WHAT IF IT DOESN’T GET BETTER?

Summer and assembly time have  passed.  Rally Day, the now traditional re-launch of regular congregational activities, has come and gone.  In many cases, some of the prompting for renewed focus on activities — and attendance — in the congregation has come from the downward trend lines that are dogging most congregations these days.  (And in many congregations, this has been the case for decades.)  Trend lines may be discouraging; however, there is something to anticipate.  With the approaching 500th Anniversary of Martin Luther’s 95 Theses going public in Wittenberg, Germany on October 31, 1517 (however it happened that those points for private debate within the church became public knowledge), there has also been encouragement to celebrate our history and, perhaps, find in that history the fresh courage and direction we need for going forward.

I don’t know that a significant historical milestone is going to change much … for us or anyone else.  The sale of indulgences, which the 95 Theses protested, is a historical relic.  The Catholic Church no longer engages in fund raising by means of selling indulgences in the ways Luther protested.  Modern Catholic theologians readily acknowledge that Luther raised some good points with his critiques.  Recent studies show that what Lutherans and other Protestants and Catholics in the pews believe is much more similar than different.  Lutheran and Catholic leaders are discussing how to heal the breach between these branches of the Christian Church.  Were it not for the larger implications where the clergy are concerned (that Lutheran pastors may marry and can be women as well as men), I suspect Luther’s excommunication would be readily rescinded.

If the past has any lessons for the present, those lessons would be in the return to scripture as the guide for faith, the recognition that the Word of God is not simply the printed text on the page but it is the Spirit of God speaking through these words that make it the living Word of God, able to impart faith and direct our living.  This would be a helpful antidote for much the “Bible-olatry” that is present these days, where the printed text on paper is regarded as an inviolate, sacred thing that is not to be questioned … as though the Bible came down from heaven, already printed in English, shrink wrapped and ready for purchase at the bookstore.  I’m not a major-league Biblical scholar, but I know first-hand that translation is messy business.  Words in any language have subtle connotations that allow for multiple readings before we even get to variations in copies and questions of later insertions.  If people of faith were to demonstrate more humility in our approach to scripture, how we read it and how we use, and if we were to let it work more on us rather than applying it to others, that would go a long way toward better engagement with the people and the culture outside our church doors most Sunday mornings.  (The so-called Nashville Statement is the opposite of what I’m describing here and a move in the wrong direction.)

It is there, in the engagement between congregations and their communities, that the struggles mapped out in our trend lines are being most keenly felt … it’s where those struggles play out in congregations.  Most of our congregations are not growing.  (This isn’t just an ELCA or even a Lutheran problem; many congregations in all Christian denominations are facing it.)  Among the relatively few congregations that are not declining, most of these are holding their own – not losing too many members, but not gaining very many members, either.   Word on the street has it that, in the synod where I live, 85% of the congregations are considered to be in decline.  I doubt that number varies too much across the synods.  More members die than are baptized, especially if we don’t count the babies who are brought for baptism in order to make Grandma happy and are rarely ever seen in a congregation again, even when time of confirmation rolls around.  More congregations close or merge than new ones are established.  For decades now, most new mission starts have failed to produce viable congregations and end up closing after just a few years.

We keep looking for some sort of magic formula or secret sauce that will turn things around for us, that will get us growing again, that will attract the new members, that will bring in the people at the margins into active membership.  There isn’t any such formula and looking for one is just a distraction from the real causes of this struggle … and the deeper assessments of our current goals and motives.  Maybe we already sense we won’t like what we find and that the hard truths we find will force us to change and so we avoid all this because what we really want is to keep things the way we like them, which is the way we’ve known and experienced.

If we are to be brutally honest, much of our congregational decision-making – what we do and how we do it – is based on keeping current members pleased so they will keep coming and keep giving.  Much as we try to gloss over naked financial realities and spiritualize things somehow, congregations require money to get things done.  Buildings require mortgage payments as well as upkeep and maintenance costs, just the same as any other house or building does.  Utility bills for electricity, phones, internet, and maybe even gas service must be paid the same as for any other household or business operation.  There are salaries to pay … pastors, office administrators, custodians, and (in many places) the musicians who give significant contributions of time to preparing things for Sunday worship.  It takes the labors of people to keep lines of communication open, make sure the building is clean and ready for use, have everything ready for Sunday services (and other events).  People should be paid for the work they do; we all expect this in our daily lives.  A congregation has a certain amount of basic operating expenses and it is reasonable to expect the members to provide financial support for the congregation’s operations.

