Reporting on a ravaged Mississippi town on the Gulf coast, the Associated Press said that “Katrina clobbered the rich and poor alike.” A cliché repeated often enough slips past the brain into the heart. We like the idea that in times of disaster all stand equally in awe before the powers that beset us. The proud are leveled, and the humble are (at least relatively) raised up.
In truth, though, precious little affects rich and poor alike. Wealth confers huge advantages, including the ability to drive away ahead of hurricanes, insure vulnerable property, and find comfortable shelter. Poverty wears people down even in fair weather; when the storm comes it kills a lot more of the poor. The rich have more to lose, and may feel more surprise, but the worst actual damage falls to the poorest.
It is one thing to believe that people and poor people should be political and social equals; it’s another to pretend that they are already more equal than they are. The cliché of “rich and poor alike” can do real harm if it distracts attention from the injustices that go with economic inequality. To achieve the egalitarian ideal requires recognizing the ugly fact that rich and poor live very differently.
The facts have become quite a bit uglier since the mid-1970s. After fifty years of social policies that created a more humane safety net at the bottom of the income distribution, economic inequality has increased sharply in the last three decades. The top fifth of American households now receive nearly half of all personal income, and own more than 80 percent of the nation’s personal wealth. The top 1 percent of households own almost a third of the wealth. Such differences put people in different worlds.
What does this have to do with congregations? Obviously there is a social justice issue here to be addressed, but inequality hits closer to home as well. When I lead workshops about faith and money, sometimes I invite participants anonymously to write their best estimate of their household income and net worth. Then, during the break, I enter the numbers into my computer and produce a graph that shows the fraction of each total held by the top fifth of the group, the second fifth, and so on. Generally people are surprised how skewed the distribution is. Even when almost everyone present is in the same line of work (the clergy), the top fifth generally have at least two-thirds of the money.
Despite the fact that people tend to worship with others in their same economic category, the same is true within congregations. In congregations that value participative governance, inequality poses some problems. When so much of the potential to give is in the hands of a few, how can the many govern?
On a more practical level, how can a congregation raise money effectively without giving more attention to those who have more ability to give? Religious people work hard sometimes to ignore inequalities among them, and this can be a real barrier to effective fundraising. The universities, arts institutions, and other charities that compete for the support of the biggest potential givers pay intense attention to them, while congregations often ask everyone for their support in the same way. No modern charity would send anyone to ask for a gift without briefing them on the prospect’s past pattern of giving, but many congregations treat this information as a deep and even shameful secret.
The dilemma, I think, is to hold on to two competing values: on the one hand, the ideal of social and spiritual equality, and on the other, the reality of inequality. Democracy and human dignity depend on holding to the ideal, and the success of the institution requires that we acknowledge the reality.
A fact that surprises some of my religious clients, but which is well-known to all secular fundraisers, is that when a given group gives more, the distribution of gifts becomes less, rather than more, equal. Finance committees often complain about the many households that make small pledges. They may be correct, morally, but practically they would do better to reframe the issue as a lack of large gifts, not a surplus of small ones.
I have attended secular fundraising trainings where the acceptance of the power and priority of wealthy donors becomes almost lewd. But in my work with congregations, I frequently see a naiveté that can be self-defeating. Ironically, the result of pretending all are equal is that those with the means to give the most are never challenged to do so, and the burden on the poorest becomes greater.
On the other hand, some congregations do a good job of threading this needle. Instead of treating inequality as a dirty secret, they celebrate and thank their biggest givers as they do their most active volunteers. They frankly and openly pay disproportionate attention to those who will be asked for more money, while at the same time stressing that full participation is a second goal of every fundraising campaign.
A wealthy member of a congregation told me, “One of the reasons I give to my church is so that it can be available to offer a community of faith for those who have less and can give less.” I say, Hooray!
Nothing about recognizing the fact of inequality should stop a congregation from challenging those whose wealth makes them too at ease in Zion, or from working for greater economic justice through humane government policies and fair employment practices. In fact, the courage to face facts can only help us to be more effective advocates for change.
Dan Hotchkiss is a senior consultant at the Alban Institute. “Pretending to Be Equal” originally appeared in the May/June 2006 issue of Clergy Journal (www.logosproductions.com) and is reprinted with permission.
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Asking parishioners for money is very different from creating congregations of generous people. In this provocative book, stewardship consultant Michael Durall argues convincingly that annual pledge drives inadvertently perpetuate low-level and same-level giving in congregations. Written with the voice of experience, this book will help clergy and lay leaders initiate and sustain effective stewardship programs.
Generous Saints: Congregations Rethinking Ethics and Money by James Hudnut-Beumler
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