Friday, March 17, 2017

The economics of church decline (and rebirth?)

So we've all read countless blog posts about all of the sociological and cultural reasons the mainline church is dying.  I would like to take a different approach, one based on economics (and one that focuses on my denomination).  I do this because I believe that economics may help us see the necessity of certain solutions.

I also write this on St. Patrick's Day, because I believe that part of the secret to the Irish monks was their capacity to develop an economic model that allowed for mission.

Economics is all about supply and demand...and we have a supply problem

Right now, the Lutheran denomination that I am a part of, the ELCA, is facing a huge crisis of supply in terms of its pastors.   This year there are far, far fewer pastors available for placement than in previous years (Like we have enough pastors for less than 1/2 of vacancies we have).  This is sadly not an aberration, but a trend.  Furthermore, we are just about to face a huge way of boomer pastor retirements.  We are probably producing a third of the pastors we need to. 

I'm sure we could find numerous blogs that talk about all the cultural reasons why younger people don't want to go to Seminary.  I want to propose a simpler and economic solution:  It costs too much money.  Seminary requires three years of study and unit of Clinical Pastoral Education.  There is also an internship year that offers a monthly income of $1,600+housing if you have to move.  Even though many Seminary students get scholarship help for tuition, the real cost of Seminary is simply living for those years without significant income.  When I worked in the financial aid office at my seminary, we estimated that tuition only represented 1/3 of the total costs of Seminary.  I had friends that graduated with 5 figures of debt from health insurance alone.  And that was 10 years ago!  It is also worth remembering that Seminary bills come on top of existing loans that many people have from undergraduate.  It is not uncommon for students to come out with $80 to $100K of debt.  (At 5% for ten years, that is $850 a month).  My sense is that we've been saying this for years, namely, that Seminaries are too expensive and that debts are too high.  I think the people not in Seminary heard us!

(Sad irony, the church wants to become more diverse.  To the extent to which wealth and race are correlated in our country (which they are), we end up pricing out non-white students at a faster rate than we price out white students).

(Second side point:  Many people talk of bi-vocational pastors -- "tent-making" to use Biblical language.  I am really skeptical of the desire or capacity of people to accrue so much debt and go through so much education for a part-time gig.)

Solutions proposed help, but not enough

I want to commend some of the solutions:  Trim overhead at seminaries through various mergers; allow more students to work at churches during seminary; give students financial coaching to improve the personal finances.  While such moves are noble (and surprisingly painful), we cannot cut costs by ten or even twenty percent and double the Seminary student population.  We would need solutions that cut the cost of Seminary by 50 to 60% -- like entirely new models, such as, say a national seminary that had one room satellites in every synod. 

I confess a fair amount of grief as I write this.  I had a "Hogwarts-like" experience at Seminary.  But I truly believe those days are over.  The solutions we are engineering will not provide the necessary and drastic reductions in cost we need.

Furthermore, we also will need a huge number of non-pastors who will assume theological, pastoral and programmatic leadership.  How can we train them at low cost?

We also have a demand problem
We also are facing a huge shift in the demand for pastors.  Let's do some basic math.  For many years 80-100 people in weekly worship attendance was a stable number for congregations.  At this size, you could afford a pastor.  You probably had a sexton, an organist and a secretary, all of whom were part-time and one of whom was (quasi)-volunteer.  It was tough but it worked.  This number worked out well because 100 people in weekly worship probably equated to about 150 people significantly involved in the ministry. 150 people is a nice number for a tribe.  One pastor can connect this many people. 

Then health insurance costs started spiraling.  This really impacted congregations.  Even if you took in the same amount (adjusted for inflation) with 80-100 in weekly worship, you could not meet your budget any more.  Health insurance for most churches is 10K greater than it was 20 years ago (again, even adjusted for inflation).  Again, even if you had as many people (which most churches don't), giving the same amount (most churches have lost money to skyrocketing number of non-profits), and you didn't have the massive deferred maintenance bills from building expansions in the 1960s and 1980s (you are lucky), you would still find yourself short.  You probably need 120 to 130 people in weekly worship to now afford a full-time pastor with full-time benefits.

But this is problematic because this begins to be a larger tribe than one pastor can handle.  Especially if you consider that most people come to church less frequently than they did (but still consider themselves integral to the congregation).  That 125 per week needed to pay the bills equals 200 to 250 people who are involved in the ministry.  Which, even for a raging extrovert, is too large for pastoral care. 

My point here is that we are beyond the need for a good stewardship series and even better discipleship.  In every industry there are stable size points.  Our stable size points shifted drastically in the last 20 years.  We must shift how we approach our basic models of ministry. 

