Saturday, March 6, 2010

Money and Church Participation

Recently I have been confronted with the issue of the relationship between money and participation in the church on several separate occasions. As an elected leader in the church, I have some responsibility to develop a position on this issue, because I have opportunities to speak and vote on resolutions that turn on this issue.

One issue is whether or not church entities should have the right to voice and vote when they do not pay their share of the askings or assessments that fund the work of the wider church. The second is the issue of whether or not an individual who is a member of one of these church entities should have the right to serve in elected office with the right to voice and vote, and in particular, if that individual were in a leadership position her/himself and able to influence the payment or withholding of funds.

The first question I ask myself is this: is there, or should there be, a causal relationship between money and participation, between financial contribution and the right to partake of the benefits of the entity? In the secular private sector, it is certainly true that if you don't pay, you don't play viz. club memberships.

It is somewhat less clear in the secular public sector that the same would be true. Generally speaking, citizenship affords certain inalienable or sovereign rights such as the right to the pursuit of life, liberty and happiness. As a country, the United States has further expanded the pursuit of life, liberty and happiness to mean specific things under layers of federal, state and local laws covering everything from one's rights to treatment in a hospital emergency room to protection against dangerous animals to a free K-12 public education.

These rights are not without limitations and corresponding responsibilities. You are expected to pay for or have access to payment mechanisms including Medicare and Medicaid for that emergency room treatment. You cannot leave food and trash on your front porch to tempt the bears. You are expected to adhere to attendance rules and not to interfere with the rights of other students.

Failure to live by the rules brings with it certain penalties, but they are nuanced based on the degree to which the right in question is considered an intrinsic human right. You could be expelled from school long-term, even permanently, if your infractions are sufficiently egregious. The animal control officers will come to rid you of the bear that has invaded your home, but you might be charged for the cost of the service if you contributed to the bear being there by poor food hygiene in known bear country. But the emergency room cannot withhold life-saving treatment until you are stabilized no matter how poor your ability to pay is or how self-inflicted the harm was.

What, then, of citizenship in the church? Our Christian theology says that we are all beloved children of a loving God and all members of the Body of Christ. Some Christians believe that membership in the Body of Christ is dependent upon being baptized; others believe that membership derives from being creatures of God's creation that God declared as good. The church and the Body are not synonymous even though we tend to talk of them as if they were. The institutional church is a human construct and subject to all the perversions that humans make of human things.

Is there such a thing as inalienable rights that Christians have that cannot be taken away or infringed upon? Certainly it is true that our theology says that we have an inalienable grace given by God through no merit or acts of our own that no one can separate us from and that cannot be taken away by any human act. But is there a comparison or a relationship between inalienable rights and inalienable grace?

Rights are a human social concept arising out of human social constructs such as society at large and institutions and entities in specific. Grace is largely ignored when humans form societies, institutions and entities whether these are formed informally and organically or intentionally and by formal design. (Is it grace or is it enlightened self-interest when we give a pass to those at the lowest rungs of poverty or debilitation of mental illness? - An important question and subject for a separate posting at another time.) Norms, rules and laws tend to develop around concepts of limits, boundaries and protections: ways to protect ourselves from the excesses, preferences and unwanted behaviors of others.

I raise more questions than I have answers for. Such is the quandary of the exercise of leadership. I am elected as a leader in an institutional church. It is a membership body even though the understanding of the rules for membership and the indices of membership differ throughout the self-same institution from one diocese to another. Just like in the United States democracy, the institutional church is not of one mind when it comes to how we contribute and pay for the support of our life together as an institution.

In our country, we have laws and enforcement mechanisms when citizens fail to pay their share for our country's life together. In the institutional church, we also have rules and enforcement mechanisms when congregations fail to pay their share for their dioceses' life together. It is less clear what the enforcement mechanisms are at the churchwide level.

Clearly it is harsh if one is the supportive individual in an unsupportive congregation or diocese and becomes caught up in the censure applied to the unsupportive congregation or diocese. It's a lot like living in a community that has voted against a mil levy for schools which you support that means your children will not have music and arts in their schools. Because of interdependence, in society as well as in the institutional church, our communal decisions always impact those who disagree with the decisions adversely. You don't get what you passionately want or you pay for what you passionately don't want. 

When the nonpayment of institutional church askings and assessments is based upon theological differences and is an exercise of civil disobedience, is it then ethical to impose sanctions allowed by church rules against those who disagree but still want to participate? Is it ethical for a nation to imprison conscientious objectors? What about people who withhold payment of income taxes because they object to the government's war policies? How does one make one's voice heard when one disagrees with the vast majority of the entity or institution?

