Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Churches on Public Assistance

Its that time of year again. The time when churches sell everything from BBQ and brunswick stew to quilts and raffle tickets to raise enough money to pay the bills. Every week somebody is selling plates, hustling tickets, and coming with hands out and hopeful eyes. As I was approached again this week I began to reflect upon our churches' need for "public assistance."

"Public assistance" is a term used when individuals or organizations cannot provide the necessary resources to be self-sustaining and depend upon the "public at large" to make up their budgetary shortfall. Now to many of us who grew up poor, we saw receiving any sort of "hand outs" as a difficult result of living below the poverty line. Increasingly, and almost systemically, I have noticed that churches of all sizes, large and small, are becoming dependent upon "public assistance." It is "public assistance" when the church becomes dependent upon the fundraiser for operating expenses; when the people contribute more to purchase the goods than they give to God; and when the efforts cause more friction than fellowship.

When a congregation becomes dependent on an annual (or quarterly) fundraiser to keep the lights on it raises the question about real, financial sustainability and the commitment of the membership. Having served congregations that benefited from an infusion of $10-20,000 a year from these efforts, the income is a welcome reprieve, however short lived, from the weekly rigor of trying to pay the bills. The problem comes when the congregation is functionally unable to exist without this infusion of "public assistance" cash. Rather than being a voice of hope for the communities we are seeking to reach, we become solicitors and salesmen. One of the primary objections so many people offer for not attending church is that they "only want my money." I am afraid that when our budget is dependent upon "public assistance" to pay the bills, that statement is actually true, justifying the skeptical view of so many we would seek to reach.

When the people contribute more to the purchase of goods they receive than they give regularly to God, this is another sign that the dependence upon "public assistance" is critical. One church I served early in my ministry was the perfect example of this. There was a very wealthy member who, unbeknownst to most of the people, rarely gave anything during the year. Each year during the Harvest Festival, however, he would pay exorbitant amounts for specialty pies and crafts, outbidding everyone else  for the desired prizes and making a show of writing a large check to cover his purchases. He reveled in the opportunity to "save the day" with these purchases. During the year, however, his financial commitment to that small church was completely non-existent. The scripture is pretty clear that he received his award  with the acclaim he received on those days since not only did his right hand know what his left hand was doing, so did everyone else.

Another symptom that the "public assistance" funding has become toxic is when the activities and preparation causes more friction than fellowship. When negativity surrounds the efforts. When anger is a regular part of the event and people have a sense of entitlement and ownership that goes well beyond a simple passionate commitment to the cause.

Now do not get me wrong. I appreciate Pancake Suppers and Mission Dinners as a time of great fellowship, an opportunity to underwrite the next youth trip or mission project. I love times of laughing and sharing with the people who are rallying around a cause, sharing the work so they can reach the community, and giving back to families who have come upon hard times. My concern is when our need for "public assistance" means we are willing to sacrifice our witness for a few more dollars to pay the bills. But I have a solution to our need for public assistance, its radical, even scriptural.

TITHE. The United Methodist Church is the ninth poorest per member giving church of the top ten largest, mainline denominations. If our people tithed, if they even consistently moved their regular giving from 2% (the avg. UMC member giving level) to 5% then our normal, operating expenses would be covered and there would be extra funds for whatever missional endeavor, evangelistic outreach, or special project we sought to undertake. Then when we sold stew, or chicken, or quilts, all of those funds could go back to the "least of these my children." Imagine what would happen if we became the place known for radical generosity rather than the place that needed the money?

Lord make us radically generous, realized that everything we have is a gift from you. Let us live with open hands, open hearts, and open to whatever you are calling us to do. In the name of the One who gave everything and to whom we owe everything, Jesus, we pray. Amen
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