As a result, much of our recruitment efforts are motivated by the need for member replacement, to make up for those who were lost (through death or moving away or other life transitions).  Adding members will keep the attendance numbers up and (with proper encouragement) the funding levels steady.  With effective stewardship education, perhaps giving could be increased … which would, of course, allow the congregation to do more – more of what it already does, or perhaps even more beyond its walls. If we were to strip them down to the most basic level, most of our outreach (and our in-reach) efforts are about membership recruitment and motivation.  It’s not about making disciples, which is the calling Jesus has actually given us.

We didn’t set out with the intention to become this way.  It just happened as things in our culture and society shifted and changed.  But we didn’t notice and didn’t respond until things had changed so much that nothing we did seemed to work anymore.  Now that we have noticed, we’ve been wondering why, trying to do what we’ve always done – but do it better, hoping that we can turn the tide.  But such a task is nearly as impossible as altering the tides of the ocean by our own direct efforts.

Just how did things reach this point?  Let’s review …

Coming to America as immigrants, Lutherans organized their congregations for the preservation of the culture of the old country at least as much as for the active practice of Christian faith.  The community of the congregation was a chance to gather with those who shared the language of the old home, the music and rhythms, the smells and tastes.  It was a way to connect with the homeland in the midst of a very different country.  As a result, keeping tradition has been a significant value within our congregations.

Most of our congregations did not drop their ethnic languages (German, Norwegian, Swedish, Finnish, Danish, etc.) until the war years (especially World War II).  Moving to English was a way of showing loyalty to the US and support for the war efforts.  (Placing American flags in sanctuaries was part of this demonstration as well.)  Because Germany was an aggressor nation in both World Wars, German congregations may have been swifter to let go of the old language and move to English than other ethnic groups.  But however the language shifts came about, many congregations did not make that change until most of their members were much more comfortable and fluent in the English of America than the language of the old country.

After the war years, the red scare phenomenon and the post war baby boom helped increase church membership.  The Baby Boom was the most apparent development as huge numbers of men left the military, took up civilian life, married … and had children, lots and lots of children.  Congregations soon found themselves overflowing with children who needed space for classes, places to sit in worship, and ways to be engaged in what was happening.  The sky-rocketing birth rate meant congregations didn’t have to do anything to increase their numbers; families were doing it all on their own.

Beyond the Baby Boom, an increasing interest in the public invocation of religious faith as a protection against the threat of communism also helped.  America’s roots with the pilgrim settlers from Europe who came to the New World seeking religious freedom were highlighted.  The Christian faith of these early pilgrims was expanded to include Judaism as well, primarily an act of contrition for American non-assistance when the Jewish populations in Europe faced the horrors of the Holocaust.   In the heady mix of patriotism and religious devotion as a defense against the aggressive, godless Communist menace, it was almost a civic duty to be a member of some congregation.  Whole programs developed to help congregations enroll as many of their neighbors as possible for membership, primarily out of a sense of civic obligation.

The flourishing economy of the post-war years also had a shaping impact on congregational life in the 1950s and well into the 1960s.  Standards of living rose for most workers.  Benefits such as Social Security, pensions, and home ownership were allowing more elders to leave a significant amount of wealth behind when they died, something almost unknown in previous generations.  People had money to give and they did.  Directing a portion of one’s estate to the church became a fairly common practice.

How times have changed over the following 40 to 50 years!  Wages have largely been stagnant for much of the working population for several decades now.  When households are struggling to afford the basics (rent, food, utilities, transportation needs) and provide for the children (including higher education), there’s less money available for any sort of discretionary spending, including giving to a congregation.  The modern way of death (together with our longer life spans) is depleting the assets of our elders to the point there is often little to nothing left from which to make a final bequest to a congregation.  The Baby Boom went bust and even the echo boom isn’t increasing church membership rosters.  The 1950s and 60s are gone in so many ways (not just in terms of congregational life) and it’s more than time we all accepted those times are never, ever coming back.  Things will never again be the way they used to be.

