June 25, 2012
Seize the Day
By Tom Ehrich
It was perfect timing. Two reports came out last week: one, that giving to churches was down again, continuing a four-decade slide in stewardship, and two, that church leaders were optimistic about the future.
This proved a small point and a large point.
Small point: giving is the slowest of lagging indicators. Membership and participation at mainline churches had declined for almost a decade before giving began to tank. Older and wealthier constituents tended to sustain their giving, maybe even respond to appeals to increase, while young adults (low givers, usually) drifted away and new constituents failed to materialize.
Now, even though older constituents are loosening their death-grip on congregational life and new energy has room to emerge, it could be years before giving catches up. That means congregations will be “running on fumes” even as young families require education, younger constituents require online and off-site ministries, and mission projects focus attention outward.
Large point: it was never about money. Churches didn’t go into decline because they lacked funding; they lacked a “business plan,” if you will, a solid strategy and sustainable energy for dealing with sea-changes in the world around them. They remained a “one-act pony” in a complex, nuanced, chaotic, and precedent-crashing “multi-act” world.
When giving did decline, some of it was people “voting with their pocketbooks.” But the bigger factors by far were normal attrition (death and relocation) and decades of economic pressure on all but the wealthy.
When I teach “turnaround strategies,” I make a critical point right away: except for some communications spending, none of the turnaround work is about money. It’s all about the will to change. Money doesn’t create the will to change; and a will to change won’t be deterred by lack of money.
I understand why many church leaders are feeling optimistic. I share their optimism. Reason: entrenched opposition to change is yielding to reality. And doing so rather gracefully, I might add.
Yes, mainline churches have some structural issues – polities that guarantee slow-motion when nimbleness is needed — and more property than they can handle. But the biggest obstacle has been resistance to change.
If that resistance is indeed yielding, I think some amazing progress can be made. I see young leaders who are itching to get their churches moving. The needs are clear. So are the opportunities for progressive Christianity in a nation growing weary of its right-wing.
My suggestion: seize the day. Thank those who have done their best, and move forward with dispatch. Don’t worry about the money. Giving follows vision, giving follows energy, giving follows action. Don’t worry about formulating perfect plans. Take risks, solicit fresh ideas. And take the radical step of looking outward, letting needs beyond the property line dictate your course.
And don’t look back. Don’t plow looking backward. Older and longtime constituents will catch up with you. Despite a certain fear of change, they have been waiting for this day, too.