It’s almost impossible these days to ignore the undercurrent of worry and concern at Old South, especially on Sunday mornings as we wonder how many people will join us for worship. The numbers keep going down. After a couple of waves of departures and deaths over the last few years, with only a trickle of new people coming in, we are a smaller congregation—and older. The consequences are significant.
Not only is worship attendance lower, the choir is smaller than it’s been in the over ten years of my ministry with the church. There are fewer people who are able to take up the normal work of congregational life—assisting in getting the sanctuary ready for worship, providing hospitality after worship, etc. And, we have fewer people who are comfortable driving after dark, to attend meetings or evening studies.
A couple of months ago, as the Oversight Committee was preparing for a visit from the man who oversees our endowment portfolio, I found myself in the midst of a few interesting conversations. The portfolio manager has made it clear, during previous visits, that our 5% annual draw on the endowment (of a three-year rolling average) is higher than current industry standards. If we maintain our spending habits, the endowment will slowly shrink.
We have one member, a former banker, who has taken up the cause and is preparing to make the big argument that we reduce our draw. We must preserve the endowment. “It’s our “lifeblood,” he has declared.
I have begun to ask the question of why. Why bother reducing our draw? While I don’t think we should begin to spend recklessly, I wonder why we should set as a goal the preservation of an endowment that will, very likely, outlive the church.
Clearly, not many want to deal with this question. In the few individual discussions I’ve had, through which I’ve tried to gauge where the congregation is on this issue (as well as other similar issues), I’ve noticed that there’s little interest in talking about anything beyond the simple math of what we should annually draw from our endowment. Should we stay at 5% or try to reduce, to 4.5% or even 4?
In one conversation, when I suggested that the church begin to talk about a “sunset clause” to be inserted into the bylaws, I was berated for my pessimism and told that no pastor should be as negative as I am being. When I went through my usual litany, including the challenges beyond the congregation (Maine is among the most secular states in the country, with a population in decline, that Old South is located in an area that is older and lacking in young people, and that our problems are not just our problems, but problems that are shared by other churches as well as the state government that is also concerned about Maine’s aging population and seeming inability to attract new people), I was told that if a day indeed arrives when we can no longer go on, then any important decisions should be left for that day—and not a day before that day. Talking about what to do with whatever is left in the endowment, what to do with the buildings and their contents and the church’s other assets, etc. should all take place on that last day.
If we follow this one person’s advice, and I’m concerned that his ideas may gain some traction, the agenda for our last day is going to be a long one—a very long one.
While I can understand the reluctance to look full on into the reality that Old South’s future is likely a short one, I feel sure that talking about our demise will be a good thing—and may very well provide significant opportunities to reflect meaningfully on why Old South is so important to us. These conversations will certainly bring much grief and sadness, but they may also bring signs of life. Why does this church matter to us? Why do we care?
Conversations about those “end of life” issues should bring us face-to-face with what our “lifeblood” truly is, for it is not our endowment. If, though, it turns out that our lifeblood is the endowment, we might as well schedule our last day as soon as possible, for there’s no point in preserving a wealth management club that just happens to meet on Sunday mornings. Personally, I think there’s more there, more that is part of this small group of older people. It’s time to find it, and embrace it, and figure out who we are and to whom we belong.