The Experience of Relative Deprivation
Last week I celebrated my three-year anniversary with the Presbytery of Los Ranchos. The move meant a shift both from congregational ministry to presbytery leadership and also from the rural Pacific Northwest to Southern California.
Each new place I’ve lived has required me to learn discipleship afresh. Each time we move, we must figure out how to be faithful there, not just generally. Each place has new challenges with unique local realities.
Finances always top the list.
Mercifully, the Scriptures’ basic principles don’t change just because I move. Giving the first of one’s income remains the standard for baseline giving. God entrusts resources to us to serve others, not benefit ourselves. And deep generosity rebounds with thanksgiving and joy, both for the recipients and the givers.
But Southern Californians face special financial pressures.
Housing costs are unusually high here. Combine that with a cultural pressure to appear wealthy (as contrasted with communities where the wealthy hide their affluence). People keep luxuries far beyond their income level to impress others.
Between these two dynamics, I would guess that as a group we are in more debt than average Americans. As a result, I wonder if the temptation to give less is much stronger here. Perhaps giving not even a consideration for some. They simply cannot imagine how to devote a regular portion of their budget to the church.
Have you seen this among your friends or congregants? Does a high mortgage payment to get into the right school district take away our joy of generosity? Does the prospect of leaving here, only never to afford returning, dampen our ears to the call of God? In my own life, I hear the warning of I Timothy 6:10 anew: “…in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains” (NRSV).
Smith and Emerson observe that “objective resource constraints” do not inhibit our generosity. Rather, perceived scarcity persuades us we cannot afford to give more. When people and churches compare themselves to those who are wealthier, they experience relative deprivation.
So the challenges of financial faithfulness in Southern California are real.
Now it is the task of congregational leaders is to help congregants follow Christ more faithfully. I wonder, then: is it perhaps the task of presbyteries—that is, the gathered and connected body of congregational leaders within a region—to help those leaders walk more faithfully? Is it, even more, the task of presbyteries to help congregations through their leaders?
For the dilemmas that face individuals also face many of our churches. Their debt load limits their financial ability to do effective ministry. They are sitting on valuable land, but they cannot convert it into usable wealth. And quite probably, they carry the same mindset of “perceived scarcity” that Smith and Emerson attribute to the average American Christian.
How do we break free of this predicament? How can Los Ranchos Presbytery help its congregational leaders imagine living in greater financial faithfulness? What would better choices on the part of congregations and their members look like?
Just like our member churches, Los Ranchos Presbytery is in a difficult time concerning money. We have shrunk significantly in membership and in mission receipts. And though we hold sizable investment funds, they are not enough to buy land and build new churches. We are in an odd place of simultaneous scarcity and abundance.
The challenge in such a moment, of course—just as it is in every moment—is not to trust in our resources but in God. We should not ignore the prudent advice of financial planners and investment advisors, but that advice alone will address neither our deep need nor the call of God. Nor will it do so for our congregations and their members.
Rather, the task before us is to recapture a Scriptural understanding of money and then put that understanding into practice, even as the realities of life in Southern California whisper that we are fools for trying. Let’s explore together how we might do that through this space in the coming months. I invite your participation.
Somewhere along the Way—
 Christian Smith and Michael O. Emerson with Patricia Snell, Passing the Plate: Why American Christians Don’t Give Away More Money (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), p. 67.