With Dr. Bruce Hartung
Last month’s column addressing a reader’s question about what the Synod is “doing to help teachers who have dedicated many years to Lutheran education and now find themselves unemployed” has opened something of a floodgate of responses. To read that column online, go to www.lcms.org/?17579.
Much more than the thoughtful trickle about circumstances a year and a half ago, the stories of layoffs, salary and benefit reductions, and financial anxiety are more numerous and more pointed today. If this is any indication — and, of course, this is not a statistical study — the economic times for many of our congregations and schools are now tougher and in some instances, the results are significantly devastating.
I hope that in our congregations, we put priority value on the care and support of the workers of the church. Indeed, tough times do often require tough choices. But such choices need to be thoughtfully discerned and all people treated with respect and care. Parts of the body of Christ do not attack or demean other parts.
A church worker’s spouse writes the following:
Q: Currently we feel blessed to be at our church. … Here are my concerns: As the economy declined, so has giving in our congregation. I realize this is the case in many churches. … My husband voluntarily offered to have his salary reduced by [a certain percentage], hoping this would allow some breathing room in the church’s budget.
The writer also indicates that the spouse’s Concordia Health Plan option was changed to a less expensive option, some repairs were made to the church’s building and that the congregation was shopping for a “cheaper” health plan other than the Concordia Health Plan. The writer continues:
My heart feels heavy that these good people are putting the pastor further and further down the priority list. When will our salary be restored? I asked this question and was told, “You know, everybody is hurting nowadays.” Does it seem like something is missing?
A: Concerning the Concordia Health Plan, many of us in the LCMS share the health-cost risks involved.
Latest statistics show that more than 50 million people in the United States are currently uninsured. Our Plans are a real blessing. I encourage your congregation to stay with our LCMS-sponsored plans.
Our behavior always shows our priorities. I am prayerfully hopeful that your parish leaders put priorities first on following Christ and then on the care and support of the workers in His church.
Conversations with prayer and empathy are most useful.
I also received several responses about people who volunteered to take a salary reduction. If a salary reduction is used as a strategy, I do encourage congregational leadership to take one also, and give the percentage reduction to the church in addition to their regular contribution. Congregations need to realize that this is shared pain and sacrifice.
A pastor who moved from serving a congregation full time to being a worker priest at his congregation wrote what follows, after sharing, I won’t deceive you. It is tough.
Q: Brother, I read your column all the time and see in it lots of concerns and complaints within the church. One thing I don’t see in the letters that you share is the imagination to hatch out a plan, the courage to present it, the spirit of self-sacrifice that is the foundation of the ministry, and the stamina to carry a plan through. Solutions to our problems in the church must go beyond the talking and complaining stage, and we cannot always wait for someone on a higher level, i.e., the Synod, to provide them for us.
A: In such pastors we see the spirit of sacrifice and dedication to ministry. However, our congregations cannot place the burdens solely on our workers. In tough economic times we share our struggles together in the body of Christ. Creative solutions require prayerful and respectful conversations with Christ at our side. To have the “imagination to hatch out a plan” requires people coming together in mutual conversation and consultation, without blaming, attacking or diminishing others. This is hard in a difficult economic climate. But it can and should be done.
We’ll share more on such matters the next time.
Rev. Bruce M. Hartung, Ph.D., is dean of Ministerial Formation at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Posted Sept. 30, 2010