Saturday, April 22, 2023

Blessing or curse?

The bane of many congregations is also their proud blessing -- a building.  I wish that I could say that I have not wondered why buildings became such a focus of our congregation's life.  It seems that so many of our problems and financial woes can be tied to real estate.  But, where would we be without those places of beauty in which we gather around the Word and Table of the Lord?  Is there anyone who honestly believes that the Church could have continued to exist solely within the homes of members as it did in the beginning?  So it would seem that blessing means taming the beast that is property and being financially prudent to make sure that we give these facilities the attention they need but no more.

When I grew up the slogan for Pontiac was longer, lower, and wider.  That seems to be an apt description of what has happened to our church buildings as well.  We moved to expansive structures that were mostly one story and consumed more ground for our structures than ever before.  In the city where I live, there are churches that literally consume the entire block of their address and more.  Strangely enough, the largest congregation in town has a much smaller imprint on the map than the one people assume is the biggest.  That may have something to do with the focus of the two congregations.

Where the facilities of the largest congregation (Roman Catholic) are focused largely on worship and catechesis, the buildings of the one people think is the largest (Baptist) has everything from weight rooms to athletic facilities to community rooms and on and on and on.  In fact, the space devoted to worship is but a small portion of the overall structure.  Perhaps that is the problem.  We Lutherans generally look to others as the pace setter for what we ought to be doing and we have looked at the expansive campuses of these Baptist and non-denominational congregations with envious eyes.  Is that really what we ought to be about?  

Soon after moving to Tennessee an early and insightful conversation with the neighboring Baptist pastor revealed that Sunday school attendance was the more important barometer of church health than any other statistic.  The sheer number of rooms used mostly for small adult and youth Sunday school classes (many only once a week) testifies to the importance attached to this.  Is that who we are?  The same complex had a gym as large as the sanctuary and housed a large sports program for which the congregation was well known.  Is that what distinguishes us?  The same congregation now has a satellite campus with a significant athletic club style set up and with ball fields and other outdoor space to support this kind of ministry.  Is that what we ought to be doing?

Before moving from New York to Tennessee now going on 31 years ago, the county we were in was facing financial problems because so much of the property in the county was owned by churches and tax exempt.  Even though much of the property had only limited or seasonal use and not for worship, they owned it because they could and it did not seem to cost them much.  Finally the county explored how they might tax property that was not used specifically for worship.  Suddenly those congregations had to decide how important that real estate was to them.  It was a consideration long delayed but very important.  My own parish had to decide what to do with an old resort that had been bequeathed to us.  We sold it as soon as we could.

What I am saying is this.  What buildings we need should be related to our primary mission.  Worship and catechesis remain the central focus of any Lutheran congregation of any size.  The scope of the structure might change because of the difference in attendance but not the primary purpose.  The rest of it is not evil or bad but it might distract us from the primary mission and will at least compete with that same primary mission for our funds.  In either case, it is not good.

Our building recently went through some updates -- walls painted that had not been touched in 20 years or more, restrooms that needed more than cosmetic attention, roof structures to be repaired, and HVAC units to be replaced.  It was costly but it was for rooms that are well used every day and every week.  In fact, none of our facility sits idle and every square foot of space is used regularly.  We are not maintaining a monument to ourselves but providing space for the work of the kingdom.  That said, their is a blessing and a curse involved with buildings.  We all know it.  Somebody once said the Roman Catholics are the largest land owners in the world.  Probably so but the rest of us Christians are probably not far behind.

Nobody ever prepared me for this kind of thing.  I learned nothing in seminary about this part of it and am thankful that my dad was skilled in such things and I grew up working with him in his business.  It was an informal education but a needful one.  Every church leader and all pastors need to have a basic understanding of finance, of the value of buildings, and of the oversight, maintenance, and use of the facilities and funds or they will surely bite you in the end.  Not to mention, of course, the need to make sure that we do not provide avenues of temptation for corruption.  Transparency in money matters and things related to building is essential.  Money given by donors for specific purposes must be accounted for and maybe some donations of property should be refused if it does not accord with needs. 

Working with money can be seductive, even for clerics, but it can also consume us when our ministry and mission lies with the Gospel and God's people.  The finance and property people and their cause should never get the final word but they must be heard or the work of the church and her mission will be swallowed up by their often consuming needs.

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