Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Metro NY Synod 2008: Disturbing Footnote

During slow moments at the Westchester Marriott, when we weren't desperately attempting to keep Baby Anonymous entertained, we pored through the 2002 Essays and Reports of the Lutheran Historical Conference (fascinating and counterintuitive piece by Maria Erling, on what she calls the decline of the Lutheran Left).   When that ran out, we reluctantly turned to the only other reading material handy, the official Bulletin of Reports.

Flipping through the fine-print columns at the back, we found a useful analysis of congregational mission support -- that is, how much our various parishes give to the synod for its work.  We already knew which congregation was in first place, as we spent several years in their parsonage. So naturally, we wanted to know who was in last place -- schadenfreude, thy name is Father.

Turns out that, with 214 congregations reporting, there is a 17-way tie for last place.  About 8.0% of our congregations gave nothing to the synod in 2007.  Zip.  Zero.  Zilch. Nada.  Goose eggs. Donut holes.  Reagan's brain.

Now, as a friend quickly reminded us, a report like this can be misleading.  It reflects only direct Mission Support, not other forms of giving -- designated gifts, bequests, stock transfers, or gifts to specific synodical ministries that bypass the books.  Those things happen fairly often.  Nor is the report easy to interpret.  It ranks congregations according to Mission Support as a percentage of regular giving by members, so that even a very small congregation that gave a modest amount might, in theory, appear more generous than a larger one that gave many more dollars.  It does not reflect the comparative affluence or poverty of a particular area, or -- critically -- a congregation's sources of income beyond member giving.  A very small parish with a very large endowment, for example, might be able to give 100% of its member giving receipts, and suffer no ill effects. 

Still, a few things jump out at you.  And we're going to name names here.  (In the interest of fairness, we also invite those congregations to leave comments telling us why we are getting it wrong -- as we certainly may be.)

Two of the largest parishes in our synod, at least on paper, are St. Luke's, Farmingdale, and Cross of Christ, Lake Ronkonkoma.  They claim, respectively, memberships in excess of 2,000 and 1,600. Neither one gave a penny in 2007 Mission Support, according to the report.  Smaller parishes in comfortable suburbs -- Christ, Airmont; Advent, Elmont -- also gave nothing.  At least one endowed parish in very affluent urban community -- Zion, Brooklyn Heights -- gave nothing.  St. Peter's, on 219th St. in the Bronx, reported member giving in excess of $219,000, placing it in the top 14% of our churches, and yet offered not a cent to Mission Support.  (In contrast, Transfiguration, Bronx is half  the size, and located in a far poorer neighborhood; it offered 14.4% last year).  At least two churches with well-known and highly-regarded pastors (Trinity, Manhattan and Trinity, Wyandanch) gave nothing.

We don't really wonder why most of these congregations withheld their Mission Support. It is really, really hard to keep a small congregation running, and most of our congregations are very small.  If you have to choose between keeping the lights on and paying for plane tickets to Tanzania, the choice is obvious. And several churches on this list have made it pretty clear that they don't support the synod's mission, usually because of the genital-theology stuff.  (Never mind that other congregations facing the same challenges, or much worse, manage to scrape a few pennies together each year, and that other congregations with political reservations find other ways to express them).

Our only real question is why the zero-support congregations have voice or vote at a synod assembly. 

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