I live in the “real world” every day — the world where people get what they need and deserve based on their actions. I work, I get paid. My kids do good things and my wife and I support them. Things happen because they should and don’t because they shouldn’t, at least most of the time. Tires wear out on someone’s car because they have 60,000 miles on them. The sun rises and sets daily, as it should. I am aware of what life should –and mostly does– hold.
I work in the really real world. Again, I am aware of what life should –and mostly does outside of there– hold. In my work world, I see people who don’t hold to those standards and the devastation that brings. I see men who have children and don’t give them what they need. I see spouses who can’t understand why, if they put nothing into their marriage, their marriage is failing. I see people who can’t imagine that their nasty actions make other people sad. I see people who don’t the hard work of parenting and instead either neglect their children or buy them –seldom listening, seldom actually knowing their kids, often wanting what’s best for them, seldom wanting what’s best for their child or — worse yet — children.
Then, there’s my church world. I am a member of South Church UCC in New Britain, CT and today the church made me proud, even as I grieved for it needing to. South Church, like many churches and organizations we all know is “downsizing” — not to give profit to our stockholders, as they do outside of the church, not to to give an extra bonus to our CEO as they do in the corporate world, not to become a “more efficient” church, as though efficiency was the hallmark of an organization. Today, South Church in New Britain CT downsized because we had to. Quite simply, when the stock market crashed a few years ago, our endowment took a hit from which it hasn’t ever rebounded. Now, in order to survive, we have decided to downsize the staff at the church and cut back in various areas of the church budget which mostly centered around people — staffing cuts, salary and benefit cuts for staff, etc.
The church also lives in the real world where, like it or not, bills have to get paid and people have to eat. I have sat through enough Trustees meetings over the course of my lifetime where people speak of running the church “like a business” to know just what that is. Today, South Church did just that — only better. We ran the church as a church — a business where people matter.
Two or three months ago, I was asked to serve on the Personnel Committee for the church because the employees wanted to be taken into account and the church wanted to take them into account as decisions progressed. We listened as people talked. We did our homework and found that standard handling of a situation was one-month-salary-for-every-one-year-a-person worked. There were special circumstances involved in our decision and we sought — out of justice — to rectify issues the church felt bad about. The Committee recommended a certain amount to be more than fair — we wanted to be just. We wanted to take responsibility for our actions and give what was appropriate. The Finance Board at our church heard our recommendations and did even better than that — three months plus benefits for two-and-a-half years of service. It wasn’t an incredible package, but in a world where labor laws allow factories to close without warning and offer no benefits at all, this was not business as usual. The church was better than it had to be.
During today’s meeting and vote, it was discovered that one staff member had agreed to voluntarily do her part-time job at the church rather than let the work be left undone. Even if we were cutting the money, she was going to do the job. Another staff member — rather than cutting the salaries or positions of those under him — took a cut in his own salary and benefits. Can you imagine what the world would be like if a CEO said “rather than cut our work force, I’ll take a cut in pay”? The church’s people again were better than they had to be. Two pastors at the church are going to shoulder more of the burden because the work of the church needs to get done — people need to get visited, youth need to be taught, and so on. Volunteers on Committees effected by staffing cutbacks stepped forward and are doing the work, because they also care for the church and its ministry.
Finally, at the end of the meeting, someone suggested that the pastor being “downsized” be acknowledged as doing good, creative, and at times, hard work and that the church didn’t want to make these decisions but felt it had to. Yours truly seconded that motion and it was agreed that the motion to discontinue the position could be amended to say that, but there was a better idea. Not on the agenda, but nonetheless planned in advance, a co-moderator read a page-long tribute to the outgoing pastor and her hard work. That was made into an official motion and put into the church record, as well as an acknowledgement that the church grieved that we had to let go of anybody. Once again, in the final analysis, the church — the body of Christ — it’s people, acting like Christians — was better than it “had” to be. South Church, in making a horribly difficult decision, acted graciously and -surpassing even calls for simple justice — was better than it had to be.
I am honored to be a member of such a loving and caring church — one which does the best it can in hard times, caring for people and living out the message of the gospel. I just wanted you to know that such things existed. It certainly exists here in New Britain and it probably exists at many churches. Among the news of mean-spirited theology, egotistic hate-filled pastors who encourage violence against others, and churches fighting against scholarship, which fill the airwaves and the press, I thought a reminder of what churches can be might be a reminder of why we Christians go in the first place.