By Larry Beane
Thanks to Rev. Todd Wilken for having the courage to say what many are thinking: that it matters how church leaders spend the Church's money, that appearances do have an effect on the way people perceive the faith and those who hold office in Christ's Church.
The article is here at Steadfast Lutherans. Hopefully, Pr. Wilken won't get a lot of flak from people in positions of power for this article.
In short, the Council of Presidents and the Board of Directors of the Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod are holding a meeting in Kissimmee, Florida and are staying at the Gaylord Palms Resort and Convention Center (depicted above), which is described thus:
Sun-drenched and spectacular, Gaylord Palms Resort and Convention Center brings excitement to life through world-class restaurants, dynamic on-site recreation, and breathtakingly beautiful gardens under glass. Our signature atriums, tropical and lush, recreate three Florida environments, immersing you in the sights and sounds that make the Sunshine State a top vacation destination. From the gently rising mists of the Everglades, to the funky and vibrant island revelry of Key West, to the Spanish-infused, old-world charm of St. Augustine, you'll delight in these unique Florida-themed settings. You have to see this to believe it!
The hotel itself was built in the sumptuous style and grandeur of a turn-of-the-century Florida mansion, but with the modern amenities and deluxe accommodations of a world-renowned luxury hotel.
Pastor Wilken's critique does not focus on the stewardship issue, but limits itself to the issue of perception, referring to this decision as a "scotoma" - or blind spot.
It would seem to be a surprising PR move, especially as the country is wrestling with the impending "fiscal cliff," as iconic American companies are going out of business, while others are restructuring their employee configuration literally within days of the latest election and its implications for the costs of doing business. This is a time of economic uncertainty and anxiety for people not accustomed to staying in luxury resorts.
For a church body that put so much time, energy and yes money into changing the "color palette" of its "branding" for the sake of "refreshing" its image - this is a rather interesting venue to hold an official business meeting.
It does sound like quite a beautiful place - as people often come to that part of Florida for vacations. And the Gaylord Palms has a lot going for it:
Located just 1.5 miles from the front gate of Walt Disney World® and in close proximity to other Orlando theme parks, Gaylord Palms Hotel is just 20 minutes from Orlando International airport.
Centrally located and close to everything in Orlando, Gaylord Palms Hotel is an ideal location for meetings and conventions. And with 400,000 square feet of flexible meeting space, Gaylord Palms boasts the 178,500-square-foot Florida Exhibition Hall.
You'll be amazed at the four-and-a-half acres of indoor gardens and three distinct Florida environments. Within this lush landscape you'll discover fine dining and casual restaurants, unique shopping experiences, and the 20,000-square-foot Relâche Spa and fitness center.
This luxurious hotel boasts 1,406 stylish guest rooms, including 115 spectacular suites.
Some have pointed out that this is actually very good stewardship, as the Gaylord Palms is near the airport and Orlando is accustomed to dealing with visitors. Besides, what's there not to love for the modern churchman:
Entertaining environments, flexible and effective meeting space, and an unparalleled commitment to flawless service are the backdrop for every meeting. Gaylord Palms' spectacular atrium celebrates the natural wonders, history, architecture, and ambiance of three unique Florida regions: the untamed mystery of the Everglades; the colorful, bohemian spirit of Key West; and the rich, Spanish influence of America's oldest city, St. Augustine.
These extraordinary meeting spaces combine with world-class dining, shopping, expansive recreation, Relâche Spa, and exemplary service to provide the ultimate hotel and meeting experience for your guests. Discover the panoramic views inside Gaylord Palms®. You won't believe what we have under one roof! And with the gates of Walt Disney World® just five minutes away and golf courses nearby, you and your meeting attendees have plenty of options for day trips, off-site meetings and team-building events.
Given that a lot of people in our churches - both lay and clergy - are struggling financially, does Pastor Wilken have a point? When situations like this are happening in our church, is he being unreasonable in raising the "blind spot" issue?
I wonder if this is symptomatic among our leadership to how things are perceived.
By way of example, one highly-placed church official recently made a trip to Africa and was put in a five star resort. He actually joked about his "suffering" superimposed with pictures of his breathtaking digs. Considering that Christians in this same country are suffering under the cross of extreme poverty, cruel warfare, and even martyrdom for the faith - could he have displayed a better sensitivity to those not accustomed to such luxury?
Is this the natural consequence of having a church hierarchy and bureaucracy that is paid multiple times the rate of a parish pastor and the average lay person in the parish? And what does this say to the increasing number of pastors and church workers without healthcare coverage, those who are making less than (and in some cases tens of thousands of dollars less than) district salary guidelines? Should we have some ordained servants of the word on government cheese and WIC while many in bureaucratic positions make six figures? What does this reality confess about the value of parochial labor in word and sacrament ministry?
What does this reality confess to this faithful parish pastor?
While we can bicker about what is an appropriate level of pampering for church leaders and the proper level of luxury for official church meetings, I think we would do well to think about what kind of message such displays send out. At a time when people are leaving Christian churches in droves, would we do well to listen (rather than dismiss with a wave of a hand) when we are criticized for hypocrisy? Think about the way the many church scandals have shaken the faith of Americans over the last generation. In my own area, for example, we had a local megachurch pastor raise a few eyebrows by buying property for several million dollars and selling it to his own church a few days (days!) later at a profit of a million dollars (tax free, of course).
