This post is part of a series based on Thom Rainer’s Autopsy of a Deceased Church. Please see the introductory post, Autopsy of a Deceased Church: Quaker Edition, for an overview of the series.
If, then, there is any comfort in Christ, any consolation from love, any partnership in the Spirit, any tender affection and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or empty conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests but to the interests of others.
– Philippians 2:1-4
“When you conduct the autopsy of a church,” Rainer says, “you must follow the money. For where the money of the church goes, so goes its heart.”
When a congregation is struggling, typical personnel, building and facility costs are reduced only as a last resort. “In dying churches, the last expenditures to be reduced are those that keep the members most comfortable.”
When membership begins to shrink, donations go down and outreach and community ministries are the first to get cut. Rainer writes in grim terms about how, in dying churches, staff members are expected to spend their time almost exclusively on the needs of existing church members, rather than on helping the church to manifest God’s love in the community.
In unprogrammed Quaker meetings, this inward focus might be less obvious. After all, we generally don’t have any paid staff – to tend to our needs or anyone else’s. But we might see dying meetings lay down (or fail to create) Advancement committees, as energy to maintain a Quaker presence at community events or to thoughtfully and deliberately invite new attenders into the community diminishes. We might see meetings lay down their Peace and Social Concerns committees, as coordinating meeting-wide service initiatives begins to feel futile due to low participation. Finally, we might see dying meetings disinvest from their First Day School programs, as the needs of parents and children are tacitly acknowledged to be in competition with those of settled older adults. Those with power and longevity in the community ensure that their needs keep getting met, while increasingly neglecting those they are called to serve – children, those new to our faith, people in prison, people with disabilities and people who are struggling financially.
In a dying meeting, the bulk of the budget isn’t dedicated to embodying the Kingdom of Heaven through spiritual deepening or working toward justice and mercy in the world. Ignoring Friend Micah Bales’ prophetic challenge to “burn down the meetinghouse,” Friends instead spend their dwindling resources on internal priorities and the expenses associated with keeping a meetinghouse well-warmed, well-lit and well cared-for – even if there’s nobody in it.
Reflect on your church or meeting’s budget and volunteer hours. What priorities do we support with our money and our time? Think about the fraction of resources dedicated to outward-facing ministry – advancement and evangelism, service to the needy, contributing to the community via volunteering or interfaith witness? Now consider the fraction of resources dedicated to inward-facing ministry – facilities, pastoral care and the like.
I don’t know the right balance of spending in different categories – after all, a nice building can be incredibly helpful in welcoming newcomers – but I have heard it said that the Church is the only organization that exists primarily for the benefit of those who are not yet members. Do our priorities reflect that mission?