Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Funding stuff...

Well, it's that time of year when our church's Stewardship Team puts together our "annual campaign" to ask our members and friends to "pledge" (we actually use "estimate of giving") their support for the coming year of ministry and mission at St. Paul's. As with many non-profits, funding the work we do is getting harder and harder. Costs are up--surprise!--and younger generations of church attenders are not prone to be as financially supportive as their parents and grandparents.

I have been fortunate to serve churches that do far more than just offer worship services. Each has engaged in a variety of community ministries from feeding programs to children's ministry that reached out into the families of the community. Most also supported myriad relief efforts in times of natural disasters, and most fielded work trips or "Volunteer in Mission" teams which did "hands on" acts of caring. What I'm saying is that we did far more with the dollars entrusted to us by these congregations than just hold worship and pay the gas bill--in business parlance, I guess you'd say "more bang for the buck." Hence, we have been able to encourage giving out of integrity, knowing that the "good" we did was worth it. Still, as the older generations move on--either to personal care homes or the "Church Triumphant"--the budget is getting harder to cover.

Of the churches I have served, St. Paul's is the most heavily invested in ministries of education, outreach, and regional and international mission. Interestingly, it is also the only church with basically no invested funds (endowments, trusts, etc.) from which to draw in times of low giving or poor cash flow. That is a challenge! Our Stewardship Team is working on several new ideas, from intentionally encouraging legacy gifts, to new electronic giving options via smart phones. We believe in what we are about, and have a great track record of delivering on our mission and vision. We are in the final stages of creating and approving a "fresh" mission and vision to guide us in the coming years. And yet, with some of the generational "shifts" happening, we go forward with some fear and trepidation. I like to think we trust God to provide, and this is what we preach, teach, and model for the congregation, but as lead pastor, I would be less than honest to say I'm comfortable with this level of uncertainty.

Yeah, I'm a pastor, so I started this blog with the financial woes of the church. And I realize that I have been very fortunate to serve vital churches that worked hard to maintain relevance beyond religion. But the second part of this "rant" is that our societal priorities--or lack thereof--threaten to plunge many non-profit causes into financial crises. As I write this, the Pittsburgh Symphony is on strike because of an unacceptable contract offer, and the teachers in the Pennsylvania State university system have gone out on the picket line as well. Charities, the arts, and education are all taking it on the financial "chin," currently. As is true with the church, generational shifts in charitable giving are having an increasingly negative effect. People who do set a high priority on charitable giving are inundated with requests for gifts and donations. It is not a premium time to be in the non-profit sector!

What will be the "fix" for this? First of all, I believe we need to restructure some of our societal priorities. We have never come up with a way to fund education that works. Public schools rely on outmoded systems of taxation and funds distribution. School boards are so intimidated that it is getting harder to get people to run for school board in many of our communities. Public universities find costs outstripping revenues, and tuition increases only serve to cut down on the number of students. Even private colleges and universities struggle unless they are blessed with huge endowments, as tuition costs have increased rapidly. Current school loan programs encourage high debt on the part of students who will enter the job market at salary levels inadequate to pay them down in a reasonable time frame. Many with undergraduate and graduate degrees will make school loan payments for the rest of their working careers!

In a nation that will spend over a trillion dollars on a single fighter plane program (the F35 Joint Strike Fighter) and that spends over 32% of its annual budget on defense, is it any surprise that when it comes to education as a national priority, we "speak loudly but carry a toothpick"? I'm not saying that national defense and "homeland security" aren't important, but a third of the federal budget?

Making a quality education for all a priority in the United States, and making the necessary financial sacrifices in the federal budget to fund it, would free up lots of money in the hands of citizens to fund other charities and the arts. A better educated citizenry would have a tremendous impact on our nation and the world. Better education means a deeper understanding of world issues, and may mean more informed ways to work for justice and peace. Fielding a strong defense doesn't have to bankrupt our nation, but not coming up with a better plan for funding education will, in the long run.

Finally, we must cultivate the generosity of all Americans. As mentioned earlier, younger generations are not demonstrating the altruism of their parents. Look around. The beautiful homes in a local housing plan near our church that used to house corporate leaders, school administrators, and medical professionals are now starter homes for the younger generations. Near where I live in Mars, PA, homes are going up all around that start at $800,000 and go upwards of three million dollars in cost! The average square footage of a new home today is 1,000 square feet larger than a new home in 1973. This is just one example of where we are parking our dollars. Automobiles? In our housing plan, our Toyota Prius and Subaru Forrester are, by far, the "bargain" cars in the neighborhood!

I'm suggesting that we all should take a "priority audit" of our own spending. How can we ever expect out government to re-prioritize its spending when it may just be following our lead? And please note that I'm not just harping on "giving to the poor" or "taking care of the least of these," according to the words of Jesus. I DO believe this should be a high national priority so none starve or have to be homeless who do not want to be, but in the long run, I think the "cure" for poverty is access to appropriate education and jobs that will lift people out of poverty.

