Friday, August 31, 2012
Thrivent Financial for. . . whom?
After thinking on a long conversation about Thrivent Financial and its changes, some things became clearer to me. Thrivent (and before it AAL and LB) were effective not because they had the best financial products in the world but because they were connected to the church, because they were personal (not institutional), and because they had an appeal beyond simply a certain financial need. When these began they were fraternals with a distinct identity and purpose. They were FOR LUTHERANS. More importantly, they were LUTHERANS helping Lutherans. It was Aid Association for LUTHERANS and LUTHERAN Brotherhood. You were not a client. You were a member and by membership, an owner. You were not merely filling a financial need, you were helping other Lutherans with their own financial needs and, at the same time, helping your own Lutheran congregation, district, synod, and institutions. It was a ripple effect.
The face of these groups was not an institutional face, no corporate headquarters or logo. No, the face of these groups was the familiar face of a representative who was your friend, your fellow Lutheran, and the folks in your AAL or LB branch (again, your fellow Lutherans). The financial was important, to be sure, but the face of the financial was the fraternal -- people with the same identity helping each other. If you were suspicious about financial institutions, you need not be fearful of the folks who worshiped with you, who ate together with you at the pot lucks, who prayed with you in troubled times, who shed tears with you in times of sorrow, and who took up your cause as their own when catastrophe hit.
The face of these groups was so personal and so powerful, they became one of the ways Lutheran identity extended into the community. The folks holding the bake sale for the child needing major surgery or hosting the spaghetti supper for the victims of a storm or having a yard sale to raise funds for the volunteer fire department were Lutherans who cared also about the communities where they lived. The face of the Lutheranism they brought to the community was the welcome face of Lutherans who wanted to help, to share the burden, and to meet the needs -- even of those NOT Lutheran.
At some point, before the actual merger of AAL and LB into Thrivent, this became blurred. It began with the desire to be bigger and stronger but with that desire the identity of these fraternals began to shift from the fraternal to simply the financial. The whole rationale for the merger in 2001 was financial -- Thrivent will be a stronger company, able to offer a wider range of products, and more efficient (how many good things are destroyed in the name of efficiency). The fraternal side of things was hardly a thought in this merger process as is documented by the way the old and strong branches were torn down to be replaced by weak chapters that ignored all the old loyalties and identities. The fraternal side is required by the government's rules for fraternals but it no longer was an important side of the financial entity for Lutherans.
The members who voted for this merger had visions of the value of a stronger financial company and trusted that the fraternal face of this for Lutherans brand would remain. Everyone now agrees that the branches (excuse me, chapters) are a dismal failure, limping toward a demise that would be all but assured were it not for those pesky government rules. The community work has been replaced by Thrivent Choice -- your good work in your neighborhood or city has been replaced by a mouse click on the company web site that directs your dollars to a faceless and nameless organization known only by reputation. The personal component which connected me to the folks in the pew and in the community is largely now gone. In fact, the changes in Thrivent Choice will mean that any 501c3 (read that non-profit) can be the recipient of our dollars and the Lutheran ties now largely mean nothing whatsoever to the fraternal work. We no longer work together at anything but a mouse click and our dollars are not the ones we raised together and matched and turned over for the good cause but simply checkbook charity without even the checkbook.
I loved AAL and LB for what they were and what they did. I am greatly disappointed and even wounded by the loss of these and the move of Thrivent toward a generic Christian identity that is less fraternal than it is a financial services company (and a giant one at that) that also has a small conscience. It is hard to feel like you are a member of this kind of firm. It is easy to feel like the only thing that matters is the premium check or electronic debit for your financial services product.
I do not so much blame the head honchos in Minneapolis and Appleton as I do blame Lutherans. We get so darn self-conscious about that name Lutheran and our Lutheran identity. We have agreed to diluting the Lutheran out of this LUTHERAN fraternal organization just like we have allowed other Lutheran identities to dilute their own Lutheran brand until nothing but a history and a legacy remain. We believe that sharing our little fraternal is a good thing and, well, if losing its Lutheran character is the price, well, I guess it is what we have to do. Now I know that Thrivent Financial for Christians would be bigger and stronger than Thrivent Financial for Lutherans but that bigger does not mean better. Frankly, I am not all that interested in a financial services company required to give money to non-profits in lieu of taxes on their profits. I cannot imagine that this entity would engender much real loyalty from anyone. We will buy its products if they are good and maybe remember to go online and click the thousand clicks until we find a list of charitable mostly non-Lutheran groups to get our money but to call such a thing a fraternal is to betray what the term fraternal means. Is this what we are willing to settle for?
I want better from Thrivent. I was it to be what it was begun to be -- a LUTHERAN fraternal, LUTHERANS helping LUTHERANS. I lament the personal face of this fraternal and its replacement with a corporate identity. I am not a complete fool. We Lutherans will probably pass the diluted Lutheran connection with a big majority. But the cost of this choice will be great and one day we will wake up and find that what was a great Lutheran partner to families and individuals is now just a generic financial services company that is obligated to invest some of its profits into non-profits. We will have done it to ourselves but that will make the loss only greater. I have a deep affection for the idea of Thrivent Financial for Lutherans, built upon the courageous and visionary founders of AAL and LB. It is the reality of a Thrivent Financial for any Christian who has got money that gets me angry.