Let’s pick up our hypothetical conversation between Iacocca and the bishop.
We left off, last time, with Iacocca telling the bishop that ‘the train had left the track’ based on his assessment of the ‘10% more people and 15% more money’ in his charge to the diocese.
Bishop: I have reflected for some time on your observation last time, and I think there are many issues that warrant further exploration. First, all business people, and especially those like you at the top of the corporate ladder, are deeply conscious of the cost of operating any enterprise, including the church. We have buildings that are in some cases, historic, and they need constant refurbishing, new heating systems, more recently air conditioning systems. Many also need re-pointing given that concrete that held bricks or blocks together to form their walls has dried and eroded, rendering them, in some places, unsafe, unless they are restored. There are new meeting rooms, offices that need furnishings; some of our sanctuaries, in fact, have been neglected for too long and have experienced damage from water in their basements, so we have had to install “French drains’ to protect the stability of the structure, as well as the environment inside. As you also know, professional salaries keep rising, even though those in the church have historically been among the lowest in the country. We do not specifically ‘sell’ a product for which we generate a profit, based on our costs of production; we rely on the continued allegiance of parishioners, some of whose families have been attending a particular parish for generations, and have even made those parishes beneficiaries in their wills. So, there is both a marketing and what we call outreach or evangelizing, some call it proselytizing, a process by whatever name, on which we have to rely in order to remain viable. So, we have to keep our ears and eyes open to the wishes of our parishioners, who themselves, are comparing their experiences in our churches with their neighbours who attend different churches in the area. And, for example, there has been a trend, recently, to more contemporary musical liturgies, and away from those old ‘chestnut’ hymns we all sang in our youth. Also, there has been a significant impetus to make church more ‘friendly’ and less formal and less rigid, in both the liturgies and in the messages of our clergy. And, while we have long-term parishioners in most churches, as compared with some of your auto customers, who might purchase only a single vehicle from your company and then move on to another auto company, we have to continue to attract new young families to our pews, committees and choirs, as well as our church education programs. Volunteers comprise the beating heart of any parish, and their generosity includes time, skills and financial support. And at any time when a person or a family experiences something they find uncomfortable, they are very likely to find another parish (and take their cheque book with them), whether within our denomination or not. And while they must sound like a whining and a dark assessment of our fiscal needs, these aspects of our ecclesial responsibilities are always present in our individual and our organizational minds and spirit.
The message of the gospel, however, of a life saved in and through the Resurrection of Jesus Christ following the Crucifixion, is a message that has brought hope and joy to millions around the world for centuries. And we have special holy days, like Christmas and Easter, Pentecost, and rites of initiation like Baptism, Marriage, The Penitential, and Funerals, all of them including highly inspirational themes, music and the basic and energizing shared experience of community, ideally a fellowship, that has been uplifting many for a long time.Iacocca: I am humbled by your clear and hard-headed assessment of the fiscal needs of your church, one that is shared and supported by a variety of clergy among an even wider range of lay people. In that light, managing and even more importantly, leading such a diverse and disparate organization without many of the sanctions and carrots that we have come to deploy, really classical conditioning, in the corporate sector, has to be a task that challenges even the most dedicated, creative and courageous of men and women. From the outside, with all due respect, bishop, however, I note that those profit and loss statements on which we in the corporate world depend, seem less than appropriate from the perspective of the purpose and meaning of the church. It seems to me that the Christian faith has effectively been turned into just another “transactional” proposition. If I surrender my life to Jesus, and accept Him as my personal “Saviour”, whatever that in itself might mean to me and to anyone else who has given the notion much time and prayer, then I am promised something like an “eternal life” in Heaven, as my reward. And while that core nugget may not contain all of the overtones of high liturgies, and inspirational hymns and vocal solos by highly trained musicians, and it may also not give full expression to the contemporary music, or the ‘relatability’ and likeability of each clergy, it appears to me to be a fundamental form of another classical conditioning. From a merely lay person’s perspective, why would God want or need to make a bargain with His people, even having extended, according to the little theology I have read, a personal will to make the choice. And then, we are intended to add the notion that we are not save by our own “goodness” or holiness, but by the grace of God, another way of saying to many of us less nuanced in our theological and spiritual grasp of the ephemeral aspects of our relationship with God. And from my outsider’s perch, I consider such intimate and complex and subtle and nuanced notions about the foundational aspects of how Christians are to approach God, not only is my comprehension fragmented, but so is my attitude to the whole enterprise of how the church practices the faith.
