From Mainline to Sideline

by Dan Hotchkiss

The best way to be rich, for a character in a Jane Austen novel—indeed, the only really proper way—is to inherit land. The less fortunate escape poverty by “engaging in trade,” by which one may become respectable, if never quite genteel.

Standing on a middle ground between mere tradesmen and the landed rich were clergymen of the established church. Like tradesmen, the clergy were often younger sons of landed families for whom the church offered an opportunity to keep some of the dignity of aristocratic life despite the lack of family lands. Supported by their “livings” (that is, by lands they did not own) clergymen could mix with care among their betters. Though personally as poor as church mice, as clergy they precariously maintained themselves as gentlemen.

Times have changed, but the social position of the clergyperson is still marginal. Like Jane Austin’s priests, we still sometimes cling to the trappings of high status. One such trapping is our insistence on receiving “honoraria” instead of “fees.” Since Roman times, professionals, unlike mere craftsmen, never worked to order or requested payment for their services. Instead, they did what they thought best and received (at least in theory) freewill offerings. Lawyers and physicians have long since exchanged this odd form of professional dignity for more trustworthy flows of revenue. Among professionals, the clergy are almost alone in our reluctance to ask frankly for the money we require.

Other vestiges of Jane Austin’s world include the tax-free clergy housing allowance and our strange status as self-employed—but only with respect to Medicare and Social Security. Some clergy defend these oddities fiercely, as though being a “shepherd, not a hireling” were our last claim to gentility.

Not all clergy worry about such things. Even in Jane Austin’s day, not every clergyperson was a would-be plutocrat. Around the edges of established churches—like small mammals waiting for the dinosaurs to go extinct—upstart religious movements thrived. Their leaders often lacked credentials and degrees and were more interested in saving souls than seeking recognition. As a rule, potential members find the upstarts’ energy and spiritual passion more attractive than the dignity and learning of established churches. Imagine that!

It is a pattern known to sociologists since Max Weber’s day: a social movement turns into an institution, and an institution, over time, loses its vitality and is replaced by a new movement. The very markers of success—buildings, endowments, clerical degrees and fame—become the anchors that hold congregations aground. At any given time, the religious bodies that feel most successful are next to slip into decline.

A result of this is a sort of optical illusion: To high-status clergy, faith usually appears to be declining overall, because they tend to count only religious practices similar to their own. But by the time a faith becomes respectable, participation has already begun to wane. The nibbles of the next best thing is irritating at the ankle level (“women in the workplace,” “Sunday soccer,” “I’m spiritual, but not religious.”) but makes only a small impression till the game is almost over. To those at the top, faith seems to be declining even as the next already slouches to be born.

Educated clergy have another source of myopia to contend with: because they—we—have university degrees, we feel the influence of educated critics of religion—Schleiermacher’s “cultured despisers” to whom faith always seems about to go extinct. Popular religion is so full of superstition it will surely fade away. From the standpoint of those who lead “successful” congregations, faith itself (especially less enlightened forms of faith) seems on the brink of disappearing.

But history tells a different story. It is the “successful” congregations of one era, not the upstarts that most often fade away in the next. They fail because they dig in their heels against a changing world, preferring the familiar trappings of their hard-earned place in life: Money. Buildings. Prestige. Self-righteousness. Insider shibboleths and self-congratulation and untested notions about what people want and need. Roger Finke and Rodney Starke put it this way in a stunningly perceptive book: “There comes a point… when a religious body has become so worldly that its rewards are few and lacking in plausibility.” They call it a “primary feature of our religious history: the mainline bodies are always heading for the sideline.” (The Churching of America, 1776–2005: Winners and Losers in our Religious Economy. Rutgers, rev. ed., 2005.)

The path from mainline to sideline is well trod but not inevitable. Some institutions have the knack of throwing themselves off balance, turning themselves around, and reviving the hot blood of youth. Those institutions periodically commit to losing all they have, if necessary, to achieve their mission. Call it strategic planning, holy conversation, visioning, discernment—what matters is that leaders have the courage to focus attention on a few critical questions. If they have the courage to live with the anxiety such questions raise, and bring to bear the full power of their collective wisdom and the wisdom of tradition, novelty emerges. Old problems are reframed in new ways. And with effort and devotion and the disciplined release of old familiar forms and notions, faith and vitality revive.

Education does sometimes make certain beliefs untenable, but faith is supple. Even self-anointed fundamentalisms quietly accommodate modern ideas like democracy, equality, and cultural relativism—not because the culture has won and faith has lost, but because the need for faith—some worthy center of ultimate trust—is strong enough to sprout however dry the soil.