03 March 2009

a "mea culpa" re art

I’ve been reflecting on what it means to be “God’s work of art,” the subject of my blog post yesterday. One thing it does not mean is allowing our creative vision to be squelched. In the March-April issue of Utne Reader, there are some interesting thoughts regarding the way groups can lose their focus with too much funding from foundations. The comments deal specifically with nonprofit organizations, but they also apply to churches and other communities of faith.

There’s a warning about being “no longer accountable to our…members because we don’t depend on them for our existence.” When we rely on foundations, “we try to prove to them that we are still relevant and efficient and thus worthy of continued funding.” In a way, nonprofit groups (and our churches) can “become mini-corporations, because on some level, we have internalized the idea that power—the ability to create change—equals money.” (p. 45)

By no means am I saying that there isn’t a place for philanthropic organizations. They provide invaluable service to our society and our world. Still, accepting money from outside sources is loaded with hidden consequences. It can be seductive. It can cause us to change our nature. And…it can be mind-numbingly tedious! How many of us actually enjoy the process of grant writing? (I know that there are some who do, God bless them!) Madonna Thunder Hawk, from the group Women of All Red Nations, says this about their tax-exempt status: “we let it lapse. It was too complicated. No one wanted to sit in the office and write reports with time and energy that could be used to advance our movement.” (p. 46)

I think the church that Banu and I served for almost nine years suffered from that malady a bit. Months of grant writing (and rewriting a certain grant, but that’s a topic for another day!) managed to suck more than its share of energy and creativity from us. For that, my own mea culpa should be offered.

When I was in seminary, one of my fellow students said, “If you want to kill a congregation, establish an endowment fund.” I think his point was that relying on other sources of income too often lulls people into thinking that it’s not their responsibility to keep things going. It dulls their creativity and sense of commitment. It doesn't have to, but it too often does.

That’s no way to do, and to be, God’s work of art!

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