Wednesday, June 17, 2009
An ice cream truck? Really?
So, I was having this conversation with a friend who was very concerned about the finances of his church.
He was anxious about how they were going to balance the church budget. How to cut expenses? Where to begin? How do you define the 'non-essentials' in a church budget and what are they?
Turns out, that last question was a real humdinger!
He was trying to justify cutting the Outreach line item. That's the first place he turned with his red pen.
Really? I asked. You would start to balance the budget by first cutting Outreach?
Yeah, he says. You know. Like when you're on an airplane. The flight attendant always says In the event of an emergency place the oxygen mask on yourself first and then care for any dependent children or adults.
Well, I say, why not just cut the rector's position? I mean, except for Sunday and some sacramental acts and, perhaps, and a few pastoral emergencies, everything else can be done by volunteers. At the very least, you can cut his position in half and save yourself a ton of money.
Horrified, he says . . . .
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .(Are you ready for this?). . . . . . . .
. . . . . . . He says, "Whaaa? . . . Well. . . . that would be like . . . . . .
. . . (okay, here it is, swear to God this is true) . . . . . . .
. . . . . having an ice cream truck without a driver."
(A few moments of silence to let the words and images sink in).
Not "a ship without a captain."
Not, "a plane without a pilot."
Not, "a train without a conductor."
AN ICE CREAM TRUCK WITHOUT A DRIVER.
Really? I ask. Is that what you think about church and your rector?
Yes, he brightens. Of course. I go to church once a week for a spiritual treat. It picks me up. It's very important to me. It makes my whole week.
I realize that he's telling me the truth. From his heart.
This is an intelligent man. A life-long Episcopalian. He's in a position of elected trust in his church.
And, he thinks of church as an ice cream truck. A little weekly pick me up.
I suppose that makes his priest / rector 'The Good Humor Man'.
Well, I suppose, on one level, there's nothing wrong with that. Church should provide you with a spiritual nourishment. Indeed, it isnt' doing its job if it doesn't inspire.
But, that's not all there is to church. If church doesn't also challenge you to do something - ANYTHING - to become a better person and make the world a better place. . . to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, care for the poor, think about difficult things like what you really believe about the Nicene Creed or the full inclusion of all the baptized in all the sacraments . . . which can sometimes move you right into your discomfort zone . . . well, actually . . .I think it makes Jesus weep.
As alarming as that is, I suppose, then, that it should not be a surprise to me that, when the going gets tough, the first thing he wants to cut is Outreach. I mean, it does have it's own logic.
And, what is disturbing about that, besides the obvious theological and ecclesiological problems, is the absolute lack of creativity it represents.
I mean, how much intelligence does it take to see a plus in one column and a negative in another column to realize that in order to make the columns balance, you have two choices:
1. Cut back on the plus side
2. Find a way to add to the negative side.
Since it's much, much easier in a fragile economy to think 'cut' anyway, I understand the impulse. It may work in the corporate board room. It may even work for small businesses like ice cream trucks.
In the church, however, we operate on faith, not fear. The standard is excellence, not maintenance. We have a theology of abundance, not scarcity.
Indeed, if we don't use our creativity, I think . . . well, not to put too fine a point on it, BUT . . . I think it really pisses God off.
I mean, having a church without Outreach or Mission is like having the Ice Cream Truck and the driver but no engine.
I tell my friend all these things.
How about this? I ask. How about getting some of the Vestry members together with a few of the most creative members of your congregation? How about you do some creative brainstorming? Start to think on both sides of the ledger instead of one? Start to think in the black instead of red.
On the one hand, what about some creative ways of increasing revenues? On the other, what things can be done to increase the participation of the congregation in the tasks of the church to, say, care for the lawn instead of hiring a lawn care company? Looking at ways to cut paper production and postage and put the parish newsletter in an email? Doing some of the small 'handy-man' repairs around the church instead of calling one?
Oh, he brightens. Yeah, that would help.
Really, I say, you will be surprised at how much money you can cut from your expenses before you have to get to putting a red pencil to the line item for Outreach.
And then, your little committee can begin to talk about creative ways to raise the income side of the ledger - some fun things that are based in scripture. You just have to look at some of the parables for clues.
Really? he asks. Really, I say. For starters, look at the Parable of the Talents. Give folks some money from your Outreach budget - say, $25 each - and ask them to do something good with it. Then, the next month, have them come back and report the story of what good they were able to do with $25 in today's economy.
At the end, have a (ahem) Talent Show. Get everyone in the congregation who has a talent to perform. You know. Call it, "St. Swithin's Got Talent" and charge a small admission fee. Invite the community. Have some fun AND make a few scheckles.
I give him a few more examples like that.
WOW, he says, these are great. I can't wait to take them to my Vestry.
See? he asks. I came to you feeling all down and desperate, and I'm leaving you feeling very hopeful.
See? he asks again. The church is very much like an ice cream truck and we need clergy - even ones that aren't our own - to be the drivers.
An ice cream truck? I ask.