We see large buildings and even larger investment portfolios, and robed clergy somberly conducting liturgies that ‘sanctify’ our babies as children of God, in their infancy, and then confirm their membership in the church in and through confirmation, then the church sanctifies their marriage in and through holy vows, and then essentially abandons most if not all of them to whatever kind of life they might choose….that is until and unless they might seek out a church funeral on their death. If God is love, and understanding and comfort and calm when the winds on the seas of life become turbulent, as they will for all of us at some time(s), do you actually think and believe that the church, as it is currently operating, is fulfilling the basic message of the gospel in providing deep and profound insight and care when it is most needed, especially, if the leadership announces that the goal for the next year is 10% more bums in pews and 15% more cash in the plates. What has happened to the notion that religion is a deeply engaging, highly reflective and soul-cleansing kind of process that, because I am a child of God, made in God’s image (however that phrase is to be interpreted) I am seeking such eternal values as truth, love, forgiveness and compassion and empathy, in the Christian definition of agape, love for one another? And my experience, and those of many others of my acquaintance, is that, among church goers there is considerable friction, tension, petty squabbles and an ocean of both gossip and vindictiveness or revenge. There is, at least from my observation and experience, more venom flowing under those pews, and around those altars than among the corporate board rooms in corporate executive suites, although we have more than our share as well. While I have considerable respect for what the church is trying to be in a secular culture that worships money and status and power, as a potential antidote to that obsessive-compulsive drive, I fear that, perhaps in order to be considered “normal” the church has fallen into the same short-sighted, myopic and self-centred chasm of the fear of failure from which no clergy or bishop can or will recover.
And failure is defined in so many different ways: a legacy of sermons considered too long and boring by a majority of a congregation, a personality who is dour and reflective, even worse scholarly, an inappropriate relationship, a distant and off-putting reserved clergy, for decades anyone who was gay or lesbian, and they are still blocked from serving as clergy in many churches….I am now, and have often wondered, what kind of formation is considered both appropriate and sufficiently rigorous and is conducted in order to prepare clergy for what seems to me to be an impossible vocation. No doubt, there is a scrupulous and critical examination of the moral propriety of the person’s life, thereby putting, for example, divorcees, gays, former prisoners, labourers, and former alcoholics and/or drug addicts out of the running even for consideration, when many of those men and women would have contributed many of the very attitudes, skills, empathy and understanding that is supposed to be at the heart of the Christian message.
I have rambled on for far too long. I need to be quiet and listen carefully to your response.
Bishop: I am a little overwhelmed but all of what you have said. I think we can set aside the initial question of the need to pay the bills, for a starter. Let’s try to focus on the theological and the spiritual aspects of your concerns. I will grant you that we in our church have been too highly focused on and dependent on the skill of reading, as books have become central to our worship and that leaves many out in the cold if they are not comfortable with words, images, symbols and poetry. In fact, one of the most difficult objectives of any clergy is to help men and women open to the beauty, and the symbolic and the poetic nature of the language of scripture and potentially also of worship, prayer and one’s relationship with and to God. While I rarely get an opportunity to discuss this aspect of the faith, from my own perspective, I have held for many years, the notion that much of the narrative both of the life of Jesus in the gospels and of the writings of the prophets and the disciples as both a literal and a metaphorical aspect, and needs an imagination and a courage and a vulnerability to begin to enter into the fullness of many of those images. We are living in an age when the language of the marketplace is almost exclusively literal, and the reading of poetry has fallen into a small minority even in the church. Personal political and social power of status and honour and personal wealth in the culture has taken on a new and I would suggest, somewhat more dangerous, value especially among the young, along with the rising tide of adulation for academic pursuits in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (for the majority) at the expense of literature and the arts, the churches generally have witnessed a steep decline both in memberships and in revenues. I do not doubt that some of these social and cultural developments are linked in some way(s) to the erosion of the ecclesial institutions, except for the mega-churches. And that is a topic that irritates like a virulent burr in the shoes and in the minds and hearts of many who have studied and prepared for the ministry vocation. And we can return to these reflections next time. I deeply appreciate the opportunity to be part of this conversation with you and look forward to our next meeting.