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Cash and Character: Talking About Money in the Church

by Donald A. Luidens

>Donald A. Luidens was professor of sociology at Hope College in Holland, Michigan when this article was written (1997). This article appeared in The Christian Century, December 3, 1997, pp. 1127-1130. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This article prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


BOOK REVIEW:

The Crisis in the Church: Spiritual Malaise and Fiscal Woe.

By Robert Wuthnow. Offord University Press, 291 pp., $30.00.

In this his most prophetic book, Robert Wuthnow grieves for the lack of economic and stewardship visions in the contemporaiy church and for its antecedent failure of spirit. He places much of the responsibility at the feet of pastors.

Wuthnow draws on a wide range of sources to reflect on the fiscal and economic models clergy and laity follow in their private and public lives. His principal evidence is a Gallup-conducted survey of 2,000 working Americans. The survey’s quantitative data are richly augmented by interviews with pastors and lay leaders from 60 churches—large and small, conservative and liberal—scattered from coast to coast, and by an analysis of more than 200 sermons on stewardship, money and work delivered by the pastors of those congregations. In all, Wuthnow has compiled his usual formidable collection of testimonies, here gathered into a resounding call for the church to take action.

Wuthnow begins by highlighting the financial currents swirling around American churches. Parishioners’ expectations for bigger and better buildings, staffs and programs combined with their uncertain giving patterns and shaky or minimal institutional commitments produce an unstable situation. These congregational factors are complicated by a fast-changing economic environment and unpredictable social and cultural trends. Jobs are in jeopardy; parishioners are underemployed or overworked or both; dual-career families and single-parent households have diminished volunteer time and donatable funds; competing special-interest groups—inside and outside Christianity—are making demands on discretionary funds. All these factors are squeezing the fiscal lifeline.

While some congregations may appear to be weathering the waves, the storm is still brewing, Wuthnow contends, and it will swamp all churches unless dramatic changes are initiated immediately. When pressed, even pastors of "successful" churches concede that they have had to restrict or even reduce their staff or programs in order to meet budget constraints. They must leave exciting plans waiting in the wings until additional resources can be found. This fiscal storm has no regard for theological creed or ideological camp. In contrast to his earlier writings (such as The Struggle for America’s Soul and The Restructuring of American Religion), which focused on ideological differences among churchgoers, Wuthnow here sees the current crisis as all-encompassing. Denominations and congregations from the theological left (principally the Protestant mainline) as well as from the center and right (including various Protestant groups and the Roman Catholic Church) are all subject to the same maelstrom.

Wuthnow describes the churches’ "fiscal woes" in great detail. He suggests, however, that they are mere symptoms of the real issue, which "is a spiritual crisis [that] derives from the very soul of the church. The problem lies less in parishioners’ pocketbooks than in their hearts and less in churches’ budgets than in clergy’s understanding of the needs and desires of their members’ lives." Sadly, many clergy simply don’t understand that the core problem is a "spiritual malaise."

The carrier of that disease is middle-class culture. The middle-class ethos, the cultural ecology within which the church exists, is replete with themes that have stifled parishioners’ spirit. As members of the middle class themselves, clergy are blind to the cultural motifs that threaten their parishioners’ well-being and the churches’ survival.

Middle-class people feel overwhelmed by demands. At work, at leisure or at home, people can barely contend with all that is expected of them. From the proverbial "soccer moms," to the overextended professionals and managers, to blue- and white-collar workers facing the abyss of unemployment, middle-class Americans are riven by angst over what lies before them and by guilt over what they have left undone.

And they can’t even talk about their predicament, since financial matters are considered private, not to be spoken of even to one’s pastor or fellow parishioners. Christians lack an effective vocabulary for discussing with each other the economic and financial pressures on their lives. Lacking a theological framework, clergy too easily lapse into the saccharin reassurances of a gospel of happiness," which stresses health and wealth and simplistically equates faithful living with economic success and personal happiness. Or they proclaim a message of passive dependence—"God will provide"—which fosters complacency and inaction. Neither the gospel of happiness nor the gospel of dependence offers practical hope.

Clergy ignorance and anxieties about the mechanics of the economy confound these problems. Wuthnow points out that many clergy are highly suspicious of the "secular" world of work. For most pastors, this cardinal context of human endeavor has been thoroughly desacralized. To the many who have never been employed outside the church, the world of secular employment is foreign, perhaps hostile, territory. Second-career pastors have generally felt themselves "called out" of the secular work force. Consequently, too often they do not see the work environment in positive theological terms. Clergy suspicions of the work world have been reinforced by their counseling of parishioners who have been wounded by overwork, unemployment, absentee parenthood or other malignancies related to work.

