I am going to interrupt my regularly scheduled articles on the liturgy this month in order to talk about stewardship. It’s that time of year again when the council and the finance committee are working to prepare the budget for the coming year. Stewardship is a topic we’ve been neglecting at Grace for a while now, so I think I need to take this opportunity to help get us back on track.
This October marks the end of my third year as the pastor of Grace. I am at a place now where I finally feel that the transition period is over and that we have settled in together as pastor and congregation. I am no longer the new kid on the block. I’ve gotten to know many of you very well, even as I realize that there are still some of you I need to know better. I expect that that will happen, if my previous experience in Carbondale is any indication. We have been fully staffed for a year and a half now. For this first time since I’ve been with you, all of our staff at the beginning of this program year are veterans. And I think we make a pretty good team!
On top of that our congregation continues to be served in many and various ways by a dedicated cadre of folks in many different areas. I continue to be thankful for those of you who have taken on significant responsibilities in this congregation. You know who you are. And if you’re not one of them at the moment, for whatever reason, I want you to at least be aware of just how many people give so generously of their time and talents behind the scenes at Grace, to say nothing of their financial contributions, and that they seem genuinely happy to do so. I can say now with confidence about you what you have been telling me since before I came, that Grace is a vital, engaged, and dedicated community of faith where the gospel of Jesus Christ is shared and lived out on a daily basis.
What is also true is that Grace is not what it once was in terms of membership and worship attendance. And that puts us squarely in a trend that is affecting churches across denominational lines. Fewer people attend church now than in the past, and there is a trend even among those who do attend to do so less frequently. Pollsters tell us there are various contributing factors to this trend. One is that people are generally more affluent and able to travel more. That takes them out of town more that previous generations. Another factor is the growth of youth sports and other activities being scheduled on Sunday mornings or over entire weekends. Still other factors are a growing alienation from institutions of all kinds, together with a rising do-it-yourself mentality that leads some to seek to shape their own spiritual lives apart from traditional corporate religion.
Whatever the reasons, the bottom line at Grace is that membership and worship attendance has been steadily declining over the past decade, and that has some clear implications for our financial bottom line. Our budget has outpaced our income since I have been your pastor. We managed to stay in the black for the first year only because we were not fully staffed, but for the past two years we have had to dip significantly into our reserves. We have done so in the hope that once we made it through the pastoral transition we might be able to turn things around. But this is not a sustainable model. “Something’s gotta give,” as they say.
I have been told that Grace has been through times like this in the past and that when the need was made known, the people of Grace have responded. So it’s time once again to draw attention to our need, to remind ourselves of all that we value in this community of faith, and to trust that a faithful way forward may be found. As I finish this column, I’ve got the first verse of one of our hymns in my head reminding me that we are not the first to face challenges in the church, nor will be the last, and that God is with us on this journey.
The church of Christ, in ev’ry age, beset by change, but Spirit-led,
must claim and test its heritage and keep on rising from the dead.
May the God of resurrection and new life continue to lead us by the Holy Spirit and sustain us in grace.
+ Pastor Repp