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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."


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.



ROBERTA said...

oh my! that was a wonderful exchange on so many levels...thank for the ice cream truck analogy - perhaps red lining the outreach ministry would be like removing the bell from the ice cream truck that calls people as it travels through the streets?

Jim said...

In business school, I was taught that the worst thing an enterprise can do is respond to a down market with reductions in marketing. It is such a simple concept and yet most people simply do not get it.



Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Well, Roberta, a bell isn't a bad thing. I just think that it's mission / outreach that really drives the church - er, ice cream truck.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Jim - I know. The question is: why? Is it because it's so simple? Or is it that anxiety blurs the obvious truths?

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Well, Roberta, a bell isn't a bad thing. I just think that it's mission / outreach that really drives the church - er, ice cream truck.

Bill said...

You might want to consider red-lining the vestry. It must cost something to keep the lights burning during those meetings not to mention the cost of printed materials.

Göran Koch-Swahne said...

The one great error always done in cuttings down is in my opinion to cut what one percieves as peripheral activities, non core ones, as they say...

But it is there that growth is to be had, that new things are developing.

Where whatever future there is lies.

For what it's worth ;=)

Muthah+ said...

I mean, having a church without Outreach or Mission is like having the Ice Cream Truck and the driver but no engine.

No, it is like having NO ICE CREAM!

It is when you have "Turkey in the Straw" as your communion anthem. Check with your music director!

Comment moderation: squarad

Suzer said...

I think you're being a little too hard on him, though your point is well taken about not cutting the outreach budget. Perhaps he just isn't very imaginitive in the metaphor department? Or perhaps he just really likes ice cream.

After all, you never know how many people he might treat to ice cream on his own, after receiving his weekly "treat" at church, right? Perhaps he passes on the message or works to make the world a little better under your radar.

Speaking of ice cream as a ministry, though, (no, seriously -- hear me out!) I have had two experiences in my life where feeding ice cream to people dying in hospice (one my grandfather, another a friend's husband who was dying of brain cancer in his 30's) where ice cream was one of the most heavenly and precious gifts they received in their last days. The respective families remembered many things about the awful waiting, the tedium, the fear and sadness, but (they said) -- "Oh, the ice cream! Wasn't that a wonderful moment?" I think there is something about that sweetness that reminds us of childhood, of happier days, of a guilty pleasure now fully indulged in and all the more appreciated.

So, you know, maybe your parishioner isn't too far off track after all. :)

Jim said...

Rev. E.

I tend to think it is anxiety that is the problem. Walking into a board room or vestry meeting and wanting to spend more on marketing / outreach is scary. Brave and correct, but scary non-the-less.


Kirkepiscatoid said...

Jesus H. Christ! An ICE CREAM truck? OWWWWWW. Of course, I do believe it was said innocently.

It reminds me of a conversation I once had with my priest, where I was discussing what I am now learning, from hanging out with the "collared set" on FB and blogs. I said, "You know, I want to tell you something important. I think I have really come around on something. I think what I am learning, both from my FB and blog friends, and from knowing a little about what goes on "behind the scenes" in our parish, esp. since I know a lot of the health-related stuff going on in town, that what y'all do is like...well...way more than just being a Eucharistic Pez Dispenser on Sundays."

So, when you tell the ice cream truck story, you can add the "Eucharistic Pez Dispenser" to your religious imagination!

(I am also thinking with a few scraps of cloth, I see another potential gag gift, here...)

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Well, Suzer, I did give him his due - the church is supposed to offer sustenance, nourishment and inspiration. On the other hand, if priests ordained in God's one, holy, catholic and apostolic church church don't uphold a standard of the excellence of Jesus, then who will? I takes my Jesus and His mission as serious as He did. No apologies. No excuses.

To your other point - some of the most compassionate care I've seen given to Hospice patients is when loved ones or care givers bring that person's favorite ice cream - even if it has to be blended into a shake in order to get it down.

Personally, I consider Ice Cream an important and unique food group. In fact, it's almost time for my nightly bowl. Yum. Yum.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Oh, Bill, don't tempt me.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Well, Jim, of course you're right. Which is why I kept a civil tongue in my head and tried to get him to move from fear to faith by enlisting his imagination.

