It is the time of year when churches—whether local, regional or nation-wide—set their annual budgets. I’ve had interesting conversations in this process.
Many churches are experiencing declining and/or aging participation. A decline in revenue comes with that.
From Africa, one common attitude I hear is: “we are very poor,” funds for the wider church are scarce. Comparatively, many African churches have far fewer resources than other parts of the world. The ability to pay for multiple pastors, a solid building or training for pastors, is limited.
I recently received an email from one pastor who is part of a group of refugees from one African country now residing in a refugee camp in another country. He was asking for financial support. He wrote of his group: “we are entitled” to support from the Anabaptist family of faith.
It is hard to know how to respond.
Danisa Ndlovu is one of the regional representatives for Mennonite World Conference (MWC), connecting with national churches in Southern Africa. He talks with church leaders about their membership contributions to MWC. Under MWC’s “fair share” policy there is space for negotiation in order to arrive at a mutually agreeable commitment.
Danisa recently told me he is loving these conversations! Yes, church leaders talk about budget challenges and how hard it is to fund the wider church. But Danisa encourages them to think more broadly about what is possible. He has been quite successful in getting commitments that exceed what MWC has seen in the past.
I recently had similar conversations with several European leaders who explained that they will give as much as they can to MWC but less than what MWC is requesting. Their rationale is three-fold:
- the progressive loss of a generation of faithful older donors;
- an increase in less privileged members in their communities; and
- high heating costs.
It is hard for these church leaders to negotiate, instead of just contributing whatever MWC requests, as they have in the past.
I hear the same ideas among the church boards I serve on in Canada—a sense of scarcity, with declining resources and high inflation. The conclusion is that they cannot contribute more to the wider church, but have to spend more within their own communities.
These conversations rarely start from a sense of abundance that God provides for our needs. It is not easy to balance competing priorities, for local congregations, regional churches, our nation-wide church and MWC. There are many ways to rationalize among these priorities. I’ve probably heard all of them in the last 10 years, from nearly every Anabaptist church leader around the world.
Scarcity. Entitlement. Poverty. Decline. Right-sizing. Abundance.
Which approach will you choose?
It is very hard to make budgets work in times of inflation and decline. This is as true in Zimbabwe as in France and Canada. As Danisa says, “pleading poverty is not a good enough reason to not contribute to the wider church.” Let us enter into these discussions and decisions with openness to the Holy Spirit at work in our own community, and also in our collaborative work as the church far beyond our local community.
Arli Klassen coordinates the regional representatives for Mennonite World Conference and is completing terms on the boards of Mennonite Church Eastern Canada and MC Canada.