Wednesday, February 20, 2013
Sequestration, Church, and Call
If you're not familiar with this issue, it refers to big, automatic, across-the-board budget cuts that will kick in on March 1. The whole thing was dreamed up back in 2011 as part of a budget compromise. The idea was to create a threat of automatic cuts that were so draconian, so terrifying, that it would force Congress to make some difficult choices to head it off. But with an extremely partisan, extremely dysfunctional Congress, apparently no threat is sufficient to produce results.
People on the right and the left can point to the foolishness of a sequester. The idea that the most well-run and essential programs will see reductions of exactly the same percentage as the most wasteful and non-essential programs is clearly ridiculous. But Congress seems incapable of making decisions about what is essential and what is wasteful, what should be preserved and what might be pared. It is a remarkable failure of leadership.
It is also exactly what many churches do when they create annual budgets. Many congregations have no list of priorities, no way of determining which budget items are critical and which are less so. And so when budgets get tight, we simply employ our own version of sequestration. It may be a bit less onerous to tell everyone to cut 2 or 3% compared to the larger cuts facing the US budget, but sequestration is sequestration. And all versions strike me as a failure of leadership.
Actually, the leadership failure in churches strikes me as the larger one, even if the percentages are smaller, even if there are no cuts in a given year. That is because Jesus has given his followers a pretty clear list of his priorities. But church congregations are often very invested in a different set of priorities. And so using a sequester to make budget decisions not only avoids wrestling with hard decisions, it also keeps us from examining our skewed budget priorities.
The core of this problem is one of call, or more precisely, the lack of one. We leaders in churches have become much more adept at managing religious institutions than we are at hearing Jesus' call. Absent any real call, keeping things going replaces it. And truth be told, we often prefer it that way. In the Bible, calls are almost always frightening, risky things that take people from where they are to some place glimpsed only by faith. It's much safer just to keep the religious operation going, at least in the short term.
The old, King James rendering of Proverbs 29:18 reads, "Where there is no vision, the people perish." That's actually a bad translation, but it is true nonetheless. When there is no vision, no clear sense of where God is calling us, we will meander and eventually waste away. The more accurate translation of the NRSV still hints at this. "Where there is no prophecy, the people cast off restraint." Where there is no voice guiding us, we will go our own way, unlike those in the second half of the verse, "but happy are those who keep the law."
"How we've always done it" is not the law, nor is it a vision or a call. What keeps the members happy is not a prophetic vision that keeps people on the right path. So how do we let vision, call, the Spirit invade our little religious operations?