|The church my mom and I attend: First Lutheran, Morris. (B.W. photo)|
Wednesday, September 4, 2013
Offering plates drying up? Why?
The nagging (by insinuation) should be directed at the people are aren't in church.
OK so what are the issues? One impulse tells me that the so-called "main street economy," translated as us rubes out across the U.S. who aren't connected to the East Coast power corridor, isn't in as good a shape as the national media (with ties to that East Coast elite) are telling us.
You know what I think we need? I think we need to go back to a system where you can go to your local bank, set up a savings account or CD and get paid some interest. Like in the old days. The controversial TARP legislation had the effect of pushing interest rates to a negligible level over a long period of time.
The stock market isn't the answer. Now, with the Federal Reserve backing off on its manipulation that elevated the stock market bubble, we ought to all be whistling in the graveyard. People who exited stock funds in favor of bond funds have hardly gotten a windfall. There also may be growing cynicism across the U.S.
We have accepted a system in which profits rule. That's what happens when we decide the stock market is going to have primacy in our lives. Anyone who was alive during the Great Depression will likely tell you "Don't trust the stock market." In the end, it's always the big operators with inside connections who come away with the windfall.
Money corrupts. All the naive common folks who got sucked into mutual funds and 401Ks are not going to be reaping any windfall. Not if history is any indicator. When I was a kid, I had it pounded into my head (by parents who were young for the Depression) that the stock market was a mysterious and foreboding place, not really to be trusted, certainly not by middle class folks.
Starting in about the mid-1980s, popular notions about this seemed to change. "Financial services professionals" started opening their offices on main streets across America. It seemed a revival plan for an otherwise blighted main street America. We had the "Main Street" program in Morris, overseen by government, as evidence that even we needed help. My assessment of "Main Street?" It was sheep dip. It was an example of the overreach of government.
Many experts see a big stock market "correction" coming, as early as this fall. It's more than the usual warnings. You might get ahold of David Stockman's book, "The Great Deformation."
I have been aghast observing how the whole nation thinks Ben Bernanke can lead us along like he's some sort of savior. We'll all eventually realize that he was just buying some time. His actions may be found to be counterproductive in the long run. We send representatives to Washington D.C. from all over the country, and there they blather and demonstrate, seeking attention, when in fact an unelected person like Bernanke seems to hold all the cards. The chairman of the Federal Reserve is supposed to responsibly manage the money supply. That's all he is supposed to do. He is not supposed to try to solve the problems that we elect politicians to solve.
The day of reckoning hasn't quite come yet. While predicting the future with certainty is never guaranteed, the signals are most ominous. One doomsaying economist said: "I'm not saying I can't be wrong; what I'm saying is if I'm wrong, it will mean everything I was taught about economics is wrong."
So, people aren't giving enough money in church. The primary point I'm making is that maybe the economy for common folks - us rubes out here in the Great Plains - isn't as solid as we're led to think. People feel less generous.
At the micro level: two ELCA churches?
Focusing on Morris specifically, I think we have trouble supporting two ELCA Lutheran churches in town. I have written before that the creation of the Good Shepherd Church north of town might drain support from existing churches. I'm not sure to what extent this has happened. This theory might be overblown.
Our two ELCA Lutheran churches are on opposite sides of town, on "opposite sides of the tracks." The street out in front of First Lutheran Church (our church) is in horrendous shape. You'll thump-thump-thump over it.
Of more serious concern is how First Lutheran was designed. There are stairs to negotiate all over the place. It's like our old school that was recently torn down. What's the first thing you saw when you entered the main doors of the 1914 building of our old school complex? You saw a substantial flight of stairs headed up. What's the first thing you see when you go through the doors at the front of First Lutheran? Steps going upward. Oh, and steps go downward to the fellowship hall too. You had to choose.
When the time came for First Lutheran to install an elevator, leaders had no choice, given logistics, but to locate that elevator a long ways from the sanctuary. What a difference from the Catholic Church in Morris. When you step out of the elevator at Assumption (Catholic) Church, you are basically "in the sanctuary!" In fact, you're closest to the front pews, which are the hardest to get filled anyway (in our modest Minnesota culture).
The ELCA Lutheran Church on the west side of the tracks is the complete opposite, architecturally, from First Lutheran. Faith Lutheran in west Morris has everything on one level. There aren't even any steps leading to the entrance! Given how our population is aging (and how older people tend to have more money), Faith Lutheran seems far more advantageous. That's sad for First Lutheran whose leaders have of course always meant well.
Given the financial shortcomings for First Lutheran now, I wonder if a full-fledged consolidation might be coming. To date we have seen some small steps toward consolidation - more sharing of resources and more combined events. But I wonder if those small steps might actually have been counterproductive. You see, these steps may be reducing the sense of identity the respective congregations have. It might be best to "get it over with" and consolidate.
Let's be blunt: Faith Lutheran has been handicapped by a reputation of quite unpleasant conflict among parishioners and/or clergy. I have heard some bizarre stories about parishioners' behavior there. I know of at least two families that have left Faith for First, for this reason. I have been told that some of the more "edgy" parishioners at Faith have gone out to Good Shepherd (what a friend and I refer to as "the dog kennel church" since it's next to Dan Sayles' place). Consider that a rumor.
I have always been bothered about how Morris public school employees seem under pressure to join Faith, as if it's part of the package of working for the school. I don't see why people can't just be left alone in their private lives. Once in a while a free spirit like Wanda Dagen, band director, will come along and just join First.
Broader forces at work too?
Are the financial struggles of churches a reflection of broader social trends? Let's not sneeze at this. The "information age" means we can connect with people of common interests, thus we become part of these new "online communities," and we're less dependent on communities that are defined geographically. Instead of defining ourselves by living in Morris or West Central Minnesota, or by belonging to a certain church, we connect with people in a virtual way who are like us.
The epitome of the old model was "Peyton Place." It was a place where people got bored. I think we overlook how in our contemporary society, thanks to the tech explosion, we have conquered boredom. We have crushed it. So much so, distracted driving has become a major problem and issue. We can hardly keep up with all we're trying to cram into our heads.
A friend tells me that today's younger generation doesn't seem to need to affirm faith by "going to a building." It's a different attitude or lifestyle.
I still go to church at First Lutheran but I don't like taking communion. I have sort of a phobia about it - always have. I'm scared I'll get to the front of the sanctuary and not know quite what to do. Or that I'll trip or something, or - horrors - I'll forget where to sit back down when I'm done. Leave a trail of bread crumbs?
First Lutheran is a venerable old institution in Morris. We'll just have to see what happens. Pastor Paul Erdal is as articulate as they come. He could be a successful "TV pastor."
- Brian Williams - morris mn minnesota - firstname.lastname@example.org