And yet, our congregations are hard-wired for cultural preservation.  Initially, preservation of the ethnic culture served as a driving force for congregations.  During World War II and the Cold War that followed, congregations readily adapted to preserving a Christian culture tailored to the patriotic needs of an America striving against the godless forces of totalitarianism and Communism.  The world and the culture around us have shifted and changed, but here we are, still trying to preserve a past culture, much as we have always done.  Part of preserving the original ethnic culture was keeping the outsiders out … and that dynamic is still present … which continues to make it hard for outsiders to enter the doors of our congregations.

Now that there are fewer and fewer of us already inside, we’re going to have to connect with others on the outside … somehow.  We’ve never done that before.  We don’t know how.  And we can’t learn to do something new when we’re trying with all our might to keep things the way they’ve always been.

So, to ask the classic question from the catechism:

What does all this mean?

It means, at a minimum, these trends are not going to get better – not any time soon, maybe not ever. We need to come to terms with that.  Congregations will be smaller in terms of members and giving will decrease with the diminishing numbers of members and as the members age.  We can no longer afford all that we used to do.  There is no “doing more with less.”  Having less to work with means we are going to have to do less or find other ways of doing things to compensate for the loss of dollars and of people.

This means some congregations may have to sell or rent out their buildings, share them with others … put them to work in some way to generate the income needed for the upkeep.  Other infrastructure of the larger church, colleges and seminaries and managerial operations (synodical offices and churchwide headquarters), will also have to shrink.  An increasing amount of the declining congregational offerings will need to stay local, to take care of business at home; this leaves less to be sent forward.  Just as physical property at the local level is going to diminish, property held at higher levels will have to be reduced.  Seminaries and colleges may need to combine, maybe with one another … maybe with similar programs in the area … maybe with other colleges and universities that do not have strong connections to a religious organization. Seminaries in particular may have to add other graduate degree programs to attract a wider range of tuition-paying students.  (Another reason for this will be described in a bit …)

We also have to become more realistic about pastors.  It is certainly preferable that congregations provide pastors with salaries commensurate with their levels of education (a master’s degree program on par with law school in terms of academic requirements).  Professionals with similar credentials have starting salaries well above $50K per year and, in many cases, approach or exceed the six-figure mark after five to ten years of experience.  This is not going to happen in most congregations.

So is that why there are now reports of a clergy shortage?  Is it because salaries aren’t high enough to attract candidates?  Perhaps the better question to ask is: Do we really have a clergy shortage?  Some interesting calculations are used to support claims of a clergy shortage.  One is to compare the number of retirees to the number of new graduates from seminaries each year … as if all retiring pastors were retiring from full-time positions that would need to be filled.  The reality is that many pastors ease into retirement, stepping down from full-time positions into part-time roles.  A number of positions come to an end with a pastor’s retirement, eliminating a possible opening for someone else to fill.  Rather than a clergy shortage, we have a clergy surplus; we have more clergy than positions for them to fill.

But claims of a shortage are made to increase seminary enrollment. Seminaries need more tuition-paying students to sustain their current operations.  Claims of a shortage are far more about the financial needs of the seminaries that the needs of the church at large.  Yes – one of the proofs offered for the alleged shortage of pastors is the number of “first call” openings that go unfilled because there aren’t enough new seminary graduates to fill them all.  But how many of these openings are deemed suitable for first call because that is the only level at which the congregation can support a full-time pastor’s salary?  “Because it’s all the congregation can afford” is not a suitable reason to consider any opening to be appropriate for a newly ordained pastor.  Most of these congregations would be better served by experienced pastors who can help them work through the anxieties provoked by the disturbing trends lines that are beyond anyone’s control.

Since we’re facing a future in which many congregations will not be able to pay the salary expected for a professional with a master’s degree and several years of experience, pastors will have to be bi-vocational.  They may draw some salary from the congregations they serve, but they will also need some form of regular employment, separate from the congregation, to provide a significant portion of their income.  This necessity also offers seminaries a path to growth: education for this type of bi-vocational work will also require courses and degree programs beyond the traditional Master of Divinity. Seminaries can find ways to offer these additional opportunities.

It’s not necessarily a negative for congregational life, either.  It could be a benefit.  Instead of being the full-time, “professional” Christian operating out of the church building, the pastor will be more like the people of the congregation, sharing the same struggles to live as a follower of Jesus in the midst of normal daily life.  Pastors would not just talk about this in theory; they would practice it and live it out as role models.

And that might just turn out to be a very good thing … it could lead congregations back into the work of becoming disciples, students of Jesus … followers who help others follow the way of life he taught … which is what we’re really supposed to be doing