Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Citizens and Taxpayers

Pastors encounter all sorts of folks in their journey through ministry, but one particular character is both regularly recurring and always unwelcome.  I've not had opportunity to encounter such a soul directly in my small church ministry, thank the Maker, but they are out there.  I hear the stories.

This is the person who gives a great deal to the church, and makes absolutely sure the pastor...and everyone else...knows it.  This is the person whose largesse is a manifestation of their power in the community, and who is more than happy to use their disproportionately large chunk of the church budget to make sure the church does exactly what they want.

If things aren't as they wish, well, suddenly the threat of removing their portion of the budget is made quite explicit.   A sermon that crosses the line into challenging?  An uppity youth pastor who isn't teaching the "right" approach to faith?   A choir director who explores "unfamiliar" music?   Pastor will get that angry call from Old Man Johnson, demanding a meeting RIGHT NOW.  Threats will be made.  Hissy fits will be pitched.  If you're Presbyterian, that may involve spreadsheets and financial projections.

When wealth is used to control or manipulate the direction of a congregation, it is never a good thing.   It's a sign that for that individual, what matters in the church is not the well-being of the whole, but their own power.  It's a sign of spiritual bankruptcy.

There's not a competent pastor in this country who yearns for the presence of such a toxic soul in their church.

And yet, for some reason, we think that's a perfectly fine way to approach our life together as a nation.

When we understand ourselves primarily as "taxpayers," that's exactly what's going on.  We're describing our relationship to our nation not in terms of our embrace of the guiding principles of our democratic republic, but in terms of a transaction.   We're articulating our commitment to our Constitution not as the voluntary act of a free human being committed to the well-being of a nation that defends that freedom, but as a market exchange.

Given how toxic that mindset is in churches, why would it be any less poisonous in our life together as a nation?