy that is only possible at a large church with wealthy members, remember that my congregation called me with a unanimous vote of 16 and the 20-30 members who join us for worship are mostly retirees. 


Currently the ELCA struggles with how to grow and serve congregations in what could be called a trickle up economy.  This means people who attend church, give money and some is then given to local Synods and then the Synod gives a portion of this money to the national churchwide programs. The money trickles up the church hierarchy. Trickle up is the extreme response to the reformation.  It flips the trickle down economy that was seen as unfair during the first reformation on its head, but it doesn't solve all the problems the reformation sought to address.

The trickle up economy is rooted in mistrust that others will not handle money correctly or share it fairly.  On the local level, congregations share with others less than they should because they selfishly fear that other congregations will take "their" resources, members or do better than "us."   Forgetting that it is God's money, when it comes to our money we are proclaiming mistakenly that God can/should only show up in our sanctuary on Sunday.

Of course, there are always exceptions to every generalization and stories about generosity are applauded at meetings, evangelism classes and in Lutheran publications.  Yet, local gatherings have begun to look more like infomercials to ensure the trickle up of money and less like events that celebrate and highlight the new ways and stories of God present in our neighborhood and world.

Dublin Street Art
Today, I encourage Lutherans everywhere to join me in living a circle-round economy.  This means money trickles up, down and sideways.  I think this circle-round economy is what Synod's and the churchwide office envision too.

I recently went to a meeting where an outside group got really confused about why it seemed like all the San Francisco Lutheran churches and non-profits were always giving money to each other.  Supporting special projects or helping each other get through a rough patch, the congregations and non-profits cooperate so much that outside groups wonder if they are too financially entangled.

What this outside organization saw as a red flag, I call a double rainbow.  For the past decade I mostly raised money for one homeless non-profit.  Over the past few years I started raising funds for more groups - particularly when there was nothing in it for me personally.  My fear was that people would give less to my favorite group when I started to add other great projects to the list.

Instead, the opposite happened.  Those I had helped to raise funds worked harder to help me with my favorite projects, because I had worked so hard for them.  Those who had given in the past gave more and new people learned about my work when I cared about something that was their favorite thing.

This year I'll be hosting lots of fundraisers.  Some will be for the groups closest to my heart (Grace Lutheran and Welcome).  Others will be for collaborative groups I'm a part of: SF CARES, the Castro Lion's Club.  Also this year, I'm going to host fundraisers for other congregations and organizations: St. Francis and Santa Maria y Martha Lutheran churches and Project Homeless Connect.

Our funds trickle to the side when a congregation is in need.  Congregations may wonder if helping will affect their own ability to meet their economic goals for the year, but if we knew other congregations would have our back when times are hard, sharing would be easy.  And more often then we know, funds trickle down from Synod and churchwide offices.  Sometimes to accomplish big goals (fight malaria, end hunger and povery) our money needs to trickle up.  

What are some practical ways we can support the circle-round economy?

Build up the Lutheran Brand: Whatever funds are currently being put into developing informercials and print campaigns designed to inspire a trickle up giving, should be put into media campaigns to rebuild the Lutheran brand.  For example, if the Synod had tv spots and ads in print media celebrating the welcome of Lutherans or our justice work it would benefit all congregations, not just those with wealthier congregants.  It would even inspire circle-round giving in congregational budgets.  I know I'd use some of our congregations advertising budget to help pay for Lutheran branding.  

And don't forget social media is free.  What if we were able to get #IamLutheran to trend?  Even if most of the people inspired by the project never step foot in my church, if it helps with evangelism in a church that can't afford advertising, I'd be delighted. 

When St. Paulus Lutheran and Grace Lutheran gave away ashes in the Civic Center Bart station the most common question we were asked was "what faith are you?"  When we answered Lutheran, people exclaimed "oh good!"  But, they didn't know there were Lutheran churches in the neighborhood.

What if all the people who thought "oh good" new where their local Lutheran church was and that they were welcome there. 

This is just one example of how we can reform our thinking about giving and participate in a faithful circle-round.  What are your ideas about how we can inspire a trickle-round economy?

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