There is a church of my acquaintance that, a few years ago, faced a challenging problem. The story I’m going to tell you about that church might sound to you like a fable that I’ve made up in order to teach some lesson. But the church is a real one, even though I do not intend to tell you its name. And the problem it faced was also a real problem, one that I became aware of because I was part of a committee whose task was to advise this church on how to deal with its situation.
The congregation was an old one, established in the early19th century. It had been a very prominent congregation in its town, situated on the town square and attended by many of the wealthier members of the community. But by the early years of the 21st century, this congregation had declined in size, in prominence, and in wealth. Its members worked hard to maintain it, but the simple maintenance of its big, aging building were increasingly straining the congregation’s resources.
The congregation was quite proud of the building that earlier generations had passed down to them. Wealthy donors in the last years of the 19th century invested a small fortune to commission Louis Comfort Tiffany, the famed glass artist, to create a grand set of stained glass windows in the sanctuary. Today, those windows have become immensely valuable. Or, that is they would have been immensely valuable if they had not fallen into a state of disrepair. After over a hundred years in place, the windows needed very extensive repair and refurbishing. The windows are enormous.
After extensive research, the leadership of the congregation learned that the cost of fully and properly repairing their Tiffany stained glass windows would be several hundred thousand dollars, about twice the amount the congregation received each year in contributions to operate the church. It was a breath-taking discovery.
The committee on which I served, whose task it was to advise the congregation, tried as tactfully and gently as we could to ask the congregation whether they might not consider simply selling the windows and replacing them with attractive, modern, energy-efficient windows. In that way, we hoped to encourage the congregation to avoid such a crippling expense and instead to turn the problem into source of income and energy savings that could support their on-going and future ministry to their members and larger community.
My fellow committee members and I had all been around churches for a long time, and so none of us really expected our suggestion to be taken. And, of course, it was not. Instead the congregation found a stained glass company that was willing to do a partial repair of the windows at a cost of around $100,000 dollars — an amount just less than two thirds of their annual operating budget. Their solution did not so much solve their stained glass window problem as postpone it for some years. They still have their Tiffany windows for now. Though they now have less money for ministry, and they are spending much more in energy costs, because their Tiffany windows were not designed to keep out the cold.
Did they do the right thing? What did their decision say about their understanding of what the purpose of their church is?
In what sense do Tiffany stained glass windows fulfill the mission of the church of Jesus Christ in the world? How should a church distinguish between an extravagant expenditure and a necessary one? Why is it important to maintain a church’s traditions and at what point does the cost of maintaining those traditions outweigh the benefits? Good questions, I think. What might be some good answers?
©2013 Gary A. Chorpenning; all rights reserved.