Thursday, December 11, 2008

Mortgaging Mansions of Glory

This week I sat in on a meeting to discuss how to finance a multi-million dollar settlement to victims of sexual abuse. This conversation was on top of an earlier report on another case of abuse currently under review. These are horrific, horrific things, and the discussion unavoidably and appropriately included a lament for the kind of people we've become, the kind of world we inherited, the kind of world we're cultivating.

The meeting took place inside an unbelievably ornate sanctuary in a church in the heart of downtown Chicago. I was billed $26 for five hours of public-access parking, although it was discounted to $6 by the church. As we discussed our options for paying this settlement, I was struck by the idea that the group we represented had multiple millions of dollars in assets, enough for which such a large settlement was an appropriate decision.

Bundled with this settlement, of course, were the realities of a difficult economy and a denomination in decline. We were forced to decide what line items in the budget to cut, how many people to lay off, what investments to sell. All the while I was distracted by how ornate this building was, how appropriately it sat among the impressive architecture of the city of Chicago, how much money over the decades had gone into its upkeep and expansion. My friend commented that this church's budget for maintenance probably rivaled our church's entire annual budget.

I don't mean to bang on this church. It actually does a great deal for its community and has a pretty clear commitment to social responsibility in its context. Two homeless men were sleeping next to me on the pew throughout our meeting, for example, and no one asked them to leave or bothered them at all. And the denomination of which this church is a part has a longstanding, firm commitment to pursue justice and love mercy. But the surreality of this discussion--these assets, these liabilities, this dying tradition, these horrific crimes, this troubled context--hasn't left me since I drove out of the city and back into the suburbs.

I'm no stranger to church capital campaigns. I've been involved in at least one at every church of my adult life. I am, however, a relative stranger to the ornate church. The churches I've been involved with are decades, not centuries, old. They were built in a more pragmatic time and place than the cathedrals of the great cities, so they're built to suit, not to impress. They don't skimp on budget for their physical plant, but the decisions they make--even the really weird ones--are relatively utilitarian. We need lights and sound and video and audio for worship and special events. We need double-pane glass windows and air conditioning for climate control. We need an elevator to assist the elderly in getting from worship to fellowship.

These are all sensible expenses in the midst of discussing annual budgets and in the localized conversation about the ongoing work of a particular church. But when you step out of the budget meeting and even out of yourself and notice that you're in a room that cost millions to decorate, that you're discussing how you're going to pay off people that someone in your community molested, that you're about to tell a handful of people that they no longer have jobs, that there are two people who have nothing sleeping in the middle of the day in the middle of this ornate complex . . . Suddenly it's hard to justify the cost of paint and lighting and carpet.

I have no solutions to this dilemma, mostly because I'm lazy and fearful and uncreative when it comes to addressing need. Chris Heuertz in his book Simple Spirituality writes about a girl who gave all her pacifiers to poor children as an expression of solidarity; Brian Mahan in his book Forgetting Ourselves on Purpose writes about Dorothy Day's childhood epiphany about poverty over a plate of donuts; Francis of Assisi wrote about his vision of God telling him to rebuild the church, and when he started actually rebuilding an actual church building, how God redirected him to give all his wealth forever to the poor. These are moral guides for the wealthy church, but they're hard to follow when we have these day-to-day decisions to make about paint and carpet and technology. They say the devil is in the details, and in weeks like this I suspect that when they say this, they're talking about budget meetings.

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