30 Days of Anti-Racism: #6 The Big Sell

Marketing is a form of propaganda that elicits a transaction by provoking a desire for products and services. With churches, marketing can help broaden engagement and connect the church to its mission field.

Church marketing takes many forms. Before starting an appointment as a new-church pastor in 1999, I attended a seminar at Duke University that included instruction in church marketing techniques. We looked at direct mail, at television, and at a program called “Phones for You” of telephone canvassing.

Marketing often reveals, unintentionally, the implicit biases of the host organization. Popular slogans like, “Catch the Spirit” and “Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors” have communicated United Methodist values while unintentionally placing the impetus on the outsider to be responsible for their first engagement with the Spirit-filled and friendly UMC. One Christmas post card I received from a church featured a mini-van completely full of Christmas gifts. “Must be nice,” I thought.

As a tactic of structural racism, marketing will often be ramped up prior to a major decision or transaction that will change the balance of power and responsibility.

I call this phenomenon The Big Sell.

Big Sell propaganda will feature euphemisms, glowing generalities, offer little detail, create anxious urgency with special “emergency” meetings and evoke a bandwagon of universal approval to give little voice to critical reflection or open debate prior to the decision or transaction.

The following four transactions, each occurring during the last 25 years, were accompanied by features of The Big Sell.

THE SALE OF THE CONFERENCE HEADQUARTERS

At a special called session of Annual Conference in 1994, the Southwest Texas Conference voted to give its historic headquarters on Bandera Road to Urban Ministries and relocate to a new conference center to be constructed in far north San Antonio.

The history of the Bandera Road building is a testimony the shifting missionary priorities of area Methodism throughout the 20th century. After serving as a seminary, an institute to prepare Mexican pastors, a dormitory, as the first campus of Trinity University, the building became the headquarters for the Southwest Texas and Rio Grande Annual Conferences for 44 years.

During those 44 years, the neighborhood around the conference office had transitioned from majority Anglo to majority Hispanic. Representatives of he capital campaign for the new center met with pastors and lay-leaders in the Rio Grande Valley. They explained that the old location was obsolete, and more importantly, “the neighborhood is no longer safe.”

This Big Sell would transition the center of conference administration from a West-side neighborhood with a 95% Hispanic population earning an average of around $30,000 per household, to an area near the 1604 Loop that was 70% White with an average income of around $130,000.

Like the fictional family “The Jeffersons,” the San Antonio Episcopal Area was “moving on up” together with its socioeconomic expectations..

THE SALE OF METHODIST HOSPITAL

At a special called session of the Southwest Texas Conference in 1995, delegates learned of the dire financial status of the historic Methodist Hospital. They were presented with two choices, raise funds to re-capitalize it or accept a pre-negotiated arrangement to sell it to Healthcare Corporation of America and a proposed new non-profit. This would change this charitable hospital into a for-profit hospital system.

The delegates voted to create the for-profit Methodist Healthcare System (MHS) and the non-profit titled Methodist Healthcare Ministries (MHM) with the mission statement Serving Humanity to Honor God. MHM would hold half stake in MHS.

MHS and MHS would grow significantly following the sale. MHS expanded with acquisitions and new construction. MHM grew to become one of the wealthiest and elite charities in Texas,

The 2018 IRS Form 990 for Methodist Healthcare Ministries shows it to have net assets of over 1 billion dollars, taxable revenue of over 3 million dollars, tax exempt revenue of 173 million dollars, and expenses of 98 million dollars. Over $2 million were expended on the fees of investment brokerages.

This public form, available on Guidestar.org, is posted here for your review.

MHM funds various projects, clinics, and programs, while making substantial grants to dozens of community non-profits, denominations, and agencies.

One significant grant, around $600,000, is made annually to the Rio Texas Conference for the purpose of clergy excellence, wellness, and leadership development. For several years, the largest recipient of this grant has been its clergy administrator working at the conference office.

The governance of MHM, like that of the annual conference, is overwhelmingly Anglo within a context that is majority Hispanic. Its exorbitant wealth and impartial philanthropy exists side-by-side with an episcopal area that is systemically and deliberately undermining structures and committees that serve the causes of camping, student ministries, Ethnic local churches, small churches, and Hispanic ministries.

THE SALE OF THE FURNISHED PARSONAGE

Another Big Sell involved the transition from furnished to unfurnished parsonages followed by the proliferation of housing allowances.

