Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Faith Works 10-1

Faith Works 10-1-11

Jeff Gill


An Open Letter to Church Leaders



Dear church leaders of all sorts, lay and ordained:


I'm writing this to respectfully ask, or suggest, or at least give a heads-up to you, for the consideration of the following list of what are not really possibilities, but almost certain probabilities.


Can you look at your congregation as it is today, and then envision what it means you need to be doing now (not later, not soon, but now) to deal with the following…


Church newsletters in the not-to-distant future will not be viable forms of communication for you. Postal rates will continue to skyrocket, especially for the kind of mailing that we call a "church newsletter." How will you replace that?


People will simply not have money or checkbooks with them when they come to church, especially if they're under the age of 60. How does the offering time in worship work, and what does it do to special appeals, let alone the general fund, when that already developing trend becomes the new normal?


Most people who read the Bible will do so on their smart phones, tablets, or e-readers. How does this impact worship and Sunday school or Bible study time? Maybe not much, or maybe it's an opportunity to create new relationships between parishoners and the Bible itself, but it's a change that, again, is already happening.


(And then what do you present to high school graduates or 6th graders? Still a "symbolic" hard-copy Bible?)


Your congregation, even above age 65, is starting to abandon landlines. Cell phones are being displaced by smart phones (see Bible note above) which are used more for non-phone call related activities & communication than they are for saying "Hello, did I wake you up?" How do your phone trees and directories work when most congregational communication is happening through Facebook group page postings, or Twitter? (Oh, you didn't know that e-mail, yes, e-mail, is being seen as an "old person" way to communicate?)


What happens to staffing if new federal law says any employee of 12 hours or more a week has to have health insurance? This is a bit more of a stretch, because no one can figure out where federal mandates and state worker comp guidelines are going to go.


Likewise, what happens to your church kitchen if state and county health codes become even tighter on "public feeding" guidelines? Yes, that might well include potluck dinners.


More generally, how does your budget look if a) the parsonage/housing allowance disappears, b) charitable deductions vanish from the tax codes, and c) your parish has to start paying property taxes? I'm not recommending or happy about that (non-profits of any sort shouldn't pay property taxes in my opinion, and I can defend that, but it's a whole column itself), but trends are heading that way. If you doubt me, ask your property committee about "watershed assessments" and look at what we've now integrated into the annual paperwork flow. It's all in place but the final addition of some level of property tax billing on that line, now empty.


None of this is meant as an apocalyptic or crisis-mongering set of questions. Each likely impact will come with nuances difficult to anticipate, but pretty much all of the areas I've noted are changes already percolating into view.


Pretending they aren't happening, or bemoaning their occurrence, is not going to change the fact that things just won't be the same, and that's the one thing that's always been true.


Has your faith community stopped to reflect on these developments, and put together specific strategies for dealing with them? I could go on, but that's enough to chew on through the end of 2011.


Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and supply preacher around central Ohio; he's seen a few changes in church life – tell him about yours at or follow Knapsack @Twitter.

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