At What Cost?

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When we’re in crisis mode, it can be easy to let our priorities go off course. Some time ago, we started to talk about the fact that too much of our parish income was coming from rentals and fundraising, and not enough from free-will offering. I was astounded to hear how many people’s first reaction to the problem of over-reliance on fundraising was to plan another fundraiser! In the face of a crisis, we often resort to knee-jerk reactions, often without reflecting on whether those reactions will help the problem, or only make it worse.

In 2018, the Diocesan Commission on Parish Renewal and Sustainability in the Eastern diocese published a report entitled ‘Surviving or Thriving’. One of that document’s recommendations was that a sustainable, single-point parish should be allocating 10% of its budget to Mission, which is an excellent starting point. But that recommendation is part of a broader budget that allocates 31% of spending to buildings and assessment, and 46% to clergy and other staff. 

Watch what happens when parishes face a financial crisis. It’s often easy to try to cut costs by not paying Synod assessment, but this only sends the problem upstream, making it more difficult for the wider church to afford diocesan ministry and administration. When times get really tough, there may be talk of reducing staff or moving to half-stipend clergy, so that we can afford to keep the heat and light on in the church. It seems that in a crisis, our priorities tend toward first paying the costs of our buildings, then paying the clergy, and finally, paying for diocesan ministry. The priority set by the diocesan constitution is first clergy stipends, then diocesan ministry, and finally other operating costs. 

Just like the parishioners who want to solve our reliance on fundraisers by having more fundraisers, when we feel trapped in crisis mode because our parishes are becoming less sustainable, our gut reaction seems to be to lean into the things that make us unsustainable. I’m not aware of any parish that’s spending 46% of its budget on staff, but I worry that fear and uncertainty will lead to churches allocating even smaller pieces of the pie to staffing, all while we continue to keep up the buildings we can’t afford.

I should be clear that ‘staffing’ doesn’t necessarily mean clergy stipends. There is a lot of work and ministry to be done in a church that is not, strictly speaking, ordained ministry. But when churches don’t make funds available to pay for this work and ministry, it often falls to an ever older, ever smaller group of volunteers. When the volunteer pool is depleted, the burden is generally taken up by the clergy. But as we allocate less and less money to staffing, one of two things starts to happen. Either parish staff (lay and ordained) end up with more work for less money, or less work and ministry will get done, because we can’t afford it. If we stop to think calmly about the problem, can we really believe that either of these outcomes (or more likely, a combination of both) will really lead to better sustainability in the church?

Parishes that don’t spend 10% of their budget on Mission, might be accused of stealing from the poor and vulnerable for the sake of meeting their own expenses. Why are we not complaining about parishes that spend too small a percentage of their budget on staffing? Are they stealing from the people they rely on to provide ministry? Or are they stealing from the people they ought to be providing ministry to? 

Staff cuts and pay reductions may seem like an easy solution to financial woes, but they may only bring us bigger problems down the road. If we want to be serious about sustainability, we need to be prepared to work on more difficult solutions. The harvest is plentiful, but the labourers are few. Perhaps it’s time to start selling off some of the barns we can’t afford, so that we can afford to pay the labourers we have, and to hire more!

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