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Saturday, October 8, 2011

Cathedral mania

Crystal Cathedral Ministries of southern California, founded by the Rev. Robert Schuller and seen on television for decades, filed bankruptcy in 2010. Its primary asset is the visually stunning 2,736-seat worship building, designed by acclaimed architect Philip Johnson. The Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange [County] has offered to purchase the building for $53 million.

The Roman Catholic Diocese of Raleigh recently announced plans to erect a new cathedral complex that would cost $75 to 90 million.

Problem is, all churches in the USA are noticing that people under 40 give much less to churches than their parents do. Neither the non-denominational mega-churches nor the Roman Catholic Church is immune. In part the trend reflects reduced income and a lower standard of living; in part it reflects different attitudes toward organized religion. (There seems to be an ongoing hunger, however, for spirituality and ethics.)

This trend of declining income will have profound consequences for churches over the next 25 years. In accounting terms, churches with high fixed costs will be squeezed. Many congregations will become "house poor", unable to afford upkeep of their aging 20th-century structures. (I suspect the Crystal Cathedral is a nightmare to maintain.) Hierarchies such as dioceses, for those churches that have them, will come under financial pressure as well. There will be fewer full-time employment opportunities for clergy, whose salaries will fall out of line with expensive seminary educations.

I'm not a prophet of doom; this is simply what's happening. Churches have plenty of time to make adjustments for it, and I'm confident that they will. However, given the trend, one must question the sanity of $50-100 million cathedral projects.