“Don’t Judge Others’ Checkbooks Lest Yours Be Judged” – A Response

It was a guest editorial in Saturday’s paper.  The author was Jamie Anne Richardson of Wylie who is a mother, author and a Community Voices volunteer columnist, and the subject was what is given to the church, and how the church then uses that money.  On her web page, Jamie Anne predicted that what she had to say was probably going to get her “hung,” after all, as she herself observed, taking on the church in the Bible Belt has its inherent risks. Well, I’m not interested in stringing her up, but I do believe that her thinking could use some straightening out.

 First I will let Jamie Anne speak for herself.  Her entire editorial can be found on the editorial page of last Saturday’s paper (The Dallas Morning News 9/22), or at http://jamieannerichardson.com/category/press/.  These are only some excerpts –

 Of the money that churchgoers give to their congregation, 85 percent goes to internal operations and 15 percent goes to outreach either locally or overseas. Yep, according to Believers Resource, only 15 percent of that $103 billion is actually doing anything outside the walls of the church building. That number is even a touch lower according to cfaith.com, which names outreach to be about 10 percent of actual budgets and 20 percent of ideal budgets. …What if we stopped asking people to come to a building and instead served the people where they are? What if we flipped those numbers and put 85 percent of the buying power back into our communities? …What would happen if churches dropped the building plans and used their money on real, life-altering ventures? What if we worked on feeding people’s stomachs, educating their kids, cleaning up their streets and clothing their families before we tried to “save” their souls in a fancy new pew?

 The basic flaw in Jamie Anne’s argument is that the money a church raises and then spends on “operations” – facilities and personnel – the 85%, isn’t “outreach” because it isn’t serving people “outside the walls of the church building.”  The assumption here is that church buildings and church staff somehow exist only to serve themselves and promote their own interests as opposed to “outreach,” and that real good is apparently only being done by someone else, somewhere else – “locally and globally.”  And while I’m sure that this shoe of criticism fits some ecclesiastical feet, what it tells me is that Jamie Anne has not been around most churches on Monday afternoons, or Tuesday nights, or Saturday mornings.  She doesn’t seem to understand how most church facilities function as veritable mission centers where “real, life-altering ventures” are underway all day, every day, Monday through Saturday.

 On Northway’s campus, in Northway’s facilities, this week, more than 100 children and their families will be served in preschool and mother’s day out programs.  Meals on Wheels will use our campus as the staging area for their daily deliveries of food to the aged and the needy. Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous groups will be holding their group meetings in our classrooms on several weeknights where people find sobriety and continue their journeys to wholeness.  Grief and Divorce Recovery Programs meet on Tuesday nights where people find healing for some of life’s deepest wounds. Every inch of our green space will be filled with children and youth playing soccer and baseball every day after school and all day Saturday.  Senior Adult groups will meet in our facilities for exercise, fellowship meals, crafting and educational programs.  All day long people from off the streets will stream into our church offices looking for assistance, and they will find help here.  All sorts of community groups and civic organizations will make their way in and out of our facilities for their monthly meetings and programs.  Routinely, on our campus, in our facilities, interfaith conversations that promote mutual understanding and friendship take place – an urgent civic and even global need these days.  Continuing education classes get conducted, musical recitals for music students get scheduled, and programs that help people with budgeting, parenting and a myriad of other real life issues get offered.  And this doesn’t even begin to touch what happens on our campus on special occasions like Race for the Cure Saturday, or during Girl Scout Cookie delivery season, or in the summer when our Sunday School classrooms get filled with students in science enrichment programs.  “Inside the walls” of this church building “real, life-altering ventures” are taking place all week long.  And its support staff – secretaries and custodians – that make all of this work.  They are the point of contact.  They schedule the spaces that are being used, promote the activities that have been scheduled, answer questions from the public, set up and then clean up the spaces that are being used.  Space does not program and maintain itself; it has got to be staffed if they are going to be effectively used for “real, life-altering ventures,” and it’s “internal operations” expenses that deliver concrete and specific help at the point of people’s real hurts and hopes; “outreach” in other words.  The campus, facilities and staffs of most churches I know are doing “outreach” all day long, all week long.  And so are their ministerial staffs.

