It’s no secret that most churches in the United States have been experiencing declines in membership and financial support for decades. Ongoing studies by the Pew Forum, Public Religion Research Institute and polling analytics from Gallup collectively point to a massive shift in congregational demographics among Baptist and other Protestant denominations. To be sure, there are exceptions to these statistical “rules,” but it’s not a stretch to say the American church is undergoing institutional transformation, if not upheaval.
“There are viable paths for congregations to practice transformational economic leadership that create a win-win for the community and the church.”
If ever there was a moment for congregations to entertain new modes of missional practice and financial sustainability, that time is now. As the COVID-19 pandemic awakens Main Street and corporate businesses and their consumers to the fragility of the American economy, the now not-so-invisible hand of the free market has revealed all her cards with a five-card “full house” of crippling illness, growing scarcity, social panic, outrageous debt and widespread job loss.
But wait, there’s more: For many American churches, the dwindling supply (persons in the pews and gifts in the offering plate) and demand (for an online worship experience out of necessity) will have a significant financial and psychological impact for months and years to come.
To be sure, pulpits from across the theological spectrum will resound as critics or champions of the free-market capitalist system. Some will continue to preach American capitalism as gospel, touting the gifts of economic freedom and individual liberty. Others will preach against the ails of economic favoritism toward the privileged and the exclusion and abuse of the less privileged, including persons of color. Regardless of theological stance, the reality is that not a single dollar is given to the American Church that hasn’t passed through the coffers of capitalism in some form or fashion. The American Church is as dependent on this system as is any social-secular institution.
If current facts and figures tell us anything of what is to come, it’s a grim picture of job loss, lowered household income and a continued rise in economic inequality. While government bailout assistance may sustain market rise at the macro level, survival and loss stories will likely abound at the local level. According to the Associated Press, nearly one in six Americans has suffered job loss as a result of the pandemic.
Churches across the South are reporting financial dips as high as 30 percent compared to the beginning of the year. In my home state of North Carolina, jobless claims now exceed the remaining employed population in all of Raleigh, the metropolitan capital. Optimistically, economists are hopeful some of these jobs will return, but determining when and how many is tough for even the best prognosticators.
The Centers for Disease Control now reports that a second, and perhaps more intense, round of COVID-19 will re-cycle in coming winter months spurring deeper emotional reaction from an already worn-out citizenry. The cry of the psalmist is ever with us: “How long, O Lord?”
Given this new reality, two key questions for proactive church leaders are: (1) What are the next steps? (2) How might we sustain ministry operations and programs in the present but, more importantly, prayerfully and strategically prepare for the unknown financial and spiritual realities that might unfold?
One possible solution comes in the form of a historic Christian practice often under-prioritized by the evangelical right and eschewed by the social gospel-centered left: for-profit businesses established and led by faith communities.
In the spring of 2019, I spent three weeks conducting interviews and worshipping alongside Trappist abbots and monks in Belgium, France, The Netherlands and in the American desert near Abiquiu, New Mexico. While it was personally and spiritually transformative, what I learned from these monks about work and prayer radically changed my thinking on what it means to be and do church “in the world but not of the world.” The experience was so powerful and inspiring that less than six months later I launched North Carolina’s first for-profit business and congregational ministry venture in partnership with First Baptist, Raleigh – a food truck where monthly profits are shared with poor neighbors in the form of barbecue sandwiches, sides and ice-cold drinks. (The partnership was featured in a story by Baptist News Global.)
In the face mask era, the key issue facing America’s Protestant churches is not worship style or programming but rather creative and transformational leadership in a time of social and economic uncertainty. History will judge us not by our streaming worship services or our polished teleprompter preaching but by how we address the question, “What did you do for others when you were most needed?”
The leaders I interviewed at nine monasteries had two important factors in common. First, each served a historic Christian monastery where revenue was supplemented by a monk-led, for-profit business. Many of these Christian businesses had operated successfully not for decades but for centuries. Second, each led a monastery that lived and practiced business according to the Rule of Saint Benedict, which employs the motto “ora et Labora,” or “the life of faith is lived out in prayer and work (vocation).”
