By Jay Brim, Special Contributor…
Back in October, I had the pleasure of riding to a meeting at the UMC’s Southwest Texas Conference center with the Rev. Tina Carter, senior pastor at Parker Lane United Methodist Church in Austin, Texas. Rev. Carter could call herself the Rev. Dr. Carter, since she has a hard-science Ph.D., but she is a humble person given to focusing on the people she is serving. At Parker Lane, that means mostly people in poverty.
We talked a lot about the challenges of serving in a neighborhood of lower socio-economic means, and of operating a United Methodist church on the tithes and offerings that are possible in that setting. Her explanations of her day-to-day ministry caused me to re-examine my perspective of work with people in poverty.
The predominant model of a successful UMC congregation, in Southwest Texas and elsewhere, is made up of middle class to upper-middle class members. My church, Westlake UMC, is an example.
Our congregation assists Parker Lane, houses homeless families regularly in an organized Austin program and feeds the homeless through charitable programs. These efforts respond to Jesus’ admonition to feed the hungry, give water to those who are thirsty and clothe the naked. However, as a denomination, the UMC doesn’t have a working model of congregational life to offer to a community in poverty.
If we hope to build a self-sustaining new church somewhere, we aim for a neighborhood where we can get 125 faithful members, because that’s what it takes, on average, to pay an ordained elder. Those 125 have to be at least middle class, to give adequate offerings.
This isn’t because we are paying huge salaries. Unfortunately, there are pastors in Southwest Texas on food stamps. There are also young pastors who carry large debts from seminary, which cuts into their income. All these factors are in play as we consider where to start congregations.
What we cannot do as a conference, under our current circumstances, is place clergy in poor neighborhoods to start congregations, because those neighborhoods will never be able to support the clergy assigned to them. It is possible for individual congregations to send clergy out to serve those neighborhoods, which is happening, and it is possible for individual clergy persons to choose to serve in those circumstances.
The Rev. Lorenza Andrade Smith in the Rio Grande Conference is such a person. Nearly three years ago, Lorenza asked Bishop Jim Dorff to assign her to a street ministry in San Antonio. He hesitated, considering where her salary would come from. She settled that by refusing to take a salary. She’s been in homeless ministry ever since. As you might guess, her case is unique.
How can we serve the cause of Christ in ways similar to that of Lorenza and Tina, while continuing to be the people that God has allowed us to be, with lives of plenty? Giving bountifully from our own resources is good, and demanded by our vows, but is that really what Jesus was asking for?
In first century Israel, people could hand coins to beggars; that’s not what Jesus said to do. He said to give food to the hungry, water to the thirsty and clothes to the naked, which implies that we must actually hand those less-fortunate persons what they need to sustain themselves in a minimal way. It would require us to show our love for our neighbors not by just writing a check but by becoming directly involved in their lives.
Mr. Brim is lay leader of the Southwest Texas Conference.