True Story: Mrs. SolaGratia reports “sewer drains sound beautiful.” If you’d been deaf and heard a sewer for the first time in 30 years, you’d think so too. Speaking of sewers…
At it’s peak, the ABC District Church Extension Fund weighed in at a hefty $113,000,000.00 By sustained acts of concerted arrogance and hubris, the fund was lost to bankruptcy. Normally you’d think, “yeah, lesson learned.” Aww, that’s sweet. Really it is, but this is LCC, where ignorance is the catalyst for planned inaction. It only ever seems to get worse. Next up: congregations get to pay for what looks like a mangled pension fund for pastors.
YOU: “Are you serious? LCC has another financial crisis brewing?”
ME: (looks down to avoid eye contact…sweeps the floor with his foot)
YOU: No seriously. There’s ANOTHER financial crisis in LCC?
ME: (looks at the ceiling and whistles a gentle “Chief of Sinners Though I Be”)
YOU: (binge eats five pints of Ben and Jerry’s “Chocolate Fudge Brownie” Ice Cream)
Over the past week or two I’ve received a half dozen emails. I’ve been silent for a long time, but when people from across the country start firing signal flares, it’s time to wake up and take a look. I’ve actually been warned not to publish this article because it’ll draw pastoral ire. Probably, but this is another CEF/DIL crisis, and this time it’s national.
From one observant reader: “Synod wants MORE money!?” That line was delivered by a congregation treasurer in Saskatchewan. Yes. Synod is demanding more money from congregations. It’s especially brutal in ABC District gutted by the CEF crisis. Congregations with moderate cash reserves are living hand to mouth.
Simply put, it looks like the LCC Pastor Pension fund is suffering MAJOR underfunding and is at risk of collapse. Sound familiar? To most of LCC, that’s probably a surprise. To mildly obsessed observers, we totally did see it coming and issued warnings over the last couple of years.
As LCC gradually shrank from over 100,000 members in 1971 to a regular Sunday worship of in the 13,000 range in 2018, no one noticed the demographic fissure: retired pastors were starting to outnumber the active. Fewer congregations paying into the fund means payouts erode the principal of the fund. The fund will shrink until it reaches a critical point of unstoppable collapse. It doesn’t take long to watch zeros drop off the balance sheet. When that happens, fund manages demand more zeros to top up the fund. Welcome to another crisis LCC…”You are here.”
This is LCC’s Pension Fund story today: 800 retired pastors drawing from the fund, 200 active pastors paying into it. I don’t even need a clever analogy. You can do the basic math for yourself. The LCC pension fund is collapsing at a rate four times faster than it’s being re-filled. Because 800 / 200 = 4.
A couple of years ago I wrote that the LCC pension fund was in trouble, and would need a cash call or some other kind of bailout. It didn’t take as long as I thought it would. I also mentioned to a few pastor friends that they need to get out of the LCC pension fund because, if you’re a pastor who is 55 or under, the chances of seeing your full pension are astonishingly low. Complaining and saying “that’s not so” defies the logic of the current cash call. The pension fund is running out of money. I wonder if church leaders will call this a “sufficient cash flow shortage,” like they did with CEF.
It’s bad enough Synod officials have mismanaged another fund to the brink of failure. Synod is being deliberately manipulative and seems to be making something of a property grab at the same time it demands a cash top-up. Each congregation is independent, owning its own property. Synod is sending out assessments for congregations to shore up the wheezing pension fund. But there is something important to know about this new “assessment:”
Synod appears to be asking congregations to sign an agreement which puts a lien on the property. If your congregation agrees to sign the paper (which you don’t have to), you could lose your building if you miss a payment or default on the agreement in any way. I know of one congregation with 40 people who got a bill for over $50,000, and a BC congregation with 20 people who got hit for just under $40,000. Signing synods forms effectively assigns ownership to Synod (in practical terms – because most congregations won’t be able to afford what they’re being assessed). If you want to maintain control of your building, talk to a lawyer first. LCC is all about lawyers now. You can bet they hired a good one to draft those letters.
If it seems far-fetched that Synod would be making a surreptitious grab for property assets, but it also seems far fetched that FIVE elected leaders, including two pastors who we have been assured time and again did nothing wrong and were beyond reproach are accused of breaking securities laws against the people they serve. If you don’t like the way that sounds, then re-write it, but it’ll always sound the same if you’re being honest.
Nothing financially deranged is out of reach for LCC. Money is tight and money talks. Synod is asking congregations for cash and demands using their buildings as collateral. LCC is going to try to sustain itself through the collapse of financially weak congregations. That may not be the intent, but it will most certainly be the consequence. You should be outraged.
The only way Synod can rationalize this cash call (and let’s call it what it is) is to say it’s a spiritual issue. It’s not. It’s a financial issue. The last financial crisis (CEF/DIL) wasn’t even discussed at convention. Financial issues aren’t worth discussing in LCC, unless there’s a money shortage. Did you we get an alarming pension update at convention? Nope. I was there. Not on the agenda. We just couldn’t be bothered. At least everyone enjoyed the nearly three-hour banquet celebrating the achievements of the outgoing president who was at the helm when the good ship LCC drove ashore and grounded in financial tidal flats. (because who doesn’t love to be stuck in a dangerous intertidal zone?)
EDIT: There may be a legal issue facing congregations regarding pension plan obligations. If you want actual clarity on the issue, hire a lawyer and ask a lot of questions. Let’s face it, Convention approved a new constitution and Synod can barely describe how and when it’s all going to work. Actual legal issues with obligations and property stuff, yeah, I’d get on the phone too.
Lutheran Church Canada is evolving into a kind of kleptocracy. Synod office is the steward of the pension fund. If the fund has been mismanaged, then that’s not the responsibility of the congregations. I doubt congregations can do much to help bail out synod without imperiling themselves either. I mean, if you’re a solid 40 people in the pews on Sunday, the majority well north of 70 years old, asking $1000 per member on fixed incomes in a non-starter. And for what?
Synod will represent the cash call as though it was some kind of spiritual obligation. The true church and faith are immune to money. God needs your money like a sparrow needs your money, and the they share a lack of interest in it. But Lutheran Church Canada, that’s a whole other level of interest, and it’s at the point where it’s weirdly perverse. Don’t think any of this is normal. It’s not normal, and neither is LCC’s cash call.
The last time this kind of thing happened in a Lutheran Church Body it was the early 20th century, and laymen raised funds to bail Missouri Synod out of the equivalent of $100,000,000 of debt. But in LCC, the people who could do that lost their ability when the church blew large portions of their wealth to the wind.
Synod has once proven it’s unable to manage complex administrative and financial affairs. LCC is facing another financial disaster and that necessarily will have an effect on the spiritual life of the church. Because pastoral compensation has never been an issue of discussion at a council meeting ever. It’s fuel for the voices that say “it’s all about money.” It sure looks that way.
Lutheran Church Canada is asking for money and locking it up with property when leaders are being called onto the carpet for alleged securities fraud. Good for you if you can’t make sense of that. It bounces off my brain.
*Definition: shart (source: Urban Dictionary)
Andreas Schwabe is editor and publisher of SolaGratia.ca, and an Edmonton-based multimedia & communication strategist and producer. His focus for SolaGratia is on administration, governance, and issues of faith. For clients, he writes or produces just about anything.