Have you ever shoveled-out a parking space in front of your house after a snowstorm and then had a stranger park in it? This is a homey example of what economists call the “free rider problem.” Whenever people use something they haven’t paid for (in money, time, effort, or the like), bad things happen. For one thing, that resource is used up unfairly; people who do pay are deprived of their fair share. For another, the existence of the resource itself is threatened (why shovel if someone else is going to use the space?) This happens all the time in parishes. Let me give just two examples.
Sometimes people ask for a priest to do something out of the ordinary and no one is available. Often it’s a person who is only marginally connected to the parish, and sometimes they aren’t pleasant about hearing “no.” When that happens I want to say, “Do you have any male children or grandchildren or nephews? If so, how often did you encourage them to consider becoming a priest? What sort of example of Christian life and of the importance of the sacraments did you offer to them as they were growing up? If you want to know why priests are stretched thin, ask yourself how you contributed to the problem!” (I know: That’s a “Think it,” not a “Say it”; so I just grit my teeth….) Fostering the next generation of priests is someone else’s problem to them… They rely on other people to provide a resource they want, and life doesn’t work that way, at least for any period of time.
A more substantial example is the desire that marginal Catholics (or their nonreligious children) on occasion have for what the church can provide for them – a venue for a wedding that looks nicer than city hall (or that will please grandma), a place to bury an elderly relative who was religious, someplace to take the children for Christmas…. Such people expect the church to be there for them, even though they make no provision for its continuing to exist when they don’t have an at-the-moment need for it. This is clearly unfair to the people (if you’re reading this, probably like yourself) who contribute regularly so that the church stays in existence. You don’t get the level of service you deserve because free riders are draining some of the church’s resources off