Do We Really Want Rich People to Join Our Churches?

In an unusually barefaced statement of what many Christians actually think, Michael Olgren, Finance Committee Chairman of dying Grace Episcopal Church in Grand Rapids, MI, blurted out the following:

At the parish’s annual meeting on January 12, 2012, Dr. Michael Olgren, Chair of the Finance Committee, painted a dire financial picture of the parish stating that the parish would either have to close its doors in September or revert back to mission status without a significant increase in giving.

If this were to happen, the Diocese would gain access to the parish’s $1.9 million endowment fund. A month previous, Dr. Olgren angered many parishioners at the annual meeting for a stewardship drive, when he wrote “I wish the rich people would come back, I get hungry at coffee hour.” The parish’s Rector, the Rev. Stephen Holmgren did not attend the annual meeting, citing concerns about his father’s health.

 Let me make a few “stipulations” (as my attorney friends would say) right off the bat:

  1. Grace Episcopal Church was the home parish for President Gerald Ford, and for that and other reasons is historically significant.  It was the church that held his funeral service in 2006.  Ford was the next to the last Episcopalian to serve as President (the last one was George H.W. Bush.)
  2. Having been the Finance Committee Chairman of a large church, although I think Dr. Olgren’s statement is a bit over the top, I sympathise with being in a position of a church as large as Grace and having outflow consistently greater than income.
  3. Needless to say, the parish’s endowment fund is a major issue vis a vis the diocese, which only recently closed and sold off its cathedral.
  4. Wealth is relative.  I’m not sure what income level Dr. Olgren had in mind when he thought of “rich people”.  It may not be the same as yours.

Having been in churches at both ends of the socio-economic spectrum, I think I am in a unique position to comment on this subject.  The grass always looks greener on the other side; I’ve been on both sides of the fence, and there are brown patches in both.

The socio-economic stratification of Protestant American Christianity–Evangelical and Main Line alike–has always seemed to me to be one of the great blights of the faith in this country.  And yet it’s one that no one seems to be either willing or able to tackle, even though the New Testament is clear on the subject:

My Brothers, are you really trying to combine faith in Jesus Christ, our glorified Lord, with the worship of rank? Suppose a man should enter your Synagogue, with gold rings and in grand clothes, and suppose a poor man should come in also, in shabby clothes, And you are deferential to the man who is wearing grand clothes, and say–“There is a good seat for you here,” but to the poor man–“You must stand; or sit down there by my footstool,” Is not that to make distinctions among yourselves, and show yourselves prejudiced judges? Listen, my dear Brothers. Has not God chosen those who are poor in the things of this world to be rich through their faith, and to possess the Kingdom which he has promised to those who love him? But you–you insult the poor man! Is not it the rich who oppress you? Is not it they who drag you into law-courts? Is not it they who malign that honourable Name which has been bestowed upon you? Yet, if you keep the royal law which runs–‘Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thou dost thyself,’ you are doing right; But, if you worship rank, you commit a sin, and stand convicted by that same law of being offenders against it.
(James 2:1-9)

Let me start with the top end, i.e. the Episcopalians.  It’s easy to forget now, but the Episcopal Church experienced tremendous growth from the end of World War II to the explosion of the 1960’s.  That growth was fuelled in no small measure by upwardly mobile people wanting a church which met either their new status or their aspirations, and in those days it was easier for the latter to become the former than it is now.  The Episcopal Church promoted that, either explicitly or implicitly, by being a snob church, i.e., we’re really better than anyone else, and if you join us, you will be too.  Contrary to current church growth models, the strategy worked, only to blow up when the church suddenly discovered “social justice”  (with the liberal theology to go with it) in the 1960’s.

Ever since that time the Episcopal Church has been a duplicitous institution.  On the one hand, its properties and physical heritage have been such that its hierarchy have bankrupted the church trying to hang on to them (although the Biblical way of selling them off and giving to the poor would have been more appropriate to their purported theology).  On the other hand it’s still obsessed with social justice as it sees it, exemplified these days by its fixation on the Millennium Development Goals.

In the middle of all of this the “rich” got the message.  The Episcopal Church is no longer the “Republican Party at prayer” and the upstairs Democrats don’t haunt its narthexes either.  The upper reaches of our society are increasingly secular and don’t perceive a use to get up and go to an Episcopal or any church on a Sunday morning.  Thus Dr. Olgren’s tactless musings are the expression of a desire to return to the demographics of a lost time.  Gentry liberals can’t and won’t support a church, especially one as high maintenance as the Episcopal church.  That’s the present reality they’re facing.

On the other end we see a different situation.  People bemoan the growth of “megachurches” but megachuches, if properly managed financially, enable a large group of modest income people to support a very substantial church and ministry.  (That’s a big “if,” because churches tend to lose sight of the fact that, although you can’t outgive God, you can outspend him).  The trap that churches which cater to less financially substantial people get into is that, especially in times when upward mobility is significant, you end up with a few “rich” people (remember that rich is relative) running the church and the pastor (and sometimes running the former into the ground and the latter off).  That’s the situation that James addresses directly.

This situation puts pastors and church planters in a bind.  On the one hand, if they attract the “rich” they’ll have an income base to work from.  On the other hand, that income base may demand control of the proceedings.  Most wealthy people are better at running their business than the church, so the positive effects of the wealth will over time be negated by the negative effects of their control.  It’s a tricky situation that different pastors handle differently, sometimes with success and sometimes not.

So what is to be done?  How can we implement the commands of Scripture in a practical way with the reality of our society?  My idea is as follows:

  1. Consider “wealthy” people like another people group.  Instead of putting them on a pedestal or trying to milk them for all they’re worth, consider them as a group like you would a different ethnic group.  The way they look at life and respond to life’s challenges is substantially different than people at another economic level.
  2. Minister to the people you are called to minister to.  We routinely accept the idea that different people groups connect with different people sent to them.  Why not the wealthy?  Having said that, although there are people who strike me as called and capable of this kind of ministry (Shaneen Clarke comes to mind) most of the people who claim to be aren’t.  (One hint of trouble: if they need a great deal of money on an ongoing basis, they’re probably not.)
  3. Manage your finances based on what and who you have.  Ministers (and our hapless Episcopal Finance Committee chairman) spend too much time being “aspirational” on who and how much needs to be given.  If we are good stewards of what we have, we can expect to be given more.  If we are not, we cannot expect anything but trouble.

Frankly I grow weary at the inept way our churches and ministers look at this subject.  This is my simplistic start on dealing with a subject that cries for honest solutions.  Do you have any better?

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