 Where does more marriage counseling, family crisis intervention, and support of the sick, the sad, the lonely, the marginalized and the dying take place in this city, or in any city for that matter, than in a minister’s office and throughout a minister’s week?  Who is often the very next person to be called when the doctor’s report is bad; when the pink slip has been received; when the substance abuse has become unmanageable; when the child is out of control; when the spouse has left; when there’s not enough money left at the end of the month to put food on the table; when the darkness of depression threatens to overwhelm?  And when they aren’t doing it themselves, who mobilizes a community of faithful folks to surround people in crisis with loving support for the long haul?  Who keeps the concerns and needs of people in crisis at the forefront of the consciousness of others who have the capacity to respond but who lack either the motivation or the direction to be able to do it all by themselves?  Most ministers I know are overworked and underpaid, and if Jamie Anne’s counsel is to be taken – will be undervalued and unappreciated for what they are doing 24/7 for their own communities of faith, and in the larger community as well.

 When I read Jamie Anne’s editorial in the paper last Saturday morning, what it told me is that she doesn’t really know what’s going on in church buildings and on church campuses all over town, and that she doesn’t have a clue about what fills the work weeks of church staffs – both support and ministerial.  The old joke says that ministers only work one day a week and even then they knock off at noon is funny only to someone who doesn’t actually know a minister or what a minister does in his or her typical 60+ hour work week.  Churches and ministers are in the “outreach” business.  It shows not just in the 10% or 15% that gets officially designated “outreach” as a line item in a budget.  It’s in the details of the 85% that gets designated “operations” as well.   What are the “operations” of a church?  What are its facilities for?  What does its staff do?  Outreach!  It’s all about outreach. 

 Now, I think I know what Jamie Anne is going to say – but that money is not directly “feeding people’s stomachs, educating their kids, cleaning up their streets and clothing their families,” it’s being spent on facilities and salaries instead.  But facilities are the places where “real, life-altering ventures take place,” and their staffs are the people who are actually doing that important work.   The Dallas Food Bank has a place, a facility; and a staff!  That’s where their “real, life-altering venture take place,” and its who is doing the work. North Dallas Shared Ministries has a place, a facility; and a staff.  That’s where their “real, life-altering ventures take place,” and its who is doing the work.   The Salvation Army has places, facilities; and staffs.  That’s where their “real, life-altering ventures take place,” and its who is doing the work.Soup kitchens, homeless shelters, clinics and counseling centers all have places, facilities; and staffs.  It’s where their “real, life-altering ventures take place,” and it’s who is doing the work.  And what this means is that when outreach dollars are given to support any of these important humanitarian causes, some of it is being used on operations!  Just as “outreach” always includes “operations,” so “operations” involves “outreach” as well.  This is true of any social service agency or program that Jamie Anne would encourage us to support more generously, just as it is true of every church that Jamie Anne scolds for doing the same thing in her editorial.

 If Jamie Anne’s intentions were to criticize the extravagance and introversion of some church’s lives and ministries, then she needs to paint more exact strokes with a smaller brush. Tell us who you mean? Which churches are they?  And how do you know that the accusations you are leveling at them are true? As it reads, any church with facilities and staffs, and an operations budget that’s bigger than its outreach budget (and that would be every church I know) falls under the shadow of her criticism, and as I have tried to explain, the very premise of that criticism is deeply flawed and makes the work that we are doing, the work that she says she wants done, that much harder to do.  In a time of financial distress when charitable giving is declining while the needs of people – both material and spiritual – are increasing, it is reckless to indiscriminately suggest that churches are not being good stewards of the money with which they are being entrusted by their constituents each week, unless there is evidence that its true.  And sadly, the impression that this editorial makes is that any church that fits the profile of 85% of its receipts going to “operations” with the remaining 15% of receipts going to “outreach” is by that very arrangement being unfaithful.  But to someone who does “church work,” what Jamie Anne’s editorial really shows is just how little she actually understands or appreciates the “outreach” that’s at work in a church’s “operations” budget, or the very real “operational” costs that are involved in any “outreach” endeavor.  It is a false distinction and a flawed argument.  And while it has a certain nobility in abstraction, it ignores the realities that are involved in actually doing good for people.  DBS+

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2 Comments

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2 responses to ““Don’t Judge Others’ Checkbooks Lest Yours Be Judged” – A Response

  1. First, I am honored that you took the time to respond to my post. The very fact that we are so openly talking about this issue is outstanding.