Much as I would like to be able to come up with a cohesive ethos on this subject, I am simply unable to. I have many more questions than answers. I believe in the practice of patience and listening. I want to resist the tendency to snap judgments. I don't find it helpful to say the other side is wrong, and I'm right, and to go from there.

I am reminded of a vignette early in Elliot Pattison's first novel set in Tibet, "The Skull Mantra," when a circle of monks, surrounded by Chinese soldiers with rifles aimed at the monks, pray, not for their own safety from harm, but for a change of heart on the part of the Chinese soldiers. That is what I am going to do, pray for a softening of the hearts of all involved in our controversies in the church, so that we can listen, learn and go from there.

And insofar as how I will speak and vote on resolutions that turn on these issues, I will do my best to seek full disclosure of the facts surrounding the issues, to listen openly and patiently, to calm the conversational waters, to ask for separation of multiple issues into their distinct parts, and to wait upon the Spirit through prayer and reflection.


PseudoPiskie said...

Wow! Lots to deal with here. I have a very prejudiced opinion of voting and assessments. We paid our assessment when it was half of our budget so I have little sympathy for those who withhold for whatever reason. IMNSHO TEC is an organization with rules for membership. If a diocese such as ours can't pay, that is one thing. If payment is withheld for any reason, voting rights should also be withheld. Either one is a participating member or one is not. Jesus would probably not be pleased by the structures and rules we have concocted.

wv = obliarea


Shelley, thanks for reading and commenting. There is, indeed, so much to deal with here.

God's economy is not humankind's economy, but I often don't know how, don't have the heart, to access God's economy.

The question of intent when withholding of funds occurs is a challenging one. Whose intent gets judged? The leaders of the entity that withholds or the members who disagree but don't have the power to circumvent their leaders' actions? There is a sense in which they all get punished together as a group if sanctions are enacted.

Who gets to do the judging of intent and/or of poverty sufficient to get a pass? The bishop of the diocese, the Standing Committee, the Chancellor, or some other person(s)?

When I am fat and comfortable and pay more than my "fair share," I feel good about doing that, even a bit sanctimonious. However, when I am strapped for cash because of financial setbacks, I feel stressed and tend to be hyper-aware of what others are or are not doing, even to the point of wanting to regulate their behavior.

What would Jesus think? I think of his parables of the widow's mite, of the workers in the field, and of seventy times seven.

PseudoPiskie said...

I consider "withholding" different from inability to pay. The actions of Iker, Duncan and others are/were intentional. The result should also be intentional. Diverting funds = diverting voting privileges. If there must be an institutional hierarchy, there should be institutional rules to which everyone must subscribe. Financial support should be negotiable to some extent but refusing to pay while expecting all the privileges is just plain wrong.

And I don't think Godde or Jesus or even the Holy Spirit would have much to do with any institutional church these days anyhow.

PseudoPiskie said...

PS I always read your blog.


Shelley, you are correct, IMHO, to distinguish between withholding and inability to pay, especially when the withholding is for the express purpose of "punishing" the wider church.

My experience is that I have sat in on vestry discussions where there has been withholding based on scarcity and selfish thinking when perhaps there hasn't been a true inability to pay nor a punitive motivation. One could then say, I suppose, much formation work including stewardship education remains to be done. This type of withholding is more prevalent, I think, than that practiced by those intent on schism. This is also where I have seen a wider range of pastoral and teaching responses and where I pray that nuanced responses will prevail instead of binary either-or rules enforcement.

I don't believe that we will go from the institutional church as we know it today to no institutional church. Humankind simply likes order and hierarchy too much for that to be the case. I think that some new forms of organization will be birthed while some existing forms of organization will become irrelevant and die.

In my former banking career, I watched a national banking professional organization shrink from almost 30,000 dues paying members to fewer than 1,000 overnight when the industry faced external economic pressures, and the good and valuable benefits of belonging simply were no longer relevant to the potential members in their new economic context. The smaller surviving organization is no longer the same as the old, with new emphasis placed on alliances, collaboration and contracted services in order to serve the ongoing membership.

I really do appreciate your readership, and even more, your comments, because I know that as a leader, I cannot afford to think my own thoughts in the isolation of my own limitations and biases.


PseudoPiskie said...

My favorite parish (too far away to attend) has 40 some members now and just signed a contract to fix and insulate the ceiling which will cost as much as their annual budget. Within days they had two significant contributions from people who are not members but want to see the church survive. If you're interested I can send you some email I received on how they conduct their vestry meetings and how that decision was made. They tithe every cent they receive and always make the budget. I wish I could convince our vestry to try it but I suspect it is too radical. Perhaps too "religious"?