Wuthnow points out that the vast majority of Americans love their jobs and find their identity inextricably wrapped up in them. Their occupation is where their heart finds its home, a place of considerable reward and fulfillment—a place begging for theological definition. So tied are most people to their occupations that their fear of losing their jobs has as much to do with its threat to their identities as with the loss of income. Because clergy do not fully recognize this reality, Wuthnow argues, they do not realize the importance of thinking theologically about work.

Wuthnow wants the church to reclaim the concept of vocation as it applies to the work life of each Christian. Since clergy regularly refer to their own "calling," they should readily understand vocation’s potential value to the identity—both secular and sacred—of their parishioners.

In a particularly insightful analysis, Wuthuow distinguishes between the church’s ambivalence about the world of work and its equally uncertain understanding of money. "A large share of the clergy’s ambivalence toward money stems from the assumption that financial realities are simply the facts of life to which we all must adjust. God cuts no special deals for people of faith. There is little to be said other than try hard, do your best, and use common sense." While clergy bemoan the role that consumerism plays in our lives, they have no ready theological framework for advising parishioners on how to understand or use their money. Moreover, since clergy are enjoying the material benefits of our society, they find it awkward to criticize the economic engine that provides those benefits. To be anticonsumerist or antimaterialist is easily perceived as being anticapitalist and therefore un-American. Since this easy equation of consumerism with patriotism makes criticism particularly difficult for many clergy, they are reduced to vague denunciations of money as "a stumbling block along the road to personal salvation"—a position that offers little help to people struggling to pay bills and worrying about retirement pensions.

An undercurrent of Wuthnow’s book is his challenge to megachurches to engage in theological reflection about work and money. Megachurches represent a "new wave" of congregational structures that are bringing a variety of programs to the church marketplace. They are also bringing large mortgages, high-cost staffing and programming expenses (and, although Wuthnow does not say it, a heightened aversion to talking about money). Many megachurches have resorted to a "fee for services" approach that fits nicely with a middIe-class penchant for purchasing services. But this approach necessarily limits participation to those who can afford particular programs, and it creates competition among church subgroups for consumers.

Wuthnow is most persuasive when he makes prophetic connections between failures of the spirit and flagging church resources. His book is more problematic when he gets down to the priestly task of suggesting remedies. Among other things, Wuthnow urges churches to develop programs that theologize about middle-class realities—including seminars about appropriate use of funds and financial management; small discussion groups that educate parishioners about spiritual and personal values that help to combat the allure of Madison Avenue; sermons about stewardship that resonate with parishioners’ lived reality and make the connection between work and vocation, money and Christian charity.

While seemingly simple, these remedies are difficult for clergy, who so often feel inadequate to talk about such mundane issues as retirement, rising medical costs, the financial and spiritual burdens of unemployment, and the untenable pace of work and leisure. It is much easier for pastors to remain silent on economic and fiscal matters affecting their parishioners while emphasizing the cause of "the poor" outside the church’s walls.

Yet this route is self-defeating. Wuthnow shows that people who have dealt with issues of family stewardship and the meaning of money and work in their own lives are also the strongest advocates for and supporters of benevolence to others. Respond to the problems of the middle class, Wuthnow concludes, and the needs of the poor will be more fully and meaningfully met. Conversely, if the church refrains from ministering to the central concerns and needs of its middle-class parishioners, it will throw away its chance to minister to others in need.

Wuthnow’s effort to return the discussion of churchly fiscal matters to the realm of meaning and faith is admirable, but his argument is not fully persuasive. It is not always clear what the direction of the faith-finance relationship is. Do people hold back in their giving because their faith is unhinged (Wuthnow’s model), or does the church’s handling of money matters raise suspicion and frustration among parishioners? They may wonder, for instance, how funds are spent or feel they are not receiving the services they need. These frustrations may weaken their allegiance to the church. The two issues certainly are intertwined, but the patterns of cause and effect remain unclear.

Wuthnow is calling for theological reflection and renewal in key areas: the meaning of stewardship; the nature of believers’ relationship with the created order and the creator of that order; the concept of vocation and the connection between employment and spiritual identity; the future of the family in the light of massive role changes; the meaning of money and fiscal justice; the future of ecclesiology. During the 1992 presidential campaign, Bill Clinton’s entourage reminded itself about the key issue: "It’s the economy, stupid!" Wuthnow offers quite a different view: respond to the wounds of the spirit and the economy will take care of itself. Good advice for both the church and the nation.


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