For churches that could afford a housing allowance, this arrangement allowed church trustees focus their attention on the place of worship. Modest housing allowances have allowed clergy, such as myself, greater privacy and the means of building home equity prior to retirement. For other churches, the housing allowance raised the bar of the minimum compensation, forcing them into part-time status.

The new policy significantly increased moving expenses. Equitable compensation and moving expenses were budgeted together. The former seeks equity in salaries among clergy, providing minimum compensation only in appointments that lack resources. Moving expenses, in contrast, benefit everyone, especially the affluent who own more furniture. This change converted was what historically a progressive to a regressive and more expensive policy.

In the most affluent appointments, housing allowances exceed conference minimum compensation. With this benefit, some clergy have purchased second homes, lake and ranch properties. While poor churches struggled to provide both a housing allowance and salary, clergy serving wealthy churches exploit this policy as a tax shelter. Other clergy “commute” hours from private homes to their places of ministry. As home values vary significantly across the context of the conference, housing allowances introduced yet another additional aspect of economic and racial inequity to clergy compensation.

Throughout the conference, parsonages that previously would have been used for retired pastors were liquidated, including the episcopal residence.

THE SALE OF NEW CHURCHES

Perhaps the most significant Big Sell event for the cause of structural racism was the elevation of the conference new church development office to a cabinet-level post with a fancy new title.

In classic Big Sell fashion, the agenda of the 2006 Annual Conference was modified to spend an entire day listening to speeches and presentations prepared by the aspiring new director. The “Antioch Plan” included a capital campaign and promised to raise unprecedented funds for the planting successful new churches.

Several structural changes accompanied this transition.

  1. The change in status of the position was pursued by a large-church Anglo minister who desired the position for himself after a failed attempt to be elected bishop.
  2. The transition required the removal of the existing director, a bilingual Hispanic former superintendent who was working collaboratively with pastors to achieve urban church revitalization and plant new Hispanic ministries within underutilized church facilities.
  3. The proposal increased the compensation of the new director by 50% and slashed responsibilities.
  4. The new “Executive Director of New Church Development and Transformation” no longer had to relate to the “evangelism portfolio” of conference committees outside the New Church concern. These groups, included the Commission on the Small Membership Church, the Commission on the Ethnic Local Church, the Hispanic Ministry Commission, Methodist Men, and Global Ministries.

At that time, the Hispanic Ministry Commission depended almost entirely on its relationship to this staff-person to accomplish its goals. As vice-chair of that commission, I was the only “no” vote on the proposal.

Following annual conference, the Hispanic former director was sent to a near minimum salary appointment and given a stipend facilitate the groups that had been cut off from access to authority and funding.

Within months, the modest grants that were helping missionary pastors develop new Spanish-language communities in transitional neighborhoods were cut off. One Mexican-American servant who had personally renovated a distressed church property saw his salary cut to $500 a month. His Hispanic D.S. began tithing to his ministry just to help him eat. That church would later be merged into another project and the renovated facility sold.

The Antioch Plan’s capital campaign took credit for any expenditure made toward new church development regardless if the funds were produced locally or through the conference. More Anglo “Parachute-drop” attempts at new church work failed. Several new church pastors left ministry entirely. A short-lived “Urban Ministry Academy” was organized to begin developing a big plans for urban renewal.

These structural changes and their consequences would persist for years. The same could not be said of those holding that position. The new director was elected to higher office in 2008, then the next director advanced to higher office in 2011, and the following used the same stepping stone in 2016.

Over the short tenures of these three directors producing two bishops and a General Secretary, more new churches were closed than opened and a 20 year trend of significant Hispanic membership growth came to an end.

At a time when the future of an annual conference depended on developing a relationship with the growing Hispanic majority population, my conference took one of its most critical offices, the director of missions, and converted it into what one superintendent would call “a political appointment.”

The growth of the clergy led “extended cabinet” did not stop with the new church position. In subsequent years, even non-religious functions formerly staffed by professional laypersons were transitioned into new clergy positions with cabinet-level salaries and status.

THE BIG SELL IS B.S.

Resistance to hype is difficult especially when it originates within the halls of privilege and power. Anti-racists must hone their skills to examine structures and how changes will impact relationships of power, responsibility, wealth and equity. They must apply the hermeneutic of suspicion to grandiose claims and cults of personality and expose conflicts of interest that incentivize structural racism and undermine transparency. Above all, anti-racists must have the courage to stand together and call for accountability and reform.

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