Saturday, March 28, 2009

More Hard Times

The ELCA's Milwaukee Synod just cut one of its two campus pastors. That's bad, but what's worse, we expect, is what comes next: the blame and recrimination.

The chaplain who lost her job is black and female, and served the U. of Wisconsin-Milwaukee; the other is white, male, and serves Marquette, a private Jesuit university. And so there are howls of outrage, and suggestions of racial bias in the decision.  

The decision was made by a board which oversees both ministries, and from which several members have resigned in protest. The synod claims that the decision was made based on the work of a commissioned task force, and for purely financial reasons. Critics respond that 

.... the less-than-transparent process and its outcome - UWM's urban ministry is shuttered midsemester and its African-American female pastor out of work, while its more-affluent counterpart remains open with a white male pastor - raise troubling questions.

The synod insists that the decision was purely a financial one, but also says that "anti-racism team members" would be consulted about replacement appointments to the board. All of which makes it sound like this is a story about race, and about a bunch of Nordic giants with blue eyes and blonde hair who just aren't sensitive to the needs of their less-Nordic neighbors.

There are going to be meetings and consultations and hurt feelings, and several pastors are happy to be quoted darkly hinting that an injustice has been done, without offering any specifics.

Now, here's the thing, people. Racism is a powerful force in American life, which can be both subtle and insidious in its effects. Likewise sexism.  We certainly can't swear that neither was a factor here, because we don't know enough about the circumstances. But we do know something about the ELCA, which is that its leaders -- and particularly those engaged in campus ministry -- tend to fall well to the left of the general population. That doesn't mean they aren't affected by racism and sexism, but it does mean that they tend to be plagued by liberal guilt, and therefore to delay, quibble and second-guess any decision in which race and (to a smaller degree) sex seem to be a factor.  So we are suspicious of the suggestion that the UW-M chaplain was targeted, consciously or not, because of her race or her sex.

According to the article linked above, Marquette is "more affluent" than the state school, which is no surprise. Whether that affluence makes it easier to raise funds for campus ministry, we don't know.  It serves about 150 kids at a time, according to the chaplain, which is a pretty fair number.  But the UW-M ministry is said to have "waned in recent years as it struggled with staff turnover and the demands of an aging building." 

And, according to the only figures we could find, marquette's student body is about 85.5% white, and UW-M's is a practically blanched 92.7% white. The article calls UW-M one of the synod's "urban" ministries, but so is Marquette; they are both a short drive from downtown Milwaukee.

So, wait a second.  There is another narrative here:   The larger and more successful ministry stays open, the smaller and struggling one (with the decrepit building) closes.  Viewed this way, it's common sense.  More so in tough economic times.  To the extent that racism and sexism are apparent here, they rest in a system that makes it hard for black female pastors to find calls in prosperous ministries, and forces them into those which are least likely to survive.  With absolutely no reflection upon chaplain's skills intended, we think the board may have shown sexism less in firing her than in hiring her.

But the principal question facing the campus ministry board seems to have been a simple one:  Do we starve both ministries, or support the one that has a chance?

The fact that this isn't more readily apparent concerns us, because it is symptomatic of the way Lutherans (and many others, we imagine) have been conditioned to think about the decline of our institutions, and preeminently of our parishes.  All ministries are considered to have a right not only to exist, but to be supported by "the synod," conceived vaguely as a sort of all-powerful and munificent entity prepared to jump in with cash when private donations are no longer forthcoming.  Indeed, a special mystique attaches to the weakest and most vulnerable -- that is, to those most likely to fail, or which have already failed.

This is all very noble, and if money were no object, we would be all for pouring it down the noblest drains we can find.  But money is an object.  It is required for our ministries to continue.  Funding bodies often need to make tough decisions.  In emergency medicine, it's called triage -- choosing those patients likeliest to survive given the resources at hand over those likely to eat up the resources and die anyway.  Nobody likes making these decisions.

Our concern, then, based upon the article (and so many other experiences) is that we have created a corporate culture so resistant to triage that it will prevent tough decisions from being made, and turn upon those who make them.  Worse yet, if the synod's "anti-racism team" truly is nothing more than a response to liberal guilt, we have a situation in which even those who manage to make the tough decisions cannot live with themselves afterward.  

All this is a recipe for disaster, especially as the economic situation worsens, and funding for ministry goes the way of all other funding which depends upon donations. If we have lost the flexibility required to contract thoughtfully, we risk all-out collapse.  Hard times will be made much harder if we cling to our unrealistic expectations.  

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

A perfect sentence - If we have lost the flexibility required to contract thoughtfully, we risk all-out collapse.