“Where You DON’T Get What You Pay For”

Churches are funny places.  They run on a quirky, counter-intuitive economic model.  This may either be so obvious as to not be worth mentioning, or you may never have thought much about it. At the risk that it is not obvious to everyone, it certainly is worth mentioning. 

If you never stopped to think about it, the way churches function flips traditional economics on its head.  I’m not even here talking about Jesus’s promises that the last shall be first, and the first shall be last.  I am talking about the odd way that at church, people don’t usually get or, more specifically, contribute what they get out of the experience, or get out of the experience all they give.  More often than not, what people contribute to church and what they receive from it is an inverse correlation. 

You might be thinking, “Why wouldn’t you love this system Mr. Minister, you both get to frequently be the center of attention, get a fair bit of license and control, and you also get paid.”

 True.  Fair enough. No question, and I am very grateful for all, that and get to sit in the most comfortable chair each Sunday.  However, beyond my gratitude, my contrarian soul also loves being a participant in any system that flips upside down the economic mentality that we should maximize what we seek to get out of any transaction, and minimize what it costs us.  

As it plays itself out, more often than not, in the most practical sense, people at least on a practical level at church get the reverse of what they give.  For us at Pacific Unitarian a small handful of “pledging units” in our church predictably make up about a quarter of our whole pledge budget.  All of these people also being among the longest-running members we have.  Collectively, the families and individuals in this group of people have contributed to this place for well over a hundred and fifty years.  Think about that for a minute.

Those generous longstanding members are an exaggerated example of the 80/20 rule.  The “eighty-twenty rule” means nothing more than that in churches and other non-profit institutions, 20 percent of the participants give 80 percent of our budget.  To add to the absurdity, roughly 20 percent of our volunteers do roughly 80 percent of the core volunteer and leadership work.

Now when I talk about the relationship between what one gives and or gets I am speaking in zero sum ways.  The sense of meaning and purpose that one gets from being more engaged is certainly another matter.  The simple phrase, “The more you give, the more you get certainly does apply.”  So, if you reading this have decided you have not engaged enough of yourself personally, please consider that too.

I both love and am confounded by how this persistent truth stands in contrast to so much of what we see out in the world each day.  I encourage you to embrace the absurdity of this truth as evidence of a deeper, more soulful sanity at work in the world.  As we head towards the pledge drive that begins on Feb 23rd, I encourage you to confront our normal instinct to seek out “a good deal” by giving more than you get.

Remember, that in a universe that dispenses good fortune disproportionately, we desperately need the generosity of the blessed, lucky, and talented to even the playing field.  The goal of this letter was not to be a pledge pitch, there will be plenty of that in the weeks to come.  However, while I am here, remember that we need strong voices challenging the precedent set by our President’s every act and belief.  Being on the right side of history demands that those who can, do our part to balance an imbalanced world.

I am a capitalist.  I believe the world is both guided and aided by the wisdom of the market.  We as a world need the wisdom of self-interest to determine what is valuable. 

I believe the simple give and take of capitalism has been and can continue to be a liberating force in the world.  The smartest, most diligent, and hard-working should succeed.  I do really believe that.

However, let us also not forget that the world is also suffering and dying because of the very logical, but fundamentally destructive, idea that we should look at each situation with an eye to maximizing gain, and minimize our expense or contribution. 

This “greed upon which we have agreed” is the most dangerous edge of capitalism, and of America’s otherwise pretty noble efforts to create a better world.

If this very logical but also very selfish and short- sighted aspect to capitalism was not alive and well, we would not have just elected a manwho, for all his promises of returning jobs to working people, has sought personal gain over the collective good his entire life.  I hope we don’t lose that fact at this very interesting moment in America’s moral history. And Pacific Unitarian must stand as an act of balancing that wisdom.

Maybe what I am about to say is a bit hyperbolic, perhaps a bit of a stretch.  Maybe I shouldn’t even dare try to connect this to the upcoming pledge drive, but indulge, me as mostly you always do.  When the Pledge Drive begins three weeks from now, if you can, I encourage you to pledge to Pacific Unitarian as its own act of balance in a world where everything has a price tag on it.  The pledge drive is always a little like one of those refreshing farm stands where you are trusted to blindly pay for what you took.  When you make your pledge, consider it refreshing to be contributing what you can to an institution that, outside a handful people who handle our finances,will not even know what it was you gave. 

Pacific Unitarian Universalist Church needs to be as strong as we can be right now.  Truthfully, so does every institution and voice that challenges the present paradigm that says self-interested behavior is not only ok, but the only thing.  In this time in our national life all the voices calling for balance need to be as strong as they can be right now.  We are part of that chorus.  Please help us make our voice as strong as it can be.

~Steve