In this week’s Acton Commentary, “Local Churches Hard Hit as Recession Spreads,” I examine some of the lingering and widening effects of the Great Recession. I focus particularly on an upward trend in foreclosures of church properties across the country. As the WSJ reports, “Just as homeowners borrowed too much or built too big during boom times, many churches did the same and now are struggling as their congregations shrink and collections fall owing to rising unemployment and a weak economy.”
I identify one particular threat in the current situation and a basic remedy. As to threats, local governments that are facing their own budgetary pressures are tempted to use the financial woes facing churches to force them to close in favor of tax-yielding properties. As to solutions, I write, “…this economic downturn and its cascading effects throughout society remind us of the solidarity of our social life. We are all dependent upon others, to a greater or lesser extent, and this is a reality that points our way forward through the various threats and dangers we negotiate today.”
A report was released this week that examines charitable giving patterns, especially among those who give to local houses of worship. On first glance the analysis offered by those who conducted the survey might seem to go against the situation as I’ve depicted it. As Ron Sellars, whose firm conducted the survey, says, “Americans who give to their church or place of worship are more likely to give, period — including to charitable organizations.” He concludes, “Rather than be in competition for the donor dollar, it seems that giving fosters giving.”
What the survey basically finds is that those who give at various levels to local congregations are far more likely to give to other charitable causes, and to do so in a substantial way: “For example, donors who gave less than $100 to a house of worship also donated an average of $208 to other charities. Those who gave between $100 and $499 to a congregation gave an average of $376 to others. Donors of between $500 and $999 to places of worship gave an average of $916 to others.”
But if we place these findings within the broader context of giving trends over time, and the conclusion that the share of charitable dollars going to local congregations is diminishing, the picture is rather different. This broader trend points to the possibility “that fewer people are seeing churches as the primary conduit for meeting the larger (charitable and evangelistic) need.”
Part of this has to do with the mission of the local church as opposed to other parachurch or ministry organizations. They do, in fact, have different purposes. But one place where the mission of the local church and social service ministries meet is in the office of the deacon, and that’s a place where I look for significant renewal and serious thinking to take place in the near future.
Shawn Ritenour, an economist who blogs at Foundations of Economics (titled for his book of the same name, which is reviewed in the most recent issue of the Journal of Markets & Morality), concludes on point:
Churches should fully fund their diaconate and charge them with earnestly ministering to the needs of the poor as they become aware. The diaconte should be pro-active and eager to minister. However, they should be wise in their ministration, so as not to promote the very problems they seek to alleviate. More importantly, the church should preach the Gospel to all, making disciples of all people. This two-pronged approach will minister to both the material poverty of the poor, and, more importantly, the spiritual poverty of those who do not know Him.
Deacons are, as Lester DeKoster and Gerard Berghoef put it in their Deacons Handbook, “seeing eyes, hearing ears, and serving hands of the congregation.”
These material and spiritual aspects of our lives, and consequently of the church’s and Christian’s concern, has sometimes been called the “double vocation.” What we need to recover is this sense of double vocation, the responsibility of stewardship in its fullest sense, and the proper relationship between the material and the spiritual, the penultimate and the ultimate.
As churches face the kinds of budgetary pressures I’ve outlined, I can think of no better solution than to re-examine these fundamental questions, particularly in their implications for the execution of ecclesial duties.