MARTIN CHEMNITZ PRESS
A MIGHTY FORTRESS LUTHERAN CHURCH
Pastor Gregory L. Jackson, Ph.D.
6421 W. Poinsettia Drive
MAINLINE MELTS DOWN!
LOOK OUT WELS, LCMS, ELS, CLC!
Loren B. Mead, Financial Meltdown in the Mainline? Alban Institute, 1998. 144 pp. (Also, Loren B. Mead, The Once and Future Church, Alban Institute, 1991, 92 pp. Not worth reading or reviewing.)
Return My Book When Finished
A Lutheran pastor (name and synod withheld) sent me Financial Meltdown, a book by a liberal, aimed at the radical members of the National Council of Churches. In case we are worried that the author may be conservative—because he worries about congregations—the author states: “They believe that some amalgam of romanticism and fervor can put God back on his male throne in heaven where he ‘ought’ to be. Let me be clear: I have no stake in preserving some kind of church that Westerners generally have confused with the cultural status quo of the first half of the twentieth century. Good riddance to much of that, as far as I am concerned.” (Meltdown, p. 3) My friend wants his book back.
Therefore, it is startling that a self-loathing liberal would admit that the mainline churches are all on the edge of total financial meltdown. I predicted the same in Liberalism: Its Cause and Cure, Northwestern Publishing House. I offered doctrinal reasons; Mead proposes practical reasons.
Reasons to Melt
Let’s look at them. All the church bodies went through easy and rapid growth in the 1950s and 1960s. Everything was relatively cheap then, and the economy was expanding. The church building boom was incredible. A Roman Catholic bishop told me that they built like crazy up to Vatican II, when the wonderful one-horse shay fell apart. (See the poem about the demise of Puritanism.) Roman vocations skidded to zero. Vast new buildings were empty and often sold to Protestants. When you last see a nun under the age of 80?
Church buildings get very expensive at age 50, just like men. The average American male has almost no medical claims until he is 50. Then he falls apart. Church buildings seem really nifty until they are fifty years old. Did you ever look at a 50 year-old heating system in a church? Tear that out, deal with asbestos, dead bats, fireproofing, and so forth. It is fun to go into debt and build a new church. It is not fun to ask the members for huge sums to buy a furnace, then find the roof leaking, then find the foundation rotten from water seepage.
Churches all over America are reaching the age of 50 right now. While the energy crisis and the health care insurance crisis both bit into budgets, the market forces contained both problems. Churches actually started saving on energy; congregations picked up the increases in medical insurance and simply cut their synod contributions.
Cannot Buy a Member
I am going to quote two conservative pastors, who recently said to each other, “I can’t buy a new member anymore.” Both of them are faithful, conscientious ministers. They have plenty of experience in parishes in difficult circumstances. Lately they have noticed that having visitors, then visitors who join, is in the past. What they used to do for evangelism has turned up very little. I believe, too, that a change has taken over society. I recall a New York Lutheran Church in America pastor talking about work in the liberal (dead) East. He said, “We stand on the corners and beg people to come to church. Please, won’t you step into my church just once?” Now the deadness of the East has invaded other areas. All the children have grown up with abortion on demand, school-based condom clinics, homosexual activism, and Church Growth pastors. They are indifferent.
Panic Produces Church Growth
I believe the LCMS, WELS, and ELS leaders read the tealeaves a long time ago. They saw the statistical evidence from ELCA (at joint conferences, once a secret). They knew that Lutherans were moving away from areas of high concentration to areas where Lutherans were not as dense. ELCA Lutherans are especially dense in Pennsylvania and the Midwest. WELS has half its members in Wisconsin, the rest (statistically speaking) in Michigan and Minnesota. The ELS and the Church of the Lutheran Confession have only a few large churches each.
I think the WELS and LCMS leaders got a case of the heebie-jeebies back in the 1970s and decided to shift their resources out of education and into mission congregations. They began a slow process of introducing the anti- Lutheran Church Growth Movement into world missions, then American missions, then all of seminary education. David Valleskey is a perfect example of the triumph of the will. The long march of Church Growth through WELS went almost unhindered. Missouri objected here and there.
So what is the membership situation all over? WELS issued a report of some large districts showing that most of the members and their offerings would be gone in a few years. Take your own survey. Go to a large congregation, look at Sunday attendance versus baptized membership. (The rate has been falling for decades. I recall the minister complaining in church that the ratio was half the members attending any given Sunday. Now the true ration is more like a quarter. Oh, for the good old days of half!)
Advanced survey technique: in that large congregation, count how many grey-heads you see versus families with young children. A church with a school will do better, but in general one will find that most of the members in worship are closer to the grave than the cradle. Because they were able to build up more savings, they also give most of the congregation’s weekly income.
So combine a big old expensive building with major repairs and a steady stream of nursing home admissions and funerals. The typical large congregation will soon be in a major crisis, a genuine financial meltdown.
Church Growth Squashes Loyalty
The bitter fruit of the Church Growth Movement has reduced the sense of identity people have within their own denominations. The Larry Olsons, David Valleskeys, Wally Oelhavens, Kent Hunters, and Waldo Wernings of their synods (and all denominations) have told pastors to paint the label out of the church sign, either literally or figuratively. For instance, in the Michigan District of WELS, when I was serving there, the district began two different “Community Churches” with the blessings, nay, the glory-halleluias of the leaders. Years later, one WELS pastor tried to tell me it did not happen. I argued against it, and I was treated as a contemptible fool at WELS conferences for doing so.
