Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Repost Explanation

Below, I am going to republish some posts that I wrote between October and December of 2010.  The posts are three in a series on "church and the economy." 

The reason I am reposting this series is that I realized I have been cited in the current print edition of "UU World Magazine," from part 1 of the series, and I want to put all those posts together in one space on the front page of the blog so they are easier to find.

I do plan to continue writing posts to this series.  When I do that, I will change the dates on the posts such that they remain clumped together, in order starting with post 1 and going down through later posts.  I hope that is helpful.

Thanks for reading!  And I hope you'll leave comments.  The underlying goal I have for this blog is to engage in an interesting conversation, which means that my goal is only met when this is a dialogue.

See below...

On Economy and Church: Part 1 (originally posted 10/2010)

Less in the collection plate this year? In a survey of Protestant pastors, 57% said the poor economy was hurting their church.
Here are some of my observations:

1.  The economy is still on shaky ground.  I am far from alone in questioning whether the economy is sustainable.  I still find the following link really interesting, even if I don't agree with a lot of what is on the website, and I hope others will as well (it is over 3 hours, but soooo worth the time and extremely thought-provoking):  I especially find it interesting that I watched these videos long before the election of President Obama, and I am witnessing the predictions of his actions, as our next president, come to fruition, as I now believe they would have with either a democrat or republican in the White House.

2.  If the above is true, that there is a fair chance that the economy is not sustainable, then our churches need to prepare to see our communities through some rough seas ahead.  Many of our churches as they exist now could not survive those seas themselves. 

3.  Currently, environmental activists and fiscal conservatives are seen as warring parties.  Bridges need to be built between the reality that economic resources as we currently know them are not going to be available forever, and perhaps not even in the near future, and the reality that our use of those resources to date has been tremendously destructive to our shared home, the earth, and that this also is a threat to us and our children.

4.  One advantage of the economic difficulties of the last several years is that many actions toward sustainability became more mainstream.  I don't have research to back it up, but I have a good feeling waste levels on the individual plane have been reduced.  At the same time, however, because sustainability is currently a largely individual or small group action, in order to survive, many families had to resort to environmentally harmful and economically unsustainable action. 

For example, Americans benefit from what is seen as a highly efficient agricultural system and food manufacturing and shipping system.  The prices we pay for food do not reflect the food's ultimate cost, to the environment, our health, and so forth.  However, our entire sense of the cost of living is built around the availability of this system.  People own the houses that they can afford because of this system. 

The shaky foundation underneath it all, as the environmental and health costs are more and more visible, however, is also contributing to initial signs of breakdown.  Food prices have been driven up and up from what was comfortable for the majority five or six years ago.  Those of us who own homes or pay rent based on what we can afford because of a lower cost of food, especially in a time of job loss and jobs at risk, aren't able to keep it all balanced.

Because of the higher cost of food, for instance, my family can't afford to eat anymore except to the extent we shop for the vast majority of what we eat at places like Pricerite (discount grocer shipping food in from all over just like BJs, Costco, or Walmart).   With the exception of organic milk, no organics are available.  We've thus reduced the organics we eat to "occasional foods" when we can afford local.  With the exception of locally prepared pita breads, this is not local food.  We've thus reduced our locally grown and prepared food (we couldn't afford even a half share at a CSA this summer) to "occasional foods" (though to our credit, we buy very, very little pre-prepared foods, and cook nearly entirely from scratch).  On the individual level we can't afford the sustainable practices that will ultimately save our community.

5.  While questioning sustainability is more accepted now than it was even a few years ago, questioning sustainability is not yet seen as mainstream.  Those who question sustainability are largely still seen still as alarmists and millenialists.  Those who are preparing for a major economic shift are marginalized as if they are preparing for "the end of the world."  Even within "green churches," we have not yet reached a tipping point of preparation for a new economic era.

6.  The status quo has been maintained just enough that as communities, we have largely been settling back into a place of comfort about things.  Economic distress is still high, but the stress levels have been reduced just enough that we aren't questioning the entire system.  Even as recently as a few weeks ago, I was still functioning under the illusion that I can hold onto my house that I really need to sell in order to move into a position more sustainable on the individual and community level.  I was still thinking I could get a renter and downsize to a small apartment, and that everything might still be okay. 

7.  One tension: in what might turn out to be a major shift in the entire world economic system, the things that are good for us in the long-run do not feel attainable in the short-run.  Just as in my example above regarding the cost of food and the way my own family is surviving on the cheap stuff from the discount grocery outlet, our churches are also finding it difficult or impossible to choose a way of being in the world that is best for the long-run.  Our churches have staff people and ministers who need these jobs in an economy where jobs are scarce.  These jobs serve an important function for the things that churches do currently, even though those things may not be what is needed to help our communities through the rough seas ahead in the next 10, 20, 30...years. 

