The most intense conversation the ELCA Conference of Bishops had at its March meeting in Chicago addressed the always tough questions around money. How we operate as a church may depend on how this plays out.
It’s not news that mission support — money from donations to congregations that is passed along to synods and the churchwide office to support their work — continues a downward trend that dates to at least 2009. The small chart below is used only to help visualize the stark decline over the years of funds reaching the churchwide organization, from more than $65 million in 2009 to just under $49 million in 2013. Synods have been similarly impacted.
What is news is the opinion voiced by several bishops that this trend isn’t likely to change and the church as a whole must come to grips with its implications. “Our people are very faithful, but the way they give has changed,” said Presiding BishopElizabeth A. Eaton. As an example, she said members are interested in giving to malaria eradication but not about making sure the auditors validating the books get paid.
So how do we fund the church? Maybe by assessing “what is the main thing” for the church to do and examining that “with a huge degree of honesty and humility,” Eaton said.
Perhaps “our model is outdated,” said Michael Rinehart, bishop of the Texas-Louisiana Gulf Coast Synod. “We need to be leaner and meaner. … People demand accountability. You have to justify why [members should] give money to you … and nobody wants it spent on bureaucracy.”
Others suggested that the ELCA reassure members of the solid work the church does, get involved in the wealth distribution debate, stress the positives of the church (1 in 50 Americans are touched by some service of the church each year), encourage congregations to produce narrative budgets that tell stories of what money is used for, and so forth.
Later, Ralph Jones, bishop of the Northwestern Pennsylvania Synod, made the case for straight talk. When congregation members ask him what they get out of mission support, he tells them: “Absolutely nothing. It’s not about you.” It’s about heeding Jesus’ call to serve the other — discipleship and generosity. Pretty simple yet complicated and countercultural in today’s America.
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