Monday, November 25, 2013

Lessons from National Cathedral's new admission fee.

This morning, a story broke that Washington National Cathedral will begin charging a $10 admission fee ($6 for children and seniors) for weekday visitors starting in January.  (The fee is only for tourists. People will be able to come in and pray free of charge.)

Criticizing this decision is easy. Our gut tells us that our churches should be open spaces where people can freely come in to pray and worship God in the beauty of holiness. But there is a price tag attached to that openness. The cost of running Christ Church Cathedral and keeping our building open is high ... and that is peanuts compared to what it takes to keep National Cathedral up and running even before the millions of dollars of damage was done by the earthquake in August, 2011.

So even though their decision makes me sad, I won't criticize it because I haven't been in the room looking at the figures they are looking at. I can only trust that these are faithful people who are doing the best they can. I pray for them, and I hope you will, too.

But this development is instructive for us -- for all congregations, really, but particularly for cathedrals like us.

We talk often of the three roles of a Cathedral. We are a worshiping congregation, a "mother church" for the diocese, and also "sacred, public space for downtown, St. Louis and the region." (National Cathedral adds a national civic role on top of that).

The budget we just passed includes $355K in pledges from members of the Cathedral congregation. Those pledges are the result of the experience of Jesus Christ people have had in this congregation that has led them to give in gratitude as part of their discipleship.

But Christ Church Cathedral is not sustainable on pledges alone ... and not on pledges and endowment income, either. For us not just to survive but thrive, we need the support of the community around us who isn't here on Sunday morning. And that support has to be earned. We have to show we are serious about our mission to be a place of reconciliation for the city, a place that "serves all passionately as a Cathedral."

In short, we have to inspire the city so profoundly that it can't imagine Christ Church Cathedral not being here. We have to be such an essential part of downtown and regional life that the people of this city and region will give to support the work that is going on here for the common good.

Hays Rockwell, the bishop who ordained me, used to remind his clergy that churches got an exemption from taxes because they were meant to serve the common good ... and that any church that was only open on Sundays should start paying taxes.

We are committed to serving the common good because that's what Jesus calls us to do. It's why we are hosting Lafayette Preparatory Academy. It's why we host town hall meetings and conversations. It's why our default answer to community groups using the space is "Yes" ... unless there is a compelling reason to say no.

And it is beginning to make a difference. And in 2014, we're going to use the barometer of giving to see how far along we are on that road to being seen as essential for downtown and the region.

In 2014, we will restart and repurpose "Friends of Christ Church Cathedral." It will be a way for people who aren't part of the Cathedral congregation to support financially the ministry of this Cathedral to be a force for reconciliation, sacred public space, and where all St. Louis comes to work together for the common good. We have set a modest goal of $5,000 for the first year but hope we will be exceeding that.

Any money we raise will, of course, help us keep the doors open and the lights on. But that is not the main reason we're doing this. We are doing this because just as the congregation feels like Christ Church Cathedral is theirs, and just as the diocese feels that Christ Church Cathedral is theirs, we need downtown, St. Louis and the region to know Christ Church Cathedral is theirs. To know that as a building, a people and an institutional presence, we are indispensable to us being our best selves as St. Louis. And to know that Christ Church Cathedral is worth supporting not because we are just a beautiful building but because we are helping St. Louis make ourselves a city that makes glad God's heart.

I grieve for National Cathedral because I know this decision for them is a painful one. I pray we will never be faced with this option. But the best way to ensure that for us is to continue on the road we are on throwing open our doors and inviting the city inside. To continue resolute that we exist not for ourselves but to serve all passionately as a Cathedral in Christ's name.