Impact of these shifts

Congregations have done a number of things to cope with this problem:  cut their minister's compensation (making them 3/4 time; hoping they have a spouse who can pick up the health insurance costs); added online giving; tried stewardship campaigns; deferred maintenance even more; begun living off endowments; or cutting mission support, especially money to the larger church. 

All is not lost: The healthiest churches, including pastoral size ones, are figuring our ways to create secondary income sources, partner with other ministries to share staff and developing lay leaders to take on traditional pastoral roles.  But the fact is that the basic model -- one pastor, one congregation, one building (especially an old one) does not add up any more.  There have to be other income streams, additional staff or volunteers taking on significant leadership.  Congregations need to find strategic partners to share costs, resources and staff.  This may mean our church looks like it did 100 years ago, with far more 2 and 3 point parishes.  Or it may mean our church looks like it did 250 years ago when ordained clergy were the aberration and not the norm.

While this analysis focuses on pastoral size congregations (which were the bread and butter of my denomination), the same math is hurting larger congregations and smaller congregations.   Larger congregations are moving to a point where they have fewer and fewer full time staff and more part-time staff.  Smaller congregations are often calling part-time retirees who are on Medicare; or they find themselves needing to move from a two-point to a three-point parish to pay for a pastor, which means they now have a video sermon on Sunday.

In short, while the overall size of the church has decreased, the demand for pastors has decreased even faster as the math tilts against congregations.

A new equilibrium?

So, we may end up with an equilibrium point where we have fewer pastor spots and fewer pastors.  Good right?  No, actually pretty horrible!  What to do with all of the churches that don't have pastors, especially smaller churches?  How to make pastoral size churches feasible?  How to staff large churches when associates become so rare?  How do we give future leaders the time and community they need to mature into strong proclaimers of the Gospel?

What I would like to see happen:
1)  We implode the seminary system to produce something drastically cheaper.
2)  We expand drastically the number of lay-ministers/TEEM pastors who do not need the full seminary to lead worship at our smallest congregations.
3)  We do mission starts that from the beginning focus on cooperative ministry and sustainability, recognizing that the hoped for norm -- the traditional pastoral size model -- is not viable.
4)  We begin fostering and authorizing lay leadership to assume an incredible number of tasks reserved for pastors, especially related to pastoral care and even worship.
5)   Congregational leaders will be blessed with the patience to renew our congregations; we will also be blessed with the courage to try to new models.
6)   Congregations find ways to partner with other churches, non-profits and even businesses to create not simply economically stable situations, but ones that are oriented toward mission.
7)  The Holy Spirit revives our congregations and our people grow in faith, hope and love.

What I think will happen
1)  Money to the synod and national church will continue to dry up.  DRY UP.  Large congregations will replace the synods and national church as the leadership in what remains of the denomination.
2)  Large churches will use seminaries less and less and begin training their own leaders.
3)  Small churches will worship without pastors or they will close.  Many pastors who are currently sent to rural or poor congregations only serve three years in those places (statistics on this are pretty strong).  Pastors out of seminary will skip this step and go right to larger congregations in wealthier communities.
4)  We will talk about minority and poverty ministry, but the only places that will be able to afford attractive calls will be wealthy and primarily white communities.  Healthy congregations will grow as the vast majority of congregations shrink.

Saturday, March 4, 2017

Genesis 12

This passage occurs in the Narrative Lectionary, year 1 (most recently Oct 14, 2014); it also occurs in the RCL during Lent (Year A), most recently March 13, 2017.

Summary:  Abraham was asked to do a lot.  The English gets you here ('to a land I will show you' isn't very much to go on); the Hebrew intensifies this.  As I continue to read this story, I am also reflecting a lot on what "bless" means.  I do not think one can walk away, in this or other stories, from the material nature of blessings in the Bible.  However, the Bible already shows the direction of God's blessing, namely, our neighbor.  Perhaps if we wanted to be most Lutheran, we would argue that the true blessing is the promise that allows one to live by faith.

Key words
לך-לך  ("lake - la - kah", "go immediately," vs 1)  This is often translated simply as "go."  It literally means "go-go" or "get up and go."  In Hebrew, when you have two verbs in a row, the first verb is often adverbial, as in "in a 'getting up' kind of way, go."  Or, more poetically:  "Immediatedly go."  The whole section in the Hebrew Bible is called "Lake-la-kah."  (The Hebrew Bible didn't use chapters; instead it divided up scrolls into sections, naming them after a key word near the beginning of the section)   Also, Abraham will be given this same command in Genesis 22, the binding of Isaac.

One wonders if the angel's commands to Paul (then Saul) in chapter 9 of Acts are the same -- "Get up and go" in the sense of "go immediately."

Grammatically:  Keep an eye out for dual verb commands in the Bible; they may reflect a Hebrew way of speaking whereby one verb functions as an adverb. 

