My church is a beautiful waste of money

In the pandemic struggles for financial footing, church leaders have watched congregations and budgets shrink and felt a new urgency to address our financial futures. As a result, churches have been gradually sliding toward nonprofit management and economics for decades.

Today we have books about how the church can learn from companies like Starbucks and Southwest Airlines how to brand itself. I’ve been in church-giving seminars where I was told that I need to start thinking about Gen Z givers. These givers want to see tangible and productive results and to hear what they’re getting for their money. When there are so many ways to give and so many needs, I have to learn to compete for the dollars.

One book suggests hosting a dinner for major donors of the congregation, a thank-you for their investment in the ministries of the church. People like the attention, the book said; it will increase their giving and let them know they are appreciated.

I see churches publish on their websites the amount of money they give back to the community. I’ve been told we should set targets, perhaps 25% of our budget, to flow to specific charities in our community.

This advice leaves me scratching my head.

My church — Raleigh Mennonite — isn’t a nonprofit, not in the formal sense of targeting issues that impact the most vulnerable in our community and formulating and funding specific solutions to them.

I am grateful for nonprofits. I’m on the board of one, and I give to this organization and many like it. I know that others in my church also give substantially to such efforts.

And I’m glad they do, but my church isn’t a siphon that gathers monies to redistribute them. People can give directly to these organizations without my church’s name being attached. The church’s work is different. We’re a worshipping community, people who have been drawn together in following Jesus and creating a particular form of life.

What we do will look like a waste of time and money to the broader order of utilitarianism. We sing together, we share bread, we tell stories. We form people in the church to be very bad at capitalism.

But I am aware that the people who come to worship at my church are inundated with the message that their worth is tied to production — that we are what we make, what we make of ourselves, how we use our potential for the good of the world. On Sunday mornings, they could be working, they’re told; indeed, on Sunday mornings, they should be working.

But instead, at my church, we take time — we take time — to worship. We recall that the world is held in the care of God’s love and that we are called to that love. There is nothing we have to do or say or be that will make us more beloved, more worthy of love. We are simply creatures, frail and vulnerable, whose being flows from a God who is love. We are grateful.

Rather than an exercise in navel-gazing, worship that invokes this love is a lesson in paying attention. We’ve learned to give our attention to places that fall beyond what nonprofit management is often required to cast as goals and objectives.

I doubt we could make a good case to wealthy donors for the reason for our existence.

My church gives money away — but often to lost causes, to places where there aren’t receipts, to people who don’t register as productive and good citizens.

We gather our money to throw birthday parties at a women’s prison, a token of care in a system of profound dehumanization. My church bails people out of ICE detention, with no word about their status after release. We buy laptops for Colombian farmers. We pay the tuition for the children of a Salvadoran friend of our congregation.

We pay attention to the places where people are abandoned to “get what they deserve.” Raleigh Mennonite provides loans for people in my church who’ve made bad financial decisions that haunt them for decades. We pay people’s rent. And we love each other — so, for example, when a couple in my church took a bare-bones honeymoon, camping for two weeks with money they had scraped together, we all put in a few extra dollars to offer them a bit of comfort and care.

But by far the most expensive part of my church is me, the pastor. My salary comes from the collective decision of a group of people to hire someone like me to lead the church. Often, that leadership means saying difficult things, making space for conflict and calling us back to the life of Jesus. If I give people exactly what they want or what conforms to the logic that dominates the other aspects of their lives, I’m not doing my job very well.

I’m a good preacher, but so are others in my congregation, and I work to cultivate their gifts for public worship. We have loving and thoughtful church people who offer one another pastoral care, show up in times of struggle and hold one another through the messiest times of life.

In other words, anyone could do what I do. My individual activities, were they to be assessed by an HR manager, would surely be considered redundant.

And yet my church has chosen to hire me to help them pay attention to themselves, their gifts, our worship and the world. I often call myself a “freelancer for Jesus,” and my congregation can send me to join a task force on reparations for slavery, lead an action around affordable housing, or speak at a protest for the dignity and rights of LGBTQ youth in our state.

My church hired me because they wanted someone who shows up. They also wanted someone who could give attention to the collective life we lead that flows from worship. Because they take seriously their commitments to laborers, my church pays me a living wage, plus benefits, including health insurance for me and my family. If we cannot model this among ourselves, we cannot expect it of others.

Most of the press for Christianity these days goes to those churches with opulent spending and absurd theatrics. My church doesn’t have a fog machine, and we’ve never produced fake rain during one of our sermons. Instead, we are permanent renters, vulnerable to the hospitality of other churches and schools who make space for us.

We don’t have programs; there are plenty of those offered at the YMCA, our public library and our community centers. If people want to pay for those services, they can get them there, just as I do.

I don’t imagine that my church is a place for re-creating the structures of philanthropy and enrichment around us. Those have their role, and we have ours. We are not committed to physical permanence.

As it is, my church may not produce results that work well for an end-of-year board report. We certainly won’t make people better citizens or more productive workers. I don’t know that I can say we’re giving people “bang for their buck” or branding ourselves in a way that makes us essential for meaning-making.

But I do hope that we are carving out space to rest our lives in the care of the living God. I hope that meeting this God forges the way into the forgotten places among the forgotten people where God is already at work. I hope that I can be a pastor who helps us set down our lives here, among God’s good news to the poor.