On the institutional level, we don't know how else to structure ourselves, and we are afraid to make any changes based on predictions of an unknown future because what if those predictions don't turn out to be true?  Won't we then just be irrelevant?  Major change is needed, but every incentive is toward the maintenance of the status quo (to understand this, please, please take the time to check out the link in observation #1).  The chance of popular support for critical changes in our churches seems remote at best.

We look at churches like those of the Rev. Ron Robinson, and we say, "Oh, that looks interesting.  What great stuff.  I want to support what they are doing.  But that is not what my own church's unique identity is all about.  That wouldn't fit us at all.  I wouldn't feel at home in that church.  Here at my own church, we're about Sunday worship..." etc. etc.  It's scary to reimagine ourselves.  And it's scary to reimagine ourselves in a future that seems uncertain.  And it's scary to imagine ourselves taking actions now based on what seem like potentially alarmist predictions, especially when those decisions involve tough issues like the jobs and the position descriptions of good people who have done good, important work and who need jobs in an economically difficult time, and whose current job descriptions make sense to what we feel like we need right now.

On Economy and Church: Part 2 (originally posted 11/2010)

Click here for part I of this blog series on economy and church. 

In part one of this blog series, I referenced an economic "Crash Course" website.  In this post and probably other posts that follow, I am going to include some videos from that site because talking about the economy and church requires a foundational understanding of what is happening economically beyond our awareness that we are still trying to recover from a recession that has been hard to shake, and we're all feeling a little vulnerable and unsure. 

I want to say that I recognize that in referencing this particular "Crash Course," I'm using a reference point with some particular assumptions behind it.  However, I think the author of the "Crash Course" does a pretty good job at distinguishing between facts, beliefs, and opinions as he states is his goal in the first video.   I also think the "Crash Course" is the most accessible explanation and history of the United States economy for non-economists available, which is the primary reason I use it as my reference. 

The "Crash Course" website consists of twenty very short videos that are as short as one minute and 46 seconds to no longer than twenty minutes.  The entire course is 3 hours and 20 minutes long, and I think this subject is important enough to call upon that length of time, whether by short spurts or sitting down with the videos for an evening.

However, knowing that we need some common information right now on which to base this conversation, I am going to include some of the video segments here and hope that the lack of context won't unnecessarily confuse the issues.

First a couple of the fundamentals of what our congregations are facing in terms of a massively shifting economy.  If you don't have a lot of time, and feel pretty confident about your knowledge level regarding assets and debt, I'd say it starts to get most interesting around the eight-minute mark:

I show that video first because those are not unfamiliar economic realities, especially given the economic strains of the last couple of years.  Somewhat more vague for most of us are the concepts related to the intersection of energy and economics.  It takes "Crash Course" author Chris Martenson seventeen chapters to work up to them, but these concepts may be some of the most important:

Around the five-minute and twenty-second mark in the video above, Chris Martenson makes a particularly heart-wrenching educated prediction.  He says: "The status quo will be preserved at all costs.  Politicians will hide the truth, economic statistics will become even fuzzier, and central banks will continue to throw more and more money at a system that at its core is out of tune with reality."

I want to stop here for a minute and say that it was in October 2008 when Chris Martenson completed the "Crash Course" series.  However, I believe I first was introduced to the series in 2007, before its completion, and only in what seemed like the early phases of the recession.  By that time, Mr. Martenson had apparently been giving workshops and working on the course for several years.  I've been stunned but unsurprised to watch President Obama, a president who had my vote and who continues to have my general support, do exactly what was predicted in his response to what some call "the great recession."  That is, he has maintained the status quo at all costs.  Again and again.  ("Quantitative easing" anyone?)  I do not believe this would have been any different with any other politician in the office, nor do I believe it will be any different with any politician who comes after him. 

What we are facing is the possibility of deep change:

My basic question is, if there is even a 50-50 chance that such a change is occurring under our feet, what is our religious and moral call to the people in our congregations, our communities, and the world?  Who are we called to be at this turning point in history?  And how can we actually survive to live out that call?

On Economy and Church: Part 3 (originally posted 12/2010)

This is part of an ongoing exploration of the economy and church.  To see part II, where I cover some fundamentals of American economics and the current American economic condition (some of which may be applicable in some form outside of the United States) click here
Let's now talk a little about "class."

