by Monte Sahlin

September 26, 2013

Unless American politicians change the patterns of behavior they have established in recent years, next Tuesday the United States government will shut down all functions except those deemed "essential" or mandated by law outside the Federal budget. At some point over the following 30 days or so, it will bump up against a cash flow problem unless Congress acts to increase the Federal "debt ceiling" or line of credit.
How will these events, assuming they are not averted, affect the Seventh-day Adventist Church? Are they simply meaningless political drama or would they actually cause something that the church would have to deal with at some level?
There have been 17 government shutdowns in the U.S. since 1976 and one occasion (in 1979) when the Federal government defaulted (by accident) for a few days. So there is an historical record to look at and try to make some estimates. For example, the independent, nonpartisan Congressional Research Service has reported that the 28-day government shutdown in 1995-96 cost American taxpayers $1.4 billion.
Many of the immediate things that may happen next Tuesday would have little impact on the Church. The 368 parks, museums, monuments and zoos in the National Parks system will all close down, but very few Adventists work for the National Parks. Most government employees will be laid off and this will impact local churches in a few cities, such as Washington DC, where there are a number of members who are government employees. They won’t be paid until the shutdown is over and tithe and offerings will decrease in the meantime.
Starting in mid-October, the military will stop getting their paychecks although they will be required to continue to protect the nation. About one in five Adventist families have someone serving in the military, according to a 2009 survey of members conducted by the Institute of Church Ministry at Andrews University. It is estimated that the majority of these are young adult children and many of these may not be contributors to the household income or active donors at church. Nonetheless, the Church will have some loss of income.
Many of the normal municipal functions in the nation’s capital will be stopped, such as trash collection. This will provide the local churches in that area an opportunity to mobilize volunteers and help their neighbors. There are more than 50,000 Adventists in the region and volunteers could pick up trash from the curbs or, at least, help the isolated elderly in small apartments who have the least capacity to cope on their own. It offers a great chance to be visible and demonstrate the compassion of Jesus.
The debt ceiling has the potential of greater impact than the government shutdown. There are a variety of reports as to when, precisely, the U.S. government will run out of room on its line of credit; as early as October 15 and as late as November 7. It is important to understand that when this limit is reached the government does not just go out of business or have all accounts frozen, as some think. Instead it will be forced to operate within available cash flow. Taxes will still be collected and fees assessed; cash will come in and there should be enough to pay about two-thirds of the bills within normal time frames.
Social Security checks will continue to go out as will veterans checks, at least in the time immediately after the ceiling is hit. Later, these may slip back and come later and later. If the situation stretches on for months and years, eventually senior citizens will find themselves with one less check per year, etc. This has the potential to become an area of great impact on the Church. The majority of church members are over 60 years of age and these older members are more likely to be regular tithers and givers than younger members. Bottom line, retirement income is a major source of the funds that come into the church.
Medicare and Medicaid are key sources of income for Adventist health care institutions and health professionals, and these checks will not be stopped by the government shutdown, although they may be slowed. Administrators in health care have told me that these checks are already slow in coming, so they have learned to manage that gap to some degree, but this won’t make things any easier for them. As you hear various rumors about people being laid off or programs closed down, these men and women need our understanding. They are balancing an unbelievable complex situation.
Where things get difficult for funding Adventist health ministries is with the debt ceiling and any changes in the law that may come out of this situation. This is a very complex system, despite the tendency of politicians and commentators to try to simplify the issues, and “dominoes go down” when changes are made. It remains to be seen how these “dominoes” may impact specific institutions and health professionals. There are a number of Adventist churches where the economic fortunes of a hospital are directly tied to church income, and there are many more where a few health professionals among the membership provide a significant share of the tithe and offerings.
The Business Roundtable, representing the nation’s largest corporations, released a report in the last few days showing that about half of major companies will probably slow hiring because of the situation in Washington this fall. As a result, the number of unemployed will stay the same and if things continue to be unresolved, then unemployment will increase. Among the employed, hours will be cut back and pay increases frozen. This will increase the pressure on families.
An increase in needs in the community will impact the local Adventist church, even if it currently operates no community services. Obviously, if there are more unemployed people or government programs like food stamps are cut, then where a church operates a community food pantry or soup kitchen, there will be more requests for assistance. Many of these Adventist Community Services (ACS) centers depend on a Regional Food Bank for a large share of their supplies, and those food banks may have their funding cut. Where a local church is not operating a food pantry or ACS center, if things get tough in the community, the pastor may find that he or she is asked by civic leaders to make a contribution or take on “your fair share” of meeting community needs. This has happened during crisis events in the past.
Beyond the economic impact that may unfold in the weeks ahead, there are also emotional and spiritual impacts which may be more difficult to see. Some of these impacts may already be underway in some congregations and communities.
Bill Hoagland, an expert on government finances who has worked for Republican senators in the past, told a journalist recently, “All the major leading institutions have been brought into question by the populace out there and particularly the conservative populace. They just don’t have the same respect they used to have with the electorate.” Strong, even radical feelings are spreading. This makes it more difficult to maintain the church standard against the discussion of politics. Thinly veiled comments are more likely to creep into Sabbath School discussions and conversations over potlucks. This makes it more difficult to maintain the atmosphere of caring for one another and respect for one another’s opinions.
It is also true that whenever there is a crisis in the country, people turn to faith and dropouts return to church. As this crisis deepens, more newcomers will turn up at church, presenting new opportunities for ministry. Home Bible study groups and Simple Church projects will probably have even greater opportunities than typical local churches because of the growing percentage of Americans who are uncomfortable with conventional religious organizations.
I remember an old Chinese saying, “May you live in interesting times.” I don’t remember if it was labeled a curse or a blessing. It appears to be prophetic and we will find out which label is correct.