It's hard to be creative when your fists are clenched or you keep wringing your hands.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Kirke - Eucharistic Pez Dispenser! What a hoot!

Quick story: When I was in seminary, one of our middle daughters finally 'got it' one day in church, that what the 'male' priest was doing 'up there' was what I was studying to become.

"Cool, mom," she said. You only get to work an hour every Sunday."

Oh, if were only so. Actually, none of what I do at the altar on Sunday makes any sense except for the broken lives I try to tend to the rest of the week.

Jane Priest said...

Church as the weekly treat like ice cream and the Eucharistic Pez dispenser...ROFLMAO because I think this is in EVERY congregation.

Elizabeth, I wish we could have a clergy exchange for one of my parishes because my organist tells me, tongue in cheeck, I should open a drive through Jeezit window and my parishioners tell me they just want to leave each Sunday feeling good.

What about feeling convicted? Loved enough to love others who may be hard to love (and yes I love my flock even when they drive me batty). I guess they go through so much sh!t in the week they need/want to have just one day to feel good. Not saying that can't/shouldn't come from church but is that is all that's there then it's a hollow experience and existence.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Amen, Joie. Preach it, Sistah!

Jeezit! Love it.

David G. said...

I have to say, as much as people (who don't live in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan try to JUDGE), there way of Church is the progressive way,...Deacons can run Sunday services,... Communion on the other hand I have questions about. And since the Episcopal Church wants to make Eucharist the step off point, Get Qualified People to Give it on a weekly basis,..or look for your numbers to continue to go DOWN!!

I just wish I lived somewhere where I could celebrate God's True Light....Central Florida is NOT the PLACE!!

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Oh, David G., I'm not talking about recruiting more LEMs. I'm not talking about pragmatic functionality. Eucharist is not a 'step off point' - it is core and central to whom we understand ourselves to be as 'one, holy, catholic and apostolic church.'

I'm talking about mission. It starts with mission. Then, the people to do the mission will follow. Then, the money to accomplish the mission will follow.

Kirkepiscatoid said...

What I realize about the "Eucharistic Pez Dispenser" analogy, is if I extend it to my own vocation, that would just make me the "dispenser of surgical pathologic diagnoses." That somehow "I" create the diagnosis instead of simply channeling what it is already into useful form to the patient and his/her doctor.

For sure, the priest has a special role in this by way of vocation and training. But if we connect the priest to the sacrament too tightly, we miss the point. What embodies the Eucharist is already "there" just like someone's cholecystitis is already there, and my looking at the gallbladder under the microscope and going "Yep," doesn't CREATE the diagnosis.

What embodies it is already "there" in me by way of my baptism, and by way of things that happened long before I was born. The priest is the catalyst for this, and if we don't think about "us" in it, and "things bigger than us" we miss the good stuff about it!

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Spot on, Kirke, spot on.

Paul said...

I am so naive. I have always believed we were supposed to be transformed by grace (yes, theosis, I am quite Orthodox in many ways). Nourishment is certainly part of that but far, far from enough.

WilliamK said...

I've been thining a lot about this post, and found Paul's comment very helpful. I don't want to unfairly judge what sounds like a fairly 'spontaneous' metaphor, or to condemn the person who used it... but sometimes what people say spontaneously tells us a lot about their deepest thoughts and feelings.

Ice cream is "junk food" that can function as "comfort food." It tastes good, etc., and can give some real pleasure. But you can't live on it. It's troubling that someone might think of what is offered by the church as "ice cream."

Scripture's food-language refers to real nourishment, to what sustains and increases LIFE in us... for example, "living water," "flesh," "bread."

I'd press for a different metaphor: a soup kitchen. We're all homeless and hungry, and we come to church to get food and drink we need to stay alive... and then, strengthened by that food and drink we go out and find others who are homeless and hungry and invite them to the free feast.

This metaphor, I think, would be much more helpful to a church figuring out how to deal with financial challenges. What do soup kitchens do when their funds are tight?