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consider the following hypothetical church

I need to wrap up the Mars Hill Albuquerque series, but I picked up the following anecdote on one of my recent trips and need to get it off my chest.

Consider a smallish Southern Baptist church in a heavily churched small city, say a church that draws 150 on a typical Sunday, in a city of 80,000 or so people (with 250,000-300,000 in the surrounding metro area), with one or two megachurches and say 100+ other theologically conservative churches at least 60 of which are Southern Baptist. Imagine that this church has paid for its building, which is relatively modern and on a nice piece of property. Imagine that its operating budget is $250,000 a year and it makes ends meet.

Now imagine that this church is shrinking steadily as members age out for various reasons: kids grow up and leave town, older people retire and leave town or die. They have a pastor who is appropriate for their demographics: theologically conservative, but also well on his way to retirement, probably physically incapable of doing much more than the usual workload of “preaching, marrying, and burying,” and mostly reworks sermons he’s already preached, does relatively few weddings and rather more funerals.

Now suppose because of the general drift above, and maybe because a sustained downturn in the local economy pulls contributions down a bit (say 8%, toward $230,000 a year), the church misses budget a couple of quarters in a row and shows signs of not being able to make ends meet if the trend persists downward. And suppose that while in possession of all the facts above you discover that the pastor makes $92,000 a year, in a town where the average family, according to census figures, makes roughly $42,000 a year, and in a church where only two or three members make a comparable amount of money (in the vicinity of $90,000 from wages, investment proceeds, or other compensation) each year.

What’s the right thing to do? Do you

  1. Dip into the church’s savings to reach out to the local community in hopes of boosting attendance and revenue?
  2. Gradually spend the church’s savings on operating costs and hope for the best?
  3. Hire several new staff members, fresh out of school, including a new music leader, in the hope of attracting a younger demographic?
  4. Switch from singing mostly hymns to a mix of hymns and contemporary music or possibly just contemporary music?
  5. Become more conservative in the hope of attracting an older, more conservative, but ostensibly wealthier demographic?
  6. Ask the pastor to take a pay cut knowing that his pension is based at least in part on his salary and he’s just a few years from retirement?
  7. Fire the pastor and replace him with someone cheaper.

Hint: I don’t have a good answer here. If I put on my business hat it looks to me like the pastor is making too much money (that’s 40% of gross after the 8% drop), but it would be callous to fire him outright; if I put on my Pauline theology hat I might be inclined to say this is a decision that should be left in the hands of the older men of the church, but honestly they’re the ones responsible for the current situation. And in a heavily churched city it’s very difficult to distinguish one mature church from another without making massive changes, and massive changes imply lots of risk. The worst case would probably be to make radical changes, scare off the primary contributors, and fail to attract enough new people to make back the money lost.

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