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Reality Check

The cash-flow crutch

By David Ewart

From 1965 to the present, statistics tracking United Church people have all trended downward. Whether you look at membership, Sunday attendance or baptisms, the numbers are dropping off like Granddad after turkey dinner (exhausted from so much cooking and cleaning, of course). And yet, the denomination’s overall income — called the “total amount raised for all purposes” — has not dropped significantly (see the green line). In 2012, the total amount raised was $399 million.

The total amount raised is the sum of congregational givings (red line), United Church Women’s fundraising (blue line), and “other” income (yellow line).

Congregational givings followed a pattern similar to the total amount raised between the mid-1960s and mid-70s. Then it dropped by 27 percent. The amount raised by the UCW also declined significantly during this period. And yet the overall total amount held steady. How come?

The difference is being made up by “other” income, which has grown from $33 million in 1965 to $132 million in 2012, a 300 percent increase. “Other” is a large category that includes community suppers, choir concerts and thrift sales, as well as rental and investment income. And while there is good news in having extra income to support our ministries, the danger is that it masks the loss of people participating in congregational life while giving a false sense of security that at least the bills are being paid. Donations from participants accounted for 81 percent of the total amount raised in 1965; by 2012, that had fallen to 64 percent. Are we heading for a future of empty buildings paid for by rentals and investments?

Left unexamined, “other” income can be a sedative that allows us to stagnate while the culture around us transforms. The task facing the church today is finding ways to connect with new neighbours and younger generations. Buildings, investments and fundraisers are distractions, not solutions.

Rev. David Ewart is a United Church minister in Vancouver.

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