Theologically:  God isn't about discernment in this passage, but about decision.  There is a sense of immediacy!

בת-אב  ("bet av", "father's house," vs 1)  This term means way more than simply "dad's house."  It was the fundamental social unit and reality of a person's life.  Here is a website with pictures:
I think for us in the West today, it is impossible to understand the impact of traditional and family on a person's psyche and worldview, and thus the significance of God's command.

ברך ("baruch", "bless", vs 2,3)  The first point I want to address is the meaning of the word baruch.  In Genesis, blessing can often be assoicated with material prosperity:
*  Genesis 39:5 From the time that he made him overseer in his house and over all that he had, the LORD blessed the Egyptian's house for Joseph's sake; the blessing of the LORD was on all that he had, in house and field.
*  Genesis 26:3 Reside in this land as an alien, and I will be with you, and will bless you; for to you and to your descendants I will give all these lands, and I will fulfill the oath that I swore to your father Abraham.
*  See also Genesis 30:27

It also refers to children and descendents:
*  Genesis 1:22 God blessed them, saying, "Be fruitful and multiply and fill the waters in the seas,   and let birds multiply on the earth."
*  Genesis 17:16 I will bless her and will surely give you a son by her. I will bless her so that she will be the mother of nations; kings of peoples will come from her."
* Genesis 22:17 I will indeed bless you, and I will make your offspring as numerous as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore. And your offspring shall possess the gate of their enemies,
I would argue though, if you press the Bible harder, you discover that blessing means something more than a big house and big family. 
It also means fundamental human relationships based on complentary differences (yes family, but not necessarily size!)
* Genesis 5:2 Male and female he created them, and he blessed them and named them "Humankind" when they were created
* Genesis 2:3 So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all the work that he had done in creation.
God's peace and presence
* Numbers 6:23-27   23 Speak to Aaron and his sons, saying, Thus you shall bless the Israelites: You shall say to them,  24 The LORD bless you and keep you;  25 the LORD make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you;  26 the LORD lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace.  27 So they shall put my name on the Israelites, and I will bless them.

Ultimately though, I do not think one can de-materialize the nature of blessings.  I think what good pastors and theologians can do is direct this blessing back to the neighbor:
* Deuteronomy 14:28-29 28 Every third year you shall bring out the full tithe of your produce for that year, and store it within your towns; 29 the Levites, because they have no allotment or inheritance with you, as well as the resident aliens, the orphans, and the widows in your towns, may come and eat their fill so that the LORD your God may bless you in all the work that you undertake.
Or simply as God says here in Genesis 12 -- the whole world is to be blessed by Abraham!

Lastly, there is a rather technical point here about the translation here having to do with verb forms in Hebrew.  The question is whether to treat the verb bless as a passive (the nations will be blessed by Abraham) or reflexive, "in Abraham (or his name) all the nations will bless themselves."  The Greek goes with the passive here and that is how this passage is traditionally translated.  That seems fair and good, but perhaps it is also worth asking:  How do we actively bless ourselves through Abraham and his legacy?

NET Bible notes:
Theoretically the Niphal can be translated either as passive or reflexive/reciprocal. (The Niphal of "bless" is only used in formulations of the Abrahamic covenant. See Gen 12:2; 18:18; 28:14.) Traditionally the verb is taken as passive here, as if Abram were going to be a channel or source of blessing. But in later formulations of the Abrahamic covenant (see Gen 22:18; 26:4) the Hitpael replaces this Niphal form, suggesting a translation "will bless [i.e., "pronounce blessings on"] themselves [or "one another"]." The Hitpael of "bless" is used with a reflexive/reciprocal sense in Deut 29:18; Ps 72:17; Isa 65:16; Jer 4:2. Gen 12:2 predicts that Abram will be held up as a paradigm of divine blessing and that people will use his name in their blessing formulae. For examples of blessing formulae utilizing an individual as an example of blessing see Gen 48:20 and Ruth 4:11.
קלל and אאר  ("qalal" and "arar", "curse", vs 2) These words, although both translated similarly in English as "curse", are different.  The first, qalal, means "treat lightly" in the sense of "disrespect" or "disgrace."  The second, arar, means remove from blessing.  Rather than think of this verse than as those who swear mean things at Abraham will have bad things happen to them, its probably better to think of it this way:  Because Abraham is a blessing, and an agent of blessing, from God, to disregard Abraham is to remove oneself from God's potential blessings.  The question is whether the Bible (God really) means all the blessings in the world, or the blessings from Abraham.  I'd be inclined to the latter.  In short, the Bible does not seem to be indicating quite as harsh as a sentence as "curse those who curse you" suggests, but it does offer a warning.