Cutting “priorities” tells the truth about our priorities

On Tuesday, I saw status updates and tweets from friends in national church organizations mourning the layoffs happening at that moment in the United Church of Canada.

In the early millennium, I sat in a cube farm I had dedicated a great deal of my time, energy and creativity to, and watched as 14 of my colleagues were called into the manager’s office, one by one, and then walked back to their cubes, escorted by our manager, to collect their things and then walk out the door. It was a day of no eye contact, except for one. Dwayne. Dwayne somehow found the grace to come to each and every one of us to thank us for being great co-workers. I can’t blame any of the others. I’m sure my substantial hurt and anger was only a speck of theirs.

At the end of the day, there were four of us left, our manager, another co-worker who was hired the same time as me, and a newer hire who had exceeded everyone’s expectations. We were pale, we shook, feeling so ill we couldn’t even imagine going out to drown our sorrows.

And, not being in management, the ones who make the decisions, we then look back and question the decision. Yes, cuts need to be made, and that those cuts would affect jobs is inevitable. It must be excruciating to be the one to make that call. It is too easy to assume the decisions were made because those in management are trying to save their own salaries. Difficult choices had to be made, and I trust that the decision was made with prayer and compassion.

And I share the anger with Doris Kizinna, Martha Martin, and the Rev. Tom Sherwood in this article from the United Church Observer. They stated that, like most national mainline churches, the United Church of Canada named youth and young adults as a priority, and then the programs are drastically cut.

Now that I am a brand new youth and children’s minister, I am well aware of the prophecy, “The youth minister is the last one hired and the first one fired”. In other words, only when churches feel financially comfortable do they hire a youth minister or invest in youth programs, and as soon as finances get tight, the youth minister is the first one to go.

This is not exclusive to the United Church of Canada. The United Church is one part of a larger Christian institution led by a culture where maintaining buildings and systems is far more important than ministry and programs. According to the Observer, the departments that were cut were Youth and Young Adult programs, Communities in Mission and French ministries. All programs, programs that we know are vital to our proclaiming the Gospel and reaching out to the most vulnerable and those on the fringe of our experience. Many call young adults “the missing generation” (see Carol Howard Merritt’s blog as an example), a vital and critical target group, and now they are lumped in with youth, young teens and children. I have a mandate for youth and children for one church and it is more than a full time job. And I am rare. How is one person supposed to deal with programming for people 0-30 years of age for a whole country? No matter how good that person is (and my experience of the current staff person is she is very, very good), this is a formula for burnout at worst and a drastic diminishing of services and programs at best.

Several years ago the Anglican Church of Canada decided that youth ministry was better managed by dioceses and decentralized. There is a lot of good to be done by depending on local authorities to manage ministries. The difference with ministry to children, youth and young adults is that there are so few dedicated staff, sometimes only one or two in a diocese, often only committing 5-15 hours per week, that it is virtually impossible to connect with one another, support each other, seek and offer feedback, and participate in larger programs, like conferences that many adults would look back on and say were life changing experiences in their adolescence.

My bottom line in this post isn’t a wagging of the finger at those working in Church Houses. The United Church of Canada and my church, the Anglican Church of Canada, are synodically governed. These choices begin at the concilliar level, speaking for congregants and parishioners across our country. These councils only reflect the priorities of those who sit in pews every Sunday. My point is that we are stuck in an entire Church culture that can not look ahead beyond our current stage and experience. Anything that looks forward carries it with it so much uncertainty that, when finances get tight, the first thing we eliminate is chance and risk.

Except that it is in those risky, forward looking places that we are most in touch with the vision of the Kingdom of God, like the disciples who listened and were constantly seeking the Kingdom because they knew they had not found it yet. When we are mired down in our present, the vision of Kingdom becomes a smaller and smaller light on the horizon, to the point that it disappears amongst the landscape of current progress or recession.

As Church, we are called to be the ones who point towards the Kingdom of God. When youth and outreach ministries become disposable, as they have in the past few years of recession, we get lost in the landscape as well.

My prayers remain with those who have been laid off and those who, like I did, remain in those offices, facing empty desks. I hope these layoffs serve as a warning to our councils, our good Sunday morning folk, that unless our priorities shift, our presence as national churches will be irreparably diminished before we disappear forever.