Some Thoughts on the Church of God’s Reallocation of Resources

I generally try not to take up too much space in this blog on strictly Church of God issues, but MissionalCOG’s recent post on the impending reallocation of resources compels me to say something on this subject.  (Before you start, read the Terms and Conditions of this site.)

For those of you who are a) new and/or b) unfamiliar with my church structure: the Church of God is presently taking a hard look at how much its local churches (the COG, unlike TEC, is a true centralised church) are required to send to its state/regional (diocesan) offices and to its International Offices in Cleveland, TN.  This has been an ongoing process; the church has formed a special select committee to review the issue and, as the MissionalCOG piece states, that committee has its next plenary session in April 2009.  So, in plain terms, something is about to happen.

The central reality of that “something” is that, combining the reduction in the percentage of local church tithes being sent up with the current state of the economy, the income of the general church will decrease from US$25,000,000/year to US$15,000,000/year.  That’s a 40% decrease, a hefty drop by any standard.  There will be hard decisions to make and there will be pain.  At this level, both are unavoidable.  Having spent most of my working career in an industries which are wildly cyclical, I am to some extent prepared for this kind of swing, but for those who are not this is coming as a rude jolt.

Working in that kind of environment convinced me of two things.

The first was that diversification of financial sources and resources is important.  It’s great to ride something straight up until it goes straight down; just ask anyone with real estate in South Florida.  The second was that it’s important to “travel light,” i.e. work and live with as little fixed overhead as possible.  Ideally ones expenses should be in a constant direct proportion to income, but that’s not realistic in this life.  So one must minimise the fixed component.

That’s significant to the present situation of our church because much of the difficulty we face is the result of a high fixed overhead, especially in physical plant.  The church is taking positive steps to rectify this situation (like this), and its ability to operate in the reduced funding environment will depend in no small measure on the success of these steps.

But that leads me to the next point: the general church’s tendency to expand physical plant past what is economically sensible isn’t a phenomenon restricted to the central church.  We see this in local churches as well, the same local churches which will economically benefit by the reduction in the “tithe on tithe” (which will become a true 10% if things go as anticipated.)  It’s simply unrealistic for a local church to invest in the kinds of physical plants we have seen so many of lately that are as underutilised as they are.  And it would be a tragedy for churches to reduce their contribution to the general church only to repeat the same mistakes at a local level.  (It’s also worthy of note that non-profits in general tend to overbuild their physical plants, be they parachurch ministries, country clubs, charitable organisations, and that great non-profit colossus, the government.)

Part of the reason for this is here; beyond that, Anglo churches in the U.S. operate in a high-maintenance culture, and feel constrained to keep up with that culture.  Depending on our future economic course, the culture’s propensity for “champagne taste and beer pocketbook” may change also, which would assist the church if it’s ready to operate in that environment.  If we got to the point where we could use cell groups to spawn churches, the propagation of the gospel in this country could be revolutionised.  (If the Muslims can elect imams from small groups, where’s our limitation?)

Beyond that, the most critical question any denomination must ask is this: who needs us the most?  There are two answers to that question.

The first is small and medium size local churches.  Large churches, whether they have a denominational “covering” (to use that infamous 1970’s term) or not, are in reality worlds unto themselves.  Small and medium size churches need the services of a denomination the most.  Any reallocation of resources needs to take this into consideration.

The second is that a denomination–especially a centralised one–is a source of strength in a time of persecution and attack.  Given the course of our country, all of us will need that strength in the coming times.  This too needs to be accounted for in our structure.

As far as missions are concerned, since the centre of Christianity is shifting to the Third World, it makes sense that the church’s structure reflect this.  I’ve kept up with this re the Anglicans; part of the reason I do that is that I hope that my Pentecostal and Evangelical bretheren will take the hint.

Finally, last week we said goodbye to John Nichols, whose life left few of us in the Church of God untouched.  In his moving farewell video, he thanked the church for giving him the opportunity to do the ministry that he had done.   That sentiment doesn’t get expressed very often, but I feel the same way.  I am grateful for the opportunity that this church has given me the last twelve years working in Laity Ministries.

Now we have uncertainty hanging over our heads.  Many who have more invested in this church that I do stand to lose more, and this is sad.  But ultimately, beyond the vicissitudes of ecclesiastical polity and politics, our eternal objective–and our work to facilitate that in others–is why we are here and do the things we do.  As my Facebook visitors read for my quote:

“And so Jesus, also, to purify the People by his own blood, suffered outside the gate. Therefore let us go out to him ‘outside the camp,’ bearing the same reproaches as he; for here we have no permanent city, but are looking for the City that is to be.” Hebrews 13:12-14, TCNT.

8 thoughts on “Some Thoughts on the Church of God’s Reallocation of Resources”

  1. Don,
    When one considers how we got to this point, it is clear that we did not anticipate the “end from the beginning” to borrow from Covey’s infamous 7 Habits work. Decisions made, even with best intentions, have to be couched in the ability to imagine our future. Whether you are talking about local churches or larger religious organizations, it is vital to keep in mind the rapidly changing landscapes in which we work, labor and minister. I share great concerns for the local churches so strapped with debt management that they see this reduction as the answer to their present dilemma. Truth told, the only significant financial recoveries will occur in churches paying more than $100,000 annually in tithes. My guess is the rest will find its way into the cash accounts and be utilized for maintenance. My hope would be the funds would be strategically planted in new fields, new ministries and growth opportunities for the Gospel. If that happens, this will be good. If not, then we will only weaken the traditional oversight structure of our international and state offices (which may well need work) and make local churches more independently governed both ecclesiastically and financially.

    Your post was great!

  2. Bill,

    If the local monies go into maintenance of the local church, it is still an improvement over the maintenance of a too controlling bureaucracy.

