This issue of Congregations returns to a recurring Alban interest, the economic realities of congregational life. Global economic events of the past two years give this often neglected topic more urgency than normal.
In these pages you will read about the 2009 Congregational Economic Impact Study, recently conducted by the Lake Institute on Faith and Giving at the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University and the Alban Institute.
Prompted by the worst economic recession since the Great Depression, this new research reveals some important things. First, it has surprising news about the resilience of congregations. At a time when almost every American institution had to trim its budget, a majority of the congregations surveyed saw their fundraising receipts hold steady or increase. That is good and important news for those accustomed to the prevailing “mainline decline” narrative told in our culture. Second, it shows us that congregations responded to the economic crisis with food, clothing, and shelter for those in need. The traditional, charitable impulses of Christian congregations endure and still make an important difference. Third, the survey reveals that the same congregations that many write off as dying are in fact innovating, partnering with a host of not-for-profit organizations like Habitat for Humanity and Second Harvest and doing new things like offering credit counseling and emergency loans. To be sure, not every American congregation saw its income increase during this tough time, and more than a few had to cut back their programs. But this survey provides evidence, as do larger surveys like Giving USA 2009, that even in an era when many are dropping out of organized religion and turning to less demanding types of spirituality, giving to religious institutions, unlike other sectors, actually increases when times are tough.
There is good news in this research but something is missing. Almost no mention is made of congregations starting new business ventures to widen and diversify the revenue streams that support their missions. Yet some are doing just that.
A recent article in the Washington Post (“At Home in the Houses of the Lord: Church Missions, Portfolios Embrace Residential Real Estate,” August 8, 2009) featured a local real estate boomlet led by congregations. In Landover, Maryland, Reston, Virginia, and the District itself, congregations have been teaming with local real estate developers to build residential communities that provide both affordable housing in high-priced markets and new streams of revenue to support community ministries. These entrepreneurial congregations are not only resilient and able to motivate donors in tough times; they are trying to dig beneath old stewardship ways of thinking about money (pass the plate, sign the pledge card) and find new ways to love and serve their neighbors.
Last summer, I stood in the nave of the Cathedral of Notre Dame de Reims, trying to take in the glory of one of France’s greatest buildings. Begun in 400 CE and rebuilt numerous times, the cathedral is one of France’s holiest sites and the place where a majority of the monarchs of France received their crowns. A Gothic masterpiece, the building is also a great symbol of the complex relationship that exists between communities of faith and their surrounding economies. Throughout the Middle Ages, this cathedral was both a sign and a product of the great wealth of the French kings. The building tells the Christian story in its great windows and carved stones. However, its sculpture, stained glass, and sacred treasures also make it clear who paid the bills. Only a feudal economy could have produced it. In World War I, another wealthy power, Germany, and a different kind of economy brought the cathedral to its knees. Years later, an infusion of new wealth, this time from the Rockefellers, resurrected the building, replacing destroyed stained glass with windows designed by Marc Chagall and other contemporary artists. Now a new global tourist economy keeps the cathedral alive as sightseers buy tickets and souvenirs.
As I strolled through the nave, one of the newer windows caught my eye. The Champagne window by Jacques Simon, completed in 1954, celebrates the local economy; its scenes of grapes and winepresses seem out of place next to all the kings and biblical figures. Its three lancets depict the hard work of making champagne. If one looks closely enough, a Benedictine monk with a famous name, Dom Perignon, comes into view. This window, constructed to celebrate the champagne economy that now surrounds the cathedral and the city of Reims, also bears witness to a deeper and longer story. Beneath Reims and running right up to the cathedral and the neighboring abbey is a vast network of chalky tunnels. Along their many miles, millions of bottles of Dom Perignon, Veuve Clicquot, and Taittinger champagnes age. For centuries, countless monks like Dom Perignon scurried through the warren of tunnels, shuttling between their times of prayer and their daily work of fermenting the ripened grapes. Once upon a time, the window reminds us, and for a long time, communities of faith, like the great Order of St. Benedict, integrated work and prayer, money and faith, in a way of life that benefited many.
Having walked the champagne cellars of Reims, I wonder if maybe congregations limit their options with a too simple “stewardship” mindset. The champagne window reminds us that once upon a time faith communities integrated their piety with surrounding economic activity. They did work that created things of value to human beings and produced revenue that supported still larger missions. Might there be merit in reconsidering the Dom Perignon option?
James P. Wind is president of the Alban Institute