The 10:30 a.m. divine service had just concluded. After making the sign of the cross while blessing the congregation, Pastor Meyer made a few announcements, one being a reminder of the special “open forum” that would be held in a few minutes. He explained that it would be for getting feedback from the congregation in preparation for the next Sunday’s voters’ meeting. Generally, that was a cue for the apathetic members of the congregation to head for the parking lot. This day was different. The congregation was at a cross roads.
The meeting was packed, buzzing with several conversations simultaneously. The chairman called the assembly to order and announced the business to be decided at the following Sunday’s voters’ meeting: whether to approve the finance board’s recommendation to increase--dramatically increase--tuition at the congregation’s Lutheran elementary school. The floor opened for suggestions.
John Shoemaker, a parent of three, two of whom were enrolled already, the third of whom would start kindergarten the following year, spoke first. “I’m afraid that a lot of families, ours included, will struggle to afford Christian education if the tuition goes up. We have always appreciated the way this congregations values its children, and the support from the congregation’s budget that offsets tuition.”
Bill Bachman, a member of the finance board, spoke next. “I wish the congregation’s subsidy could continue, too, but the fact is, contributions have been down, utilities and health insurance expenses have gone up—largely beyond our control—and we’ve had to freeze salaries, but that still isn’t enough to make a balanced budget.”
Several others spoke. Some gave assurance that God would bless the congregation and the budget would balance itself. Others raised philosophical questions, debating the pros and cons of tuition vs. congregational subsidy and of charging different tuition rates for member families vs. non-member families. That last topic became an unexpected turning point in the discussion.
Ray Lindemann, a retired schoolteacher himself, raised his hand to be recognized. “Mr. Chairman, and fellow members of Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, the issue before us is not simply a matter of meeting the budget, nor of determining the proper balance between congregational subsidies and parents’ tuition payments. The question is whether we value children, whether we say with Jesus, ‘Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them.’ And, the question is, if we do believe that, then how will our works follow our faith?”
“Some would say, that if we really value Christian education, then the congregation will subsidize as much as possible, perhaps even—as in our sister congregation, St. Timothy Lutheran—to the point of there being no tuition for member families, and just a small load of book and activity fees. Others would say such a plan is impractical, especially given our current situation here at Good Shepherd, with the number of members laid off during this economic recession.
“But let’s take a broader look, for a moment. Why do we even have a Lutheran elementary school in the first place? Why do we offer Sunday school between the 8:00 and 10:30 services? Historically, Lutherans in America regarded Sunday school primarily as an outreach ministry for non-members. It was assumed that adults who had been raised in the church could provide their own children with basic instruction in the home, through family devotions. Sunday school would supplement this, of course, but it wasn’t the main thing. Now we’ve come to the other extreme, where Christian parents enroll their children in one Vacation Bible School after another, hopping among all the congregations in town, as if VBS has become a free daycare service. Now, that’s wonderful, of course, to have the children learning God’s Word all summer long, but shouldn’t we instead be reaching out to the unchurched with our VBS and Sunday school programs? I fear we have lost the proper focus.”
“Is the Lutheran elementary school any different? Why is it that both a mother and a father should get a job, so they can earn enough money to pay for someone else’s mother or father to teach their children all day long? And why is it, that the teachers would not instead be at home raising their own children? Perhaps this is not the time or the place to mention it, but I find it scandalous that two of our teachers have children under the age of three, whom they drop off at daycare in order to serve in our school. Perhaps we need to seriously rethink what it meant when Christ said, ‘Let the little children come to me.’”
The chairman paused in silence, as murmuring cascaded across the room. Sheepishly, Karie Habeck, a woman in her early twenties, raised her hand. Just six months earlier she had accepted a call to teach the first and second grades. One month before arriving, she had gotten married. “I want to thank the gentleman for voicing his concerns. I am—I have,” pausing to swallow, she continued, “It’s just that I’ve always dreamed of being a teacher. I thought this was God’s plan for my life. I also dreamed of marriage and children. I assumed work and family would somehow fit perfectly together, and they did, in my little dream world. Of course, a little girl doesn’t stop to think through the practicalities of it all. In college, as I trained to be your Lutheran elementary teacher, the importance of the teaching ministry was instilled in me day after day. This is God’s special calling for my life. And yet, aren’t I called to be married now, too? In the capstone class at college, our professor advised us to use birth control for at least the first few years of our teaching career, to help us get established. He said then it would be easier, if we had a child later, to take a maternity leave and get right back into the classroom.”
Some of the older people in the congregation sat uncomfortably. Sex had never been the topic of discussion at a voters’ meeting before, but before anyone dared to interrupt, the teacher continued. “My husband and I love each other. We love this special time in our life, as we begin our new life together. But I feel, somehow, well, robbed. I feel like a part of marital bliss can’t be ours, if we deny ourselves the prospect of having children, just so that I can be a teacher to someone else’s children. Oh, please don’t get me wrong,” she quickly added, holding back a tear.
“I love teaching! I enjoy working with your children! But I feel lost. I’m not sure which role models to choose. I deeply appreciate the help that the experienced teachers have given me. They are wonderful mentors, as far as teaching goes. But am I to follow in their footsteps, and put my kids in daycare so I can continue teaching? Is that the way to ‘have it all’? It’s not that I ever wanted to be a ‘career woman.’ I just always thought, somehow, that being a Lutheran elementary teacher would be totally family friendly. By now listening to today’s discussion, I must admit, I’m really not so sure. In fact, I have a confession to make: my elementary education degree doesn’t really mean that much. Most if not all of you parents out there could adequately teach your children in your home. Why, then, do we even bother having children, if you’re going to put yours in school with me, and I’m going to put mine in daycare with someone else, and all of us will miss out on the cutest, most memorable moments of their lives—and they’ll miss out on ours?”
Pastor Meyer stood up. He looked out at his congregation, the sheep of Good Shepherd Lutheran. Silently, he prayed for the Holy Spirit to give him the words for such a time as this, and then he said ...