    One would have to admit that the size and power of our overly-centralized bureaucracy has led to abuse of one too many good men. Men who are on the payroll of the COG bureaucracy use the funds of the local church to travel all over the world savaging the reputations of local church pastors. If that kind of activity is defunded, that is reason enough for me.

    DENOMINATION AS MOTHER
    Those sentiments aside, I have found that strong, controlling parents are beneficial while the child is young. As the child grows, the parent must release the child. If the denomination is the mother and the local church is the child, we have controlled many of our children (churches) into overdependency on mom…time to trust the child to take some independent steps and enjoy the relational connection more than be under the authoritarian relationship.

    DENOMINATION AS CHILD
    I have come to believe that the most beneficial analogy is that the denomination is actually the child and the local church is the mother.

    And, if this is the case, we have come to the place where the child has remained dependent on the mother for too long. the child is too fat, too irresponsible, too dependent on the mother.

    By removing the child from the bottle, the child will be forced to grow up, be more responsible, and accept more responsibility for its own future without demanding more coddling from the ever resourcing mother (local church).

    COG denominational structure, it’s time to man up and lose the comfort of your cushion and remember why you were birthed.

    1. Having been Roman Catholic, I understand all too well the concept of “Mother Church.” But I’m not sure that the parent-child analogy is the most helpful in this case.

      When I think of leadership in a Christian setting, I think of servant leadership. Today we hear a lot about that, but servant leadership is a uniquely Christian concept. Just ask any Muslim. It was embodied in Jesus’ own words:

      But Jesus called the ten to him, and said: “Those who are regarded as ruling among the Gentiles lord it over them, as you know, and their great men oppress them. But among you it is not so. No, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, And whoever wants to take the first place among you must be the servant of all; For even the Son of Man came, not be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:42-45)

      To follow this command, the denomination must be the servant of the local church, just as the pastors are the servants of their flock. If either the pastors or the denomination “lord over the Gentiles,” then it is wrong in both cases.

      Beyond that, a denomination and its local church must have each other’s back. That, Travis, is what you told your flock after the Miami-Dade County Parks and Recreation Department allowed you to be run off of your beach baptism. We should be watching each other’s back, and the tougher the times become the more important this will be for everyone.

      Ultimately a denomination must take pastoral care over its ministers in the same way that pastors should do in local churches. And that leads me back to a point I made relative to finances but can be applied to all aspects of church life. It would be a tragedy for local churches to receive the benefit of additional available funds only to use these unwisely. The big difference between a denomination and a local church in this regard is that lay people will vote with their feet faster than ministers and entire churches will if they see things not to their liking. Although that makes the feedback cycle quicker at the local level, over time the result in both cases–be it positive or negative–is the same.

      The Church of God, for its diversity, is one church. The denomination as a whole is a reflection (in some way at least, although I am aware this has limitations) of the local churches and the denomination’s membership at large. It is my primary desire that the reallocation of resources be done with open eyes and understanding. With more recources available comes more responsibility. “From every one to whom much has been given much will be expected, and from the man to whom much has been entrusted the more will be demanded.” (Luke 12:48b)

  3. Don,

    Our track record of selling off properties and squandering the proceeds as well as our wholesale failure to properly administer the $13 million annually designated/mandated for church planting hardly demonstrates servant leadership from the denominational level.

    It better illustrates the parable of the talents where an unproductive servant is having its talents wrenched from his hands. Very directly, I would say the lesson is not a scolding for the local church to feel badly for the denominational structure. Rather, the lesson is for the denomination to learn its lesson, that being:

    “If you want a vibrant future connected to a vibrant local church, make yourself mission useful as opposed to a gigantic sandbag on the balloon…or worse: a 100 year old, diaper wearing baby who needs its mustache parted so the local church can insert the bottle into his wrinkled and weathered lips.”

    1. Let me begin my reply, Travis, by noting that most of my experience with church finances is at the local church level, not the denominational level.

      One of the guiding principles that my years of involvement in church finances has taught me is that it is bad practice to sell off fixed assets (especially real estate) for the purpose of covering operating expenses, unless you in a “do or die” mode and you have to for short-term survival. Such should be sold off either to reduce debt principal or to acquire new fixed assets.

      Beyond that, my business experience tells me that, as local churches and denominations, the main reason we should invest in fixed asets–real or otherwise–is to further our central purpose and mission. Businesses employ payback analyses on such aquisitions. Although the “payback” for non-profits is different, factors such as utilisation relative to building and maintenance cost should be included.

      Let me say that I have seen principles such as this disregarded at both the local and denominational levels.

      I am not here to go back and forth with you on past practices. Neither am I here to discuss the merit or lack of merit of the reallocation of resources. As a layman, I find myself in a decidedly reactive mode. The ministers propose and agree (hopefully) on a solution and I respond accordingly. For the most part, that’s the way it’s done in this church. I am glad to at least have this opportunity to express myself in a forum that is read, and you have helped that forum get read.

      My central point is that, any time more resources come into the hands of our local churches and their pastors, it is a challenge to them–to you–to use those resources to further the mission that Jesus has put us here to do. In this case that response will be spread to the 6000+ congregations that we have in North America, and that response will be as varied as the number of congregations.

      The money we receive from the laity of the church–of which I am one, and have contributed over the years–is a sacred trust. The trust for whatever resources remain at the local level need to be received with both humility and commitment to God and to the congregations to use it wisely.

      That’s my main point, from the standpoint of going forward. As I like to tell liberals on this blog, it’s your–and the pastors of this church–move: make it.

  4. The local church gets more resources by reaching more people. The decision that the General Assembly arrived at in 2008 was that we were going to keep more of our resources because the denominational structure had been poor stewards of the money we (the local church) has entrusted them with.

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