“I launched a for-profit business and congregational ministry venture in partnership with First Baptist, Raleigh.”
My larger purpose for the research was an academic project arising from my experience in serving on a ministry staff at a large Baptist church during the Great Recession of the late 2000s. The goal was to address this question: Might churches employ alternative revenue streams to sustain programs and operations during times of economic or social crisis? In other words, might the economic system at the heart of social fracture in America be in turn a source of transformational leadership by churches in their local economies?
What I learned from these spiritual masters not only changed my understanding of church but also my theology of vocation. For these monks, one’s vocation or work is primary to any formal expression of worship.
Here are three highlights from my in-person monastery research:
1. Christian ministry and local for-profit business as a means to community transformation are historically and theologically compatible. Trappist monks have for centuries conducted ethically sound for-profit business as a means to Christian economic leadership and as vocational expressions of God-given gifts. Further, any resulting profit from their work of business is a means to serve the local common good and sustain the basic needs of the monastery. Profit isn’t born of greed but rather is a gift from one’s work to serve and care for the community.
2. The vocational gifts and owned assets of the monastery (or church) are the springboard to meeting local community needs through marketplace business. Trappist monks in Europe have for centuries used their assets of land and property to farm, crop-share and produce food or beverages to meet neighborhood needs and create local jobs.
3. The Rule of St. Benedict is a historic and time-tested guide for churches to follow when implementing ethically and theologically sound for-profit business. The Rule, however, isn’t for the passive faith community. It advocates all members working diligently to sustain the community (church) and the local needs – prayer and mission not as bulletin points but a way of life.
How might congregations begin the journey to developing for-profit businesses?
In her award-winning book, The Mesh: Why the Future of Business is Sharing, popular author, CEO and leadership guru, Lisa Gansky, describes the emerging trend of matching unused or wasted assets to consumer needs. She highlights Zipcar, a company founded on the unused asset of privately-owned, parked cars cheaply shared with vehicle-less consumers. (In other words, sharing a personal vehicle, for a small cost to the renter, when you aren’t using it.)
Gansky believes sharing high-end items among groups of consumers is the future of business at the local level. She calls the intersection between unused or half-used premium assets and consumer needs the “mesh.” In the “mesh” we learn what consumers need and what others have to offer through “sharing.” She writes, “When what you do and care about is aligned with what the market needs and cares about, you’ve created a recipe for [vocational] success.”
If your church meets in any sort of building, chances are you have already identified unused or half-used premium assets in the facility. How many class or meeting rooms go unused each week? How many fully functional church kitchens are used almost exclusively for Wednesday night fellowship meals?
Now ask, how might these assets not only be a blessing to the local community but also a way to sustain our broader ministry? How might these assets not only help our church lead locally but also sustain our church’s vision of God’s mission?
Undoubtedly, small-business restaurant owners, hairdressers, start-up entrepreneurs, artists, nonprofits leaders and many others will need inexpensive rental spaces to begin again once the COVID-19 pandemic subsides. And surely many churches, particularly in less urban areas, will face the difficult financial challenges of retaining staff, sustaining ministries and keeping the lights on.
“How might your congregation’s unused assets offer the possibility of economic transformation in your local community?”
In both historic Christian practice and in contemporary business thinking, there are viable paths for congregations to practice transformational economic leadership that create a win-win for the community and the church. The 21st-century, post-pandemic church should not eschew participation in the American economy because of who it might leave out. Instead, it should embrace a new role as a transformative social and cultural guide for doing business in a way that is ethical, sustainable and missional.
In short, Christian.
Congregational leaders, both clergy and laity, as you plan for the post-pandemic world, consider the wisdom of the Trappist monks and the emerging American economy of “meshiness.” How might your congregation’s unused premium assets offer the possibility of economic transformation in your local community? How might your church’s missional purpose intersect with the needs of your local economy?
In God’s grace, prayerful, innovative and courageous answers to these questions just might lead your congregation to its own transformational experience. And in the nick of time.
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