    Now to your points:
    • As for my background and knowledge of the church, I have great respect for the church and the discipleship therein. My article is based on more than random statistics I found on the web. I was raised in a traditional church. I have spent several years in church leadership including administration, working with kids and youth, and even living in a parsonage on campus. I have lived and done 24 hour ministry and I respect that work. I truly do understand and value the role that the church plays to its congregants.
    • My challenge is not that the church has no value to its membership; my challenge is how much more the church could be doing with its funds if the overhead was limited. Biblically, how much money did Christ and the disciples have to spend to save a soul? Having been neck-deep in the culture, I understand the desire to build bigger and better with the hopes of reaching the community. Looking back now, I wonder if that money could be better spent ministering to the people where they live rather than requiring them come into our walls to be served.
    • You mention several great programs within your church. I have my son in a church-based preschool program, and I value that ministry. I also pay for it. That is a service offered to people with the money to purchase it, not one freely given to those in need.
    • You also mention several great ministries including Meals on Wheels, AA, NA, etc. I applaud you for opening your doors to those ministries, but again, these are ministries that exist outside of your church and simply use the building as a meeting place. I love that you are allowing your building to act as a community center, but my challenge still stands… what if we spent a little less on overhead and did more hands-on with the people outside the walls of the church? What if we served them where they are rather than asking them to come to us?

    I truly do understand what is happening within the walls of the church. Most of it is outstanding. When we raise believers up to be witnesses outside the walls, we are fulfilling much of what we, as believers, were directed to do. My challenge is the other half of our calling. Are we truly being as wise with tithes and offerings as God would have us be? Are we doing all that we can with the bounty given to us?

    What would it look like if we challenged our current budget and looked for ways to make more of an impact to world?

  2. Linda Johnson

    I am a member of the outreach committe of a large mainline church in North Texas and I agree with Jamie. You made some good points but we should look at the bottom line, what and how is the money in the offering used. I retired from the Salvation Army after working for five years as a Planned Giving Director. Before becoming an employee I saw The Salvation Army as the operators of used clothing stores and homeless shelters for alcoholics. I saw the smiling bell ringers at Christmas that was the extent of my knowledge of the Salvation Army. The Salvation Army is a Christian church that separated itself from the Methodist church in England in the 1800’s. They have modest church buildings. Their Captains and officers or all ordained ministers who shepherd flocks of modest to lower income people who might not feel welcome in some of our megachurches.

    It is hard to list everything that The Salvation Army does since it does everything from feeding starving children and families through recovery from natural disasters, and more. They battle against poverty, addiction and homelessness. They are a kind face to comfort the sick and elderly, a wise spirit to support the education of all ages, and a giving heart to address need wherever it occurs. They are a group of committed Christians who are concerned to see that the gospel – the good news of Jesus Christ – reaches the needs of the whole person. The Army’s social work sprang out of such concern. The Salvation Army will help anyone They strive to meet the needs of vulnerable groups and those overlooked or ignored in our communities. They make no distinction based on ethnicity or sexual orientation. The Salvation Army pledges to help people of all religions, as well as those with no religious base. They have an official “position statement” that says: “All social welfare services to individuals or families are given without discrimination, according to the capacity of the organization to serve in meeting the needs of those involved.” So let’s look at how the Salvation Army uses the money we donate to them. The Salvation Army makes every effort to ensure that the maximum possible amount from donations reaches those in need. Approximately 87 cents of every dollar they collect goes in direct assistance to the homeless, the mentally ill, the physically challenged, victims of drug and alcohol abuse, and others under their care. I know all this to be true, I saw the books and was proud to work for these Christian people. I worked alongside Salvation Army officers in the aftermath of Katrina and helped them hand out toys, clothing and food to those in need at Christmas time. I was told when I became a civilian employee of The Salvation Army that they felt their purpose was to be the outreach arm of the Christian church and to do the work that other denominations might not want or be able to do. This I felt, at the time, was a polite way of saying that they were willing to get their hands dirty. I will say again, I saw the books and I know that the average pay for a Salvation Army Pastor is $28,500 per year in 2012 plus they are provided a place to live. One of their mottos is Hand to Man and Heart to God. The Salvation Army believes that you must feed a man before you can preach the gospel to him. I am not a member of a Salvation Army church nor have I ever been. Are they simple in their thinking, Yes? Are they devoted to doing the will of God here on earth, Yes? Are they the perfect church, No? Are they good stewards of the money God has seen fit to put into their “offering plates”, I will let you decide.
    Linda Johnson

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