Saturday, March 21, 2009

How Little to Live?

We're not back yet, but we will be soon.  The past few weeks have been dreadfully busy, and no complaints here, because much of the time they have been busy with the sort work for which one was, after all, ordained.  Still, it takes time, and leaves one depleted.

But just today, we have had an interesting thought, a propos of a the ongoing debate over the sustainability of so many congregations in these parts:  What is the minimum cost of operating a traditional Lutheran parish?

Let's define our terms.  By "traditional," we mean one that:  (a) owns its own church building; (b) pays a full-time pastor at the synod's suggested rate; (c) carries out at least the most basic functions of a congregation -- worship, Bible study, some manner of good works for the world outside its doors.  And let us average this over five years, since creative accounting and deferred maintenance can easily realize short -term economies which, while significant, are not sustainable.

Certainly, there are many other ways to operate a parish, and they may well be the wave of the future.  One of the most ballyhooed local congregations, Redeemer Presbyterian, rents its various worship spaces.  Another less-ballyhooed but feisty little congregation shares office and chapel space with a denominational service agency.  Many congregations are served, and effectively, by part-time pastors.  But these are rarely anybody's first choice of arrangements, and they may not be available to all that many congregations.

So:  What's the cost?

The cost of a pastor is nothing to sniff at.  It's also the easiest to ballpark.  Assume that the parish -- we call it St. Lazarus, after the most famous pauper in the New Testament -- calls a single pastor, fresh from seminary, with no spouse or dependent children, and houses this pastor in a parsonage.  The Rev. Lonelyhearts's base salary will average $36,270 over five years.  With Social Security, pension and the bare minimum medical and dental benefits, that comes to $50,673.  (We're omitting travel and professional expenses, mostly out of laziness.)  Not a fortune, especially given the outstanding college and seminary loans that the new pastor is surely paying off, but a lot of money for St. Lazarus.

Now, most of our congregations have an organist as well.  The minimum package, according to American Guild of Organists guidelines is $14,614.  That's for somebody with no degree, working quarter-time.  But can we share a little secret?  Very few congregations pay at or near AGO guidelines.  So let's say you've got a college kid who comes in Sunday, and rehearses with the choir for half an hour, and you pay him $50 each week.  That's still $2600, not including holidays.

We'll assume that there is no sexton, and that the members do a fine job of keeping the place tidy.  Thank you, Mrs. Kirschwasser.  Further, let's assume that worship costs, beyond a musician, are nil -- the bread and wine are donated, those musty old paraments only have a few holes in them (except for the purple set, which we just pretend not to notice) and people are still quite happy with the Service Book and Hymnal, thank you very much.

Then there's the building.  (Our own parish's figures are no help here, because they are well above any  reasonable minimum in size and use).  Even a small church building -- seats 100, let's say -- needs to be heated on Sunday, five or six months of the year.  Those high ceilings make it pretty expensive, too.  The parsonage needs to be heated every day.  The average Northeastern home was projected (by Consumers' Union) to spend $2725 for the winter of 2008-09 -- about double the national average, but of course we don't air-condition much up here.  Remember that (a) most parsonages are old and poorly-insulated; (b) most churches are used several times during the week.  This may be unrealistic, but let's say St. Lazarus can hold its cost to $5000 for both buildings.  

Then there are the costs of electricity and hot water.  These tend to run 45% of the total energy cost for a New York City home (whose heating costs, incidentally, are lower than than the region as a whole -- smaller homes, milder climate).  Churches use less hot water, but lots and lots of electricity.  So let's make the total energy costs for St. Lazarus, both buildings, $9000.

What about maintenance?  Oh, you can let the roof leak through a year or two, and you can get Mr. Waffleiron's bowling buddy to install some on-wall wiring when you really need a licensed electrician to address the sparks that fly whenever the Mr Coffee is turned on.  Sooner or later, there will be big jobs.  Call it $5000 per year, even though that may be one colossal job every five or ten years.

Ah.  But then there's insurance.  Both buildings need to be insured against damage, and the congregation itself needs to be insured against claims from people who may slip and fall on the sidewalk (which a paid sexton would have shoveled, but never mind).  The Council needs to be covered by D&O insurance.  The boiler may have a separate policy.  Let's call it all $10k, shall we?  This is a guess; our own parish spent something like six times as much last year.  And fair warning:  if you open a Sunday School, those numbers skyrocket.  Insuring against claims of sexual misconduct with children is less expensive than not insuring, but only a little less.

So far, we're at $92,887.  Throw in a few things that really do make a difference -- office equipment, including a telephone and a photocopier; those professional expenses we omitted; attendance at the annual synod assembly; piano tuning; somebody to plow the snow -- and you can break $100k easily.  This sounds to us like a bottom line.

But do you notice we haven't talked about program activity?  If you want a Sunday School, and the books and filmstrip projectors that accompany it (or that did in 1972), the cost goes up immediately.  Open the doors for a soup kitchen on Thursday, and it goes up again, especially if you tell your insurance agent.  What about postage for a newsletter, and somebody to answer the phone a few hours each week? And God forbid your minister gets married or has a kid; the Board of Pensions will soak you dry.  $150,000 per year may be a more realistic figure.

So then the next question:  Where does this money come from?  How many people show up, each week, to worship at a church with a small building, bad wiring, an amateur musician and a pastor still making all the rookie mistakes?  Fifty sounds generous, but let's call it 75.  (Reality check:  this is a very large number for small congregations in these parts).  If every one of those people gives $38.50 per week, the church can meet its bills without renting space to the Pentecostals or begging for money from an already destitute judicatory.

What are the odds?

We apologize for the wild guesstimates, and invite better numbers from those with better data.


Pastor Joelle said...

I opened a lot of eyes when I took the census numbers for our zip code, included 14 year olds (the age we confirm) for average income and showed them what we would have if people people gave 2.5 percent, 5 percent and 10 percent. 10 percent was just beyond what anybody could imagine but we figured we could do quite well at 2.5 percent.

Father said...

I did the same thing once, while serving at a very large congregation in a community that had once been working-class, but which had eventually become quite affluent. it was so shocking that much of the congregation simply shut its ears and shouted "I can't hear you."

Bill Hurst said...

Well done Father A! A conversation with pastors and cong leaders on the basic business model for running effective congregational mission and ministry "by the numbers" is a conversation worth having, and long overdue in most places. Part of our MNYS Evangelical Outreach efforts of a few years ago included offering a simple spreadsheet for such a discussion, as a bid for each parish to undertake a clear-eyed evaluation of the economics of moving to health and justice in terms of compensation, program and viability of local parishes. Looking the costs and challenges straight in the eye is both frightening and enlightening, and essential in these equally challenging and kairotic times. Thanks!

Father said...

Thank you, kind sir. And what a pleasant surprise to discover a reader out in the Territories.

I didn't know about that spreadsheet, but it does sound like a good first step, an opportunity for fact-based self-assessment by congregations, which tend otherwise to be governed by emotions (typically hope and fear, with a little rage around the edges).

One element of the simmering argument about the future of declining parishes is the question of establishing criteria, or benchmarks. I have ben astonished to see just how resistant some pastors ad lay leaders are to the idea, both in principle and -- courtesy of passive aggression -- in practice.