President John F. Kennedy gets credit for the aphorism usually applied to economics, “A rising tide lifts all boats.” As a sailor, Kennedy would also have known that an ebb (falling) tide also lowers all boats. If the tide drops enough, a multimillion-dollar yacht is just as stuck as a rowboat.
The U.S. economic recession is still somewhat uneven; some of our congregations are in areas where economic activity continues at a moderate pace. But other parts of our church are hurting. In Elkhart (Ind.) County, where I live, the credit crisis has devastated many manufacturers of recreational vehicles; our county leads the state with an unemployment rate now above 10 percent.
Daily we hear stories of food pantries in the region running out of supplies. The interchurch ministry for homeless families in our town expanded its capacity by 40 percent and still has to turn families away. The local ministerial association has little money left in the fund that provides help for the needy.
While this is a shock to most of us in the region, some members in Mennonite Church USA’s Western District have been living with decline for years. Their spiritual vitality in the midst of the region’s depopulation can be be an example to all of as we confront worsening economic news.
Some economists are warning that 2009 will be even more challenging than 2008. If that is the case, we may be tempted into a siege mentality in our congregations. We may focus on maintaining programs and first covering the costs of “being the church.” As the tide falls, we become preoccupied with hitting bottom.
But it will be much worse for others around the world. Mennonite Central Committee, the conduit through which flows much of our support for others less fortunate, sounded the alarm in a recent news release. MCC U.S. director Rolando Santiago said he projects a budget shortfall of approximately 5 percent in 2009. MCC’s international budget is also facing a shortfall that may require the use of its rainy day fund. These reductions are caused by the declining value of the Canadian dollar, lower returns on investments and a projected decline in contributions.
This is all the more startling since MCC was saying just six months ago it had more money than staff. “We are cash rich and people poor,” said one board member at MCC’s annual meeting last June.
MCC’s finances are a kind of bellwether; they indicate the level of compassion we have for others less fortunate around the world. If the tide falls further in 2009, then our support for relief and service programs will be incrementally more important.
Since Mennonite Church USA will observe Stewardship Sunday on Jan. 18, this is a good time to plan our giving—both household and congregational—for the new year. Here are two suggestions:
- Commit to giving—as a family or as an individual—1 percent more of your 2009 income than the percentage of 2008 income given to church and charitable causes.
- As a congregation, commit to giving 1 percent more of your 2009 spending plan than the percentage given outside your congregation in 2008.
The good news is that the tide does not ebb forever. At some point it will turn and begin to fill in around our boats sitting on the rocks. We are all in this cycle together, and we can make the struggle easier for ourselves and others by caring for our “neighbors” around the world as much or more than we care for ourselves.
The worsening global economic crisis will cause many of us to look first after our personal well-being. But Jesus says we are to love our neighbors as much as we love ourselves. These tough times remind us about the way we should live all the time, no matter which way the tide flows.