Dear Church: Ten Things I Hate About You

Okay, so right about now, you probably think I’m a millennial.

The reality is far different. I’m a cradle Episcopalian, active in my church and community, and I love the people in my church. I’m also in my 50’s — an age when many have made peace with issues of this sort.

I also know that hate’s a strong word. In fact, I often caution family members not to use the word unless they truly do hate something, which I hope is a rare thing.

But there are times it’s the right word to use, and here are ten things I hate about church. So, church, here goes:

You’re bad with money

Early in life, I learned the importance of managing money carefully. That means living within my means, having a budget, and saving for the future. 

But you don’t save for the future. Chances are you have no meaningful savings for the future, and lots of deferred maintenance—the most costly type of maintenance. And your purportedly balanced budget is bogus, since you don’t include depreciation in your financial reports.

Yet Easter rolls around, and you dig deep, coming up with funds for luxurious banks of flowers, a gargantuan reception, and more.

In short, you’re like a self-indulgent teenager, who spends money with no thought for the future. And you have no idea how close you are to the edge—you have barely enough money on hand to cover unexpected  repair bills or other possible crises.

That makes me really uneasy.

You’re a lousy employer

Here, you talk a good game, but the reality is very different.

In the case of your rector, far too often he or she comes and goes at will. Something going on in your family? Just take a few weeks. But you still get your annual summer vacation and more. Given that I’ve had one vacation in the last 21 years, it’s hard for me to feel generous come pledge season. I don’t mind clergy taking leave as specified in their letters of agreement, but far too many get paid leave over and above that amount—a right typically not afforded lay employees.

Meanwhile, lay employees either work like dogs, or have zero accountability. That’s not surprising, since you have slipshod employee records.

You also have no idea what effective performance management is, or about legal issues like overtime or Age Discrimination in Employment. I mean, some of the stuff I’ve seen go on would get you sued in record time if you were a for-profit. How does that work?

So church, charity starts at home, and I wish you’d take a good hard look at your employment practices.

You’re unethical

In a day and age when publicly traded companies have mandatory ethics reporting and anti-retaliation provisions, you have no such policies.

There’s an important reason for these provisions, and that is to make it easy for people to do the right thing. But you don’t want to go there, and in fact you typically do retaliate against whistleblowers.

It’s a sad day when church is less ethical than corporate America.

Church, why are you clinging to outdated notions of ethics?

You bully

Speaking of ethics, bullying is illegal in almost all American schools. But you allow it to go on and rarely stand up to bullies. How does that work?

Dear church, if you can’t take a stand on bullying within your walls, what good are you?

You make bad choices when it comes to leadership

Lay leaders within churches should be chosen impartially, with an eye towards picking people who show spiritual maturity and a willingness to be a servant leader. But all too often, you pick the people least likely to challenge the rector, or to cause a fuss.

That tells me that your first concern isn’t the welfare of the church or the people who make up the church, and that is deeply troubling.

Church, when are you going to get it together and choose real leaders?

You’re all about power

Dear church, I have to tell you: You’re still way too caught up in power, at every level. From rectors who want iron-clad control of their parish, to altar guild presidents who feel like they can dictate policy to the rest of the parish, you’re a mess.

Let’s just say that if Jesus rolled through next Sunday, he’d either pull the Cleansing of Temple deal again, or he’d weep. Maybe both.

You love big issues, but ignore smaller ones

For the record, I’m all for you speaking out on DACA, LGBT rights, and other pressing social issues. I don’t suggest backing off on these issues, either.

But when, for example, a parish is having a tough go of it due to clergy misconduct or internal strife, it’s not okay to just ignore it.

Church, with all your people and resources, I can’t believe you can’t find a way to care for your people when they need your help.

You’re amateur hour when it comes to business practices

Church, I understand that you rely heavily on volunteers. But that’s no excuse for not providing a framework for sound business decisions. Even today, you have considerable resources at your disposal. Yet I continue to see shoddy accounting practices, facially inaccurate financial reports, and more. And the seminary system is a big part of the problem, as most still teach very little about sound HR, financial management, and other business practices.

What message does that send about your commitment to sound stewardship?

You’re over-indulgent of clergy

There, I said it. 

Being clergy isn’t easy, and it can be emotionally draining. But in a day and age when many of us work more than one job to stay afloat and haven’t had vacation in years, do you really need lengthy sabbaticals, six weeks of vacation, time for education and more?

Granted, there also are a lot of clergy who are lucky if they get off two weeks every year, and work for very little money. But there are far too many who still make very generous salaries, yet do very little for the money. And far too many clergy never have gone on a mission, or worked a shift at their church’s food pantry.

Church, we need clergy who lead through service, versus expecting to be served.

You’ve forgotten about love

Dear church, the worst of it is that many of these issues would fall into place if you were focused on your primary mission, which is to love God and other people.

If you love one another, you’ll want to make sure that your employees are treated with dignity and respect. You’ll want to make sure that sound leaders make the best possible decisions for your parish. And you’ll want to make sure that your church is lovingly cared for and maintained.

So church, when I see these issues, I fear you’ve lost your way and that you’re too busy doing church to be church.

Church, I love you dearly, but I worry about you.

About Eric Bonetti

I’m a cradle Episcopalian, living in Northern Virginia. My interests include writing, policy, sports, cooking, volunteer work, good food and wine, and teaching kids’ cooking classes. I retired in 2017 and now just work for fun. I’m also a regular contributor to Episcopal Cafe, and have been published at HuffPo and other major sites and publications.

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