Light Switches and Legacy Costs

Fellow Travelers:

Usually my Monday musing is about something that has happened in the news or on my dog walk, but from time to time, as a pastor of nearly 30 years, I actually muse about the church. I suppose you can blame it on stewardship season, a time when we claim to be talking about thanksgiving and sharing, but in reality we’re talking about institutional and facilities maintenance. It was American journalist H.L. Menken who said, “When they say it’s not about the money, it’s about the money.”

I remember sitting in Nina Epstein’s office (now the former mayor) in Kankakee as she explained to me the problem of legacy costs. These were expenses accumulated in the past but putting significant fiscal strain on the current budget. “Each month,” she explained, “we write checks and mail them to Florida, Missouri, Arizona…nearly half of our city budget goes to pay pensioners who have left the state; we don’t even receive the benefit of their sales tax.” Once a city of over 38,000 residents, Kankakee had shrunk to 26,000, with corresponding reductions in payroll and revenue which were not sufficient to cover the retirement obligations of the former, much larger municipality. The weight of history, she explained, created other problems. The town’s aging infrastructure generated constant unplanned expenditures for repairs and updates, leaving few resources for new programs and projects. Right next door was a younger town capable of flashy civic works and exciting events, because they were unencumbered by the inevitable costs of age. At that point this Jewish mayor sounded like a Presbyterian pastor.

Mayor Epstein’s strategy was to adopt a both-and approach, maintaining a reasonable reserve for emergency repairs and undertaking small improvements, like the outdoor concert plaza across from the train station. The strategy didn’t work; she lost reelection in April. I can’t help but think she lost because she kept telling the fiscal truth about legacy costs to an electorate who thought they deserved new.

My conversation with Mayor Epstein came to mind as I drove past another La Grange house demolished to the point of leaving only the front façade.  Behind the stately 19th century architectural lines, a new open-floorplan house will be constructed with built-in wine refrigerators, massive closets and the must-have master bedroom suite complete with side dressing room and a 15-head wall and ceiling shower. It’s unnecessary to do a both-and when the market is willing to pay the mortgage for the and.

Which brings me back to stewardship and FPCLG’s infrastructure and program. Last month the Property Committee reported to Session their desire to continue to address the legacy costs (my term, not theirs) of our facility, like heating controller systems and window replacement, while at the same time undertaking modest but useful remodeling projects, like the Parlor and Westminster Hall Kitchens.

All these musings came to laser-like focus Sunday night when, during the TUXIS dinner, one of the circuit-breakers in Fellowship Hall began to fail. I shut it off, marked it and sent an e-mail the next morning to the Property Committee moderator. As I was checking to make sure it was really failing, it occurred to me this is probably a really stupid time to ask for a substantial raise.

On the other hand, 47 high school students met in the TUXIS room while I shared my personal faith journey. Their welcome to me was magnificent, their comments thoughtful, their closing prayer heart-felt, the whole evening…Priceless!

Occasionally thinking about the church, I remain
With Love,
Jonathan B. Krogh
Your Pastor