Church for the Rich

A friend shared this post by the Reverend Lura N. Groen from a couple of years ago titled The ELCA’s Poll Tax. You should read that post first.

Last week I returned from my synod’s annual assembly. As a rostered minister, I’m required to attend by our synod constitution. That’s okay, because I generally get something out of the experience. But every year, when I register, I die a little inside. Attending synod assembly is not cheap. Even though the congregation pays for it, it can be quite a hit to the congregation, especially if they are part of the vast majority of congregations that are small and poorly funded, like mine is.

So when I got home from our synod assembly and saw Pastor Groen’s post again, I really paid attention.

This has been on my mind as well. Having sat on synod council and seen the budget for synod assembly, I’m aware that, at least in my synod, the registration fee does accurately reflect the real costs of assembling together as a synod as we’ve chosen to do it — the fees for renting the spaces for gathering, workshops, displays, worship, some refreshments, the speakers, etc., DO need to be paid, as these are simply the costs of these services. At least in my synod, the costs to the participants accurately reflect the real cost of the assembly.

However, I have questioned and continue to question some of the choices that justify the costs. For example, this year, in addition to the registration fee we had to pay an extra $20 to attend the fancy banquet on the middle day where recognitions are done and awards given–a banquet that was already being subsidized by another organization! So the cost for the banquet was actually $20 + the subsidy per person. That is a LOT of money for a meal that, frankly, could be held for much cheaper if we didn’t make it a super fancy meal.

Another example: a few years ago, we were electing a new bishop for our synod. When our assembly meets every year it’s sometimes for two days, sometimes for three. Bishop elections take a lot of work and a lot of time, and we used all three days of that assembly to get through the process of the election and our other business. But this year? We had a three day synod assembly with, frankly, nothing of note behind it. We elected a new synod secretary and vice-president, but that didn’t take very long. I didn’t see a compelling reason for having the assembly spread over three days instead of two. It meant that everyone had to pay for two nights in a hotel instead of one, and the synod office had to rent spaces for the gathering for more money.

Is this how synod assemblies have to be? Well…

A heavily contributing factor is our middle-class American expectations (which govern the church at pretty much all levels). We -expect- our synod assemblies to fashion fancy meals for us. We -expect- a highly trained technological assistant to do live-streaming and PowerPoint presentations. We -expect- to receive lots of goodies, like tote bags, paper pads, pens, magnets. We -expect- to be treated like visiting business associates and doted on. We -expect- our synod assembly experiences to be a step above our every day experiences.

This is so much a problem in the church that my synod has stopped having its theological retreats at the camp owned by the congregations of our synod because the leaders expected to attend the retreats have openly refused to attend. Why? Because they’d be staying in “camp housing” — which is either big rooms with multiple beds and a shared bathroom, or actual motel-style rooms (obviously not very fancy, but clean and comfortable). The housing accommodations aren’t fancy enough or up to the standards they expect to be provided. We aren’t talking about putting people in tents or campers. We’re talking about decent, simple places to sleep. But it’s not enough for the expectations of many of the leaders.

Even with all this, I never articulated the problem as brilliantly as Pastor Groen has. I’m flabbergasted that there are synods where the registration fees are $250 per person (our late registration is $145!). Many congregations simply cannot pay to send more than one person, the rostered leader who is required to attend, if they can even send the one. It really is a “poll tax”, ensuring that the power to vote and make decisions on a larger scale is restricted to those who can pay.

I read an objection that calling this a “poll tax” is inaccurate because the historical poll tax in the United States was specifically put in place as a backdoor way to discriminate against non-white voters, while the cost barriers to attending synod assemblies don’t have that intention behind them. They are simply the reality of being able to gather together. And this is true. Gathering together every year, which is a good thing, costs us as synod money to organize

But, those costs are directly related to the choices we make for our synod assemblies. What would the costs of our synod assemblies be like if :

  • lnstead of meeting in large secular halls, we met in the sanctuaries of our larger congegations?
  • Instead of a fancy steak/fish/chicken banquet with white linens and fancy service, we ate a more modest meal, focusing more on our shared time together than how exquisite the food was?
  • Instead of spreading the business of assembly thin over more days than necessary, we concentrated our efforts into a shorter time frame?

Just these considerations alone would change how we choose to gather together for the sake of the poor among us.

It would mean giving up some of the “comforts” we’ve come to expect from these assemblies. And whenever the comfortable are asked to sacrifice, it always causes a backlash. But are we willing to sacrifice our comfort so that more of the Church can participate in being synod together, and allow ourselves to express humility in the face of a God who welcomes the poor and stranger?

Time will tell.

Featured Image: A photo taken during the 2019 Northern Great Lakes Synod Assembly, © Elaine Johnson. Used by permission.


2 thoughts on “Church for the Rich

    1. In some ways we have. The only really “ornamental” part of Assembly up here is opening worship. Other than that, there’s little pomp and circumstance and most everything would pass as “respectable” by middle class standards, not “lavish”.

      But that’s part of the point. “Respectable” is still a high bar of entry.


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