First, the "knowns."  My source(s) here is not a primary source and is six-years-old, by the way, but my blogging practice is to post sources if (1) they are either primary or can be backed up by primary sources if I took the time to do so, and (2) most of what is said in the source still applies at the time I am posting it.  Here is some of what we know about class, as outlined in a 2005 New York Times series called "Class Matters."  I especially recommend that first full article in the list.
  1. There is a class system in the United States.
  2. The "American Dream" of upward class mobility is more dream than reality.
  3. Upward class mobility is declining such that my generation became the first generation that will probably and almost uniformly make equal amounts or less than our parents, unlike the generations that have come before us for quite some time.
  4. The chasm between rich and poor is indeed growing.
Now let me add to the above list the following, all of which I have not yet but at some point I hope to come back and backup with sources.  In the meantime, I think some of the videos in part II of this series are good starting sources.
  1. Consumer debt is rampant among all classes.  In fact, in some cases it may be how we Americans have tried to equalize ourselves among class levels (just compare average house sizes from 1950 to 2004).
  2. Lenders have historically preyed on folks in vulnerable positions.
  3. Across the country, individual rates of debt have far exceeded our rate of savings.
Okay, so let's consider the above in relation to the economic state with which our country has been struggling for a few years, most of which is talked about regularly on the nightly news.  Consider this:
  1. In many areas of the United States, unemployment is still a big problem.
  2. Even in places where there are jobs, economic contractions from the recession have not lifted.  People who have jobs are often working fewer hours, at lower rates of pay, for fewer benefits, with reduced levels of compensation for costs such as health insurance. 
  3. Despite some loan modifications, for the most part, the great many people who have jobs but who are working fewer hours, at lower rates of pay, for fewer benefits, with reduced levels of compensation still have their pre-recession mortgages or close to pre-recession rental costs.  They also have greater health care costs (not only have benefits lowered, but prices have continued to increase).  And the cost of food is up.  So as a whole, we are trying to stretch less into more.
  4. Folks are shouldering these burdens on top of their high rates of consumer debt and low rates of savings. 
In our congregations, we must sustain our commitment to those most vulnerable among us.  This is even more true now than it ever was, as the poorest folks got hit the fastest in the economic troubles of recent years, and in many cases the hardest.  Social programs, meanwhile, that help folks when money doesn't cover the basics (food banks, utility assistance programs, and so forth), have in many cases a decreased level of funding since Americans have had to tighten our belts more collectively.  So the resources for those in greatest need are stretched even more thin at a time when they are more needed.  That's not new news, but it continues to be critical news.

Making our responsibilities even greater, in addition to that, there is an emerging need among a whole new group.  This need is found in the middle class folks, especially the lower-middle class folks, who have gotten themselves in over their heads with house payments and so forth that they can't support with post-recession levels of income and inflated costs of living.  Even if our country recovers and we can eventually return to the "status quo" (which I questioned in part II of this series), it may very well take years.  Though the need is probably less urgent than among the "working class," the suffering is largely silent.  The reasons for this include:
  1. The problem surfaced in part as the result of high debt levels, and people feel ashamed.  While high debt levels have never been part of good financial management, the truth is that what seemed to be reasonable debt to the majority of Americans five or six years ago no longer seems reasonable.  Consider the mortgages some of us were willing to pay (hey, even me just back in 2007, which is after the "bubble" started to burst).
  2. Because the issues are so entwined with debt for this particular class level, these are people who are not qualifying for the safety nets available to the "working class."  Until they lose their jobs, despite lower incomes than pre-recession and higher costs, they can't get foodstamps, their children don't qualify for free or reduced lunch programs at school, they won't likely receive utility assistance even when the power is turned off or the oil company refuses to deliver, and the food banks may not serve folks from their zip codes.
There is a lot of shame and regret tied up in the struggle of a declining middle class right now.  It is entirely possible that without anyone else knowing it:
  • A committed, pledging single member or family (with or without children) of your church has bounced checks trying to make a pledge payment.
  • Someone you know in a middle class profession is skipping lunch to make sure their kids can have dinner.
  • A seemingly middle class family in your church has had the electricity or heat turned off or nearly turned off sometime in the last month, and fears CPS would be called regarding their children if anyone finds out.
  • A parent you know in the so-called middle class isn't eating fruits and vegetables (is putting their own nutrition at risk) in order to ensure that produce is available for their children.
  • Someone in a middle class neighborhood near you (maybe even your own) is calling the water company to make payment arrangements this month so they can afford to pay enough of the natural gas bill that it won't be turned off.  Meanwhile, they haven't paid the phone company in two months and are waiting for the inevitable cancelation notice.
I realize, of course, that folks spent more money on "Black Friday" than expected, and that we're all supposed to feel good that this means the above issues are unlikely as we continue our so-called economic "recovery."  But I've seen enough suffering going on with folks I know and love to trust "Black Friday" as a good indicator.  I also think our spending shows an unfortunate willingness to return to the status quo, to continue increasing our debt at the first signs of economic recovery.  This isn't a good sign.  This is a sign of more and greater trouble to come.

If I am right, what does this mean for us as a people of faith?