Well, today's rant has been brought to you by a growing frustration in seeing college teachers and symphony artists on the picket line, and church stewardship teams beginning to feel like TV hucksters in finding ways to fund the mission and ministry our own people say they want. Should we trust God for help with all of this? I have to say "yes," but I remember the words of a wise old pastor who once told me that the expression, "Prayer changes things" was in error. Instead, he said, "Prayer changes people and people change things." Right or wrong, it's a good place to start! Shalom, Yinz...

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Political Ads...

I'm not going to write about the political climate again--if you're not tired of that already, you probably need therapy. I am going to address a concern that arises from the advertisements overrunning just about every media outlet before our eyes and ears, but most especially TV and radio. Political ads on these media fall into the "You've GOT to be kidding?" category.

While watching television the other night, and being confronted with advertisements for candidates ranging from President to Congress-persons, I found both my anger level rising and my "bull" detector sounding off like a ship's klaxon. First of all, the people who make these ads are either nuts, evil, or on something, and possibly a combination of all three. Rarely did any of the ads address actual issues facing voters, and when they did, they either oversimplified complex issues beyond all hope, or they just turned and demonized the opponent, having named the issue in question. I realize that they only have thirty seconds in which to make their point, but please people, how about an ad that goes something like this:

"Hi, my name is _____________ and I'm running for_______________. I believe the three most important issues facing Pennsylvanians/Americans are: 1__________, 2_________ and 3_________. I have specific ideas on how to address these. Please visit my website at: _______________ for more information, or call ___________ and we'll send you a printed copy.  After seeing my ideas, I hope you will vote for me on November 8."

Honestly, if I saw an ad like that, I might vote for the person just on principle! The ad, however, makes an assumption: that voters WANT to be informed and are willing to READ to be so. Therein lies the problem...

When it comes to important stuff--who we will elect as our local and national leaders, the health and welfare of our families, and our religious beliefs--seeking reliable, accurate, and detail-oriented information and READING it should be a proverbial "no-brainer." Whatever happened to an informed citizenry? Has Twitter and FaceBook robbed us of the desire to know more than tag lines, slogans, and "tweets" about things that impact our existence? The fact that political campaigns spend MILLIONS on TV and radio ads tells me that they are bearing fruit. I just can't imagine hearing one of these childishly oversimplified "problem/solution" ads or a nasty "smear" ad and thinking, "Oh boy, I'm gonna' vote for her/him!!!" They insult our intelligence, each and every one, and yet they must be working or candidates would stop doing them!

As a pastor, I sometimes find myself in a "debate" over an aspect of religious faith with a church member or even a clergy colleague. I quickly deduce that the other is not well versed in the subject on which they have a strong opinion. When I suggest a book or two, or a series of articles for them to read so as to be better informed, I may get the cold, hard "Are you KIDDING?" look. I fear that the "political climate" polarization may have helped ruin the art of conversation and an informed citizenry. This reminds me of an old episode of the popular TV show, "Cheers," in which the cerebral waitress Diane tried to end a beer-fueled debate going on in the bar by inviting opposing parties into the back room for a healthy, informed conversation about the issue. No one left their bar stool. Then, Diane said, "OK, how about everybody with a two-bit opinion?" And the whole bar emptied into the backroom.

Friends, I don't EVEN want to suggest how you choose to vote, or for whom. But PLEASE do your duty and vote! And PLEASE seek out reliable, intelligent sources of information about the candidates  and READ. Do a little research, as such sources of information are getting harder to find, due to the popularity of heavily skewed media! At least read BOTH sides, if you can't find less partisan sources. Be able to give an account for the choices you make on November 8. Be able to say:

"I have decided to vote for _______________, and based on the information I was able to find and read, I am choosing this candidate for the following reasons:______________________."

Make sure you are adequately informed, that the "reasons" you cite are more than just the tag-lines of someone's moronic ad, and that none of the reasons is an attack on the other candidate! This puts you well on the path of being an informed citizen. Good for you!

Oh, and when it comes to the health and welfare of your family, consult reliable health professionals and sources, not the latest miracle "cure" on FaceBook; in terms of financial matters, don't fall for a scheme or call one of those 800 numbers where they claim to "eliminate" your debt, and when it comes to parenting advice, read some books or take a class.

And if the subject is your religious faith, read, read, read! Maybe even the Bible? And ask your pastor if you can borrow a commentary or two? How about taking in a lecture at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary? Most of them are free, and feature world-class scholars!

If we don't soon begin to reverse this "two-bit opinion" trend now infesting our politics, our finances, and our faith, we will soon be left with nothing but "two-bit" leaders. And for a nation that built itself on hard work, education, and an engaged, informed citizenry, the results will be calamitous.

What's Next?

  What’s Next?   2 Samuel 6:1-5, 12b-19 6:1 David again gathered all the chosen men of Israel, thirty thousand. 6:2 David and all the people...