Budget Lessons from Jennifer Coolidge
Here’s a confession: I love Jennifer Coolidge and the various roles she’s played over the years, perhaps none more than her portrayal of Tanya McQuoid-Hunt in “The White Lotus.” There’s a lot one could say about this show and its commentary on wealth and luxury.
But I’ll mention just one oddity. While watching the second season, I wondered how people could travel to Sicily and only ever eat in a lackluster hotel restaurant. It spoke to the insularity of their lives. It seems to me that in this and other ways, “The White Lotus” nods to the lotus-eaters in the ancient story of the Odyssey. In that tale, Odysseus and his sailors got waylaid among the lotus-eaters. They forgot the outside world and their journey home. Instead, they lounged in one place. I might call this the White Lotus Stumble.
Congregations can become insular, too. Here’s what the White Lotus Stumble looks like when a church creates a budget:
A church experiences a tight financial moment. A leader says this is a crisis that requires cuts. The church reduces its mission expenses. And the people who had connected with the church because of its work in the community now stopped coming.
At the next annual meeting, the leader feels even more urgency to cut the budget. Programs are reduced. And people who attend because of those programs don’t stick around.
Now, the church leader feels fear. The congregation reduces staff. The full-time pastor goes part-time. The part-time pastor goes to quarter time. And that means that when a person stops in to visit the church on Sunday, there isn’t much mission or program going on. And there isn’t a pastor to make a follow-up call.
What’s left after these cuts is the building. Preserving the building took over as the reason for being of the church.
I realize that church budgets can be tight, especially in congregations with fewer people attending. Difficult choices must sometimes be made. But a few questions can keep us from stumbling into insularity:
- What does the budget prioritize? Mission? Program? Staff? Building?
- Does that priority reflect what God calls us to do in the community?
- How would people who don’t belong to our congregation respond to this priority?
Recently, one pastor shared with me how a longtime church member responded to the insular priorities of her congregation. Mama Ruby, as she was known, listened to all the talk about budget cuts. And then she said: “God called us to fish for people, but all you do is care for an aquarium.”
Yours in faith,
Rev. Andrew Warner
Generosity Outreach Officer
United Church of Christ