Like it or not, such behavior on the part of some clergy taints all churches and pastors - especially in the eyes of those who see the Church as a money-grubbing organization.
It doesn't help when, as in the case of my own district, pastor's "conferences" are held on cruise ships. Moreover, congregations sometimes receive heavy-handed letters demanding payment for these cruises - whether or not their pastors will (or even can) attend. In effect, we have pastors (for instance men with large families who physically cannot attend) whose poor churches are subsidizing rich congregations with multiple pastors that can even afford to send their pastors' wives on these "conferences." Why in the world can't these vacations simply be made optional, without resorting to guilt-tripping or arm-twisting poor congregations into feeding the wealthier ones?
How does this jibe with St. Paul collecting alms from wealthy regions to support the gospel in poorer areas? How must our partner churches, say in Russia and Eastern Europe, Africa, and parts of Asia, see this when they browse facebook and blogs and official church websites and see the way our church leadership is taken care of out of our offering plates?
Here in New Orleans, we have a lot of upscale restaurants and fine hotels. Frequently, the people who work in this industry are poorer people, minorities, immigrants, and those working around the clock to take care of their families. I could be wrong, but I suspect this is similar in the Orlando area's hospitality industry. How must it look to the staffs of such hotels to see conventions of overwhelmingly well-fed and well-dressed executives of the Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod obviously able to afford such accommodations? What does this say about our synod's priorities, where our treasure is? Is this the kind of message we want to send as a Church to a nation that is increasingly ethnically diverse that is also entering an increasing state of economic distress?
Instead of becoming defensive, can our leaders see how this looks like a "let them eat cake" attitude? It isn't like we lack meeting space at the International Center or at our seminaries and universities around the country. Given the state of affairs in our country and across the church, a little austerity might actually be endearing and something that might be seen as good stewardship. In fact, some of the saved funds could be put to good and productive work for the sake of the Gospel, such as mission work, relief work, and education. And the unintended benefit might be a sense of respect for the Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod.
I think the disconnect is not only with the world but within our congregations. We are routinely getting requests for funds from the church bureaucracy. Just a few minutes ago, I received this from my own district, under the rubric: "Living Each Day As A Steward":
The District Stewardship Committee recommends that prayerful consideration be given
to overall mission when working on annual budgets.
The District/Synod support goal by congregations for 2012 is set at $1,100,000. The support by congregations to District and Synod has been plateaued for nearly ten years. To renew partnership possibilities, we ask each congregation to prayerfully think about an increase so we move past the plateau level. The projection is to see the congregational support amount grow by 3% in 2013. Christian stewardship is the free and joyous activity of the child of God and God’s family, the Church, in managing all of life and life’s resources for God’s purposes. Stewardship is a response to the Gospel as part of our Christian discipleship.
As part of disciple-making, we are asked to help persons grow in their patterns or habits of personal stewardship (time, talent, treasure, and testimony). With eyes on Jesus and the power of the Spirit, disciples grow through involvement in Word and prayer that moves faith from intellectual ascent to changed hearts. We ask for your prayerful response to the 2013 Partnership Commitment Form enclosed. The congregation, District, and Synod are partners in carrying out the overall mission. The foundations for that work together is at the congregational level as neither District nor Synod produce or generate their own funds for missions and operations.
As we see persons growing in being generous givers, we see persons responding through firstfruits, proportionate, and joyful giving.
How should my congregation react to this at the same moment that our Council of Presidents is being treated to a tour of duty in the service of the Gospel at the Gaylord Palms? Should it come as a shock that congregational support of District and Synod has been "plateaued" for a decade? Is it really that hard to comprehend?
How do these requests for money sound juxtaposed against the backdrop of these images where our LCMS churchmen are meeting to decide the future direction of our synod's proclamation of Jesus to an increasingly hurting world?
Don't get me wrong, I am all in favor of the free market and free enterprise. I don't believe in class warfare or penalizing success. There is nothing wrong with taking a great idea to market and becoming wealthy. It is one thing for us to save up our own money and enjoy vacations. But it's a different story when it comes to the sacrificial funds collected from the sacrificial offerings of the laity for the operation of our church body to be spent on luxuriating the hierarchy - who produce nothing nor sell anything. We should keep in mind the mission of the Body of Christ. We are not entrepreneurs vending a product. We aren't the medieval Church with its pampered potentates fleecing the faithful with threats and schemes. We are indeed the people of witness, mercy, and life together. Are meetings like these really in the best interest of the evangelical proclamation of the cross and the good news of Jesus Christ?
I think the best comment was given by the Rev. Dr. Daniel Gard, a faithful seminary professor from Fort Wayne, who observes:
I have students who struggle to make ends meet while paying Seminary tuition and living expenses. I have former students and brother pastors who serve God’s people but do so in parishes that cannot afford a living wage or health insurance. Mission congregations cannot be started because there are no funds available. Lutheran teachers, deaconesses and other Church workers often receive salaries that require a second job to meet the requirements of the simplest of lifestyles.
Yet these are the people and parishes that do the real work of the Church. It is through these underpaid and struggling servants that the Gospel is brought into human lives. Gaylord Palms is probably a beautiful place but its beauty pales compared to the work done by those who could barely afford a night in a Motel 6.
Are these meetings in resorts wrong in and of themselves? Some would answer “no”. But I challenge them to explain that to a faithful pastor who meets with a social worker to get help to pay his child’s hospital expenses because the parish cannot afford medical insurance.
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