The Lutheran mission boards (ELCA too!) said, “Flush the liturgy down the toilet. It’s keeping your church from growing.” (I heard George Skestos tell Marc Schroeder the same thing.) WELS mission leaders even told their pastors that if they did not meet their “quota” of new members and their financial commitments to the synod, they would be removed from their calls and not given a new call. That illustrates the saying, “When you have them by the cojones, their hearts and minds will follow.”
Missouri leaders hyped open communion and cooperation with all the liberal denominations in the area, especially ELCA. David Scaer (Ft. Wayne) used to say, “Why go to an ecumenical meeting? Go to your Missouri circuit meeting. Every doctrine in the rainbow in there.”
Where am I going with this? The Church Growth Movement, imported to save the synods, actually speeded up the meltdown by eliminating any denominational or doctrinal loyalty. Some still exists, but when WELS refused to build missions in the suburbs of Milwaukee, their own members were only too happy to join ELCA’s suburban missions, which grew like toadstools from the urban exodus.
Mainline church membership is declining. WELS, Missouri, and the CLC are declining in numbers. The CLC will probably be a one-generation denomination, hastening its reunion with WELS. In one group of CLC congregations, only one of five congregations had a chance of having more than a few members in 10 years, due to the exclusion of any new members and aging of the charter members. The possible survivor has a school.
Pastoral training has become very expensive for all synods. ELCA pays the best by far and also costs the most. By shifting the burden to the prospective pastor, by raising tuition, the synods have abandoned their responsibility to provide future generations of ministers. Tuition equals salaries, so salaries must come from tuition or the synod. My first year of seminary cost $150, payable in two installments.
The synod’s attitude toward pastors is absolutely toxic. I never thought of a seminary student being forced out of school, but WELS and Missouri do it. I know that the ELS is very nasty with anyone they suspect of lacking a servile attitude. One young man counted on going to Bethany Seminary and was told he could not. In contrast, I recall an attitude toward pastors (in the liberal LCA) that consisted of 1) the divine call cannot be voided by a faction in the congregation; 2) synod leaders cannot meddle in the congregation; 3) there is always a place for a pastor. Some pastors had to cool their heels in a backwater parish, but they did not have a gun to their heads at all times.
The conservative synods have betrayed their pastors, and the ministers have gone along with the betrayal. It is not unlike the Nazi history. I actually heard the same words used. “I didn’t worry when they abused you, because you were an outsider. Then they started on the retired seminary president. Then they started on me.” A successful corporate lawyer said that no business could survive if it treated its people the way the LCMS treats its pastors.
The late Dr. Robert Preus said, “No denomination can survive without pastors. The Pietists tried it and failed.” The abuse of clergy by the conservative Lutherans will not eliminate all pastors, but many good pastors are gone for good. Some are so destroyed emotionally that they may never work again at any job. Some will be tainted because of the symptoms they exhibited when things were falling apart for them. (They don’t have a PR team to cover for them, like the WELS district president who was arrested for molesting little girls and had a cover story go out that offered a plausible non-sexual reason for the arrest.) Others are so angry about how their synod treated them that they will never return to the ministry, even if begged to return.
Many people have seen a gradual degrading of the quality of the clergy. Many are good but isolated from having any effect beyond the congregation. The semi-retarded connivers have a way of making their way to the top, where they never leave. One LCA pastor/professor said that his liberal members were shocked by the radicalism of the LCA gatherings. Then he said in a whisper, “Do the bishop’s assistants seem, uh, retarded to you?” I told him it was worse than that. Some were quite smart but had to act stupid to have the job.
So the doctrinal decay of the synods is the real problem, not the financial meltdown. The money problems are only a symptom.
Predatory Giving Counselors
Guess what the solution is in Mead’s book? Planned estate giving! Why do the various synods all look like baby quail following Mama around, swirling this way and that, but always behind Mama? They all decided that the huge transfer of funds--$12 trillion, give or take a few trillion, from one generation to the next, over the next decade, should trickle through the synod headquarters first.
I have heard that one synod pays commissions to their Tetzels. One way or another, they live off the dead more than any maggot or mortuary advisor. They pounce on the elderly and have them sign IRREVOCABLE GIFT annuities. Always look at the first word in a phrase. Example: junk bonds. At one point junk bonds were highly touted, then sank. Why? The first word is junk. In an irrevocable gift, the contract cannot be voided (except in court, at great cost). That’s why the synods can promise so much of a return on a chunk of money. If Granny is 86, the annuity experts calculate her chances of living to age 105, then figure what interest can be paid until then. Granny gets a good return, thinks she is helping her church (synod or congregation?), and impoverishes her family when she dies. They do not get the principle. No, the synod gets it.
That’s fine if all know exactly what is happening and they all agree. I would like to know how many 80 year-old women really understand the whole process. I had to explain some of this to highly trained and licensed agents. Annuities can be tough to understand.
One friend took me to task over my description of predatory giving counselors. I am not completely against endowing churches, but there are two dangers. One is that endowing tends to make a congregation more liberal in the long run. Another is that it does not answer the long-term problems of regular income. However, if endowments are good, they must be promoted honestly and without money sticking the palms of the counselor’s hands.
Not Money, But the Word
So look for a major decline in the conservative Lutheran synods, more money at headquarters, and meltdown in ten years. It was all predicted, even before Liberalism: Its Cause and Cure.
2 Timothy 4:2 Preach the word; be instant in season, out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort with all longsuffering and doctrine. 3 For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but after their own lusts shall they heap to themselves teachers, having itching ears; 4 And they shall turn away their ears from the truth, and shall be turned unto fables. 5 But watch thou in all things, endure afflictions, do the work of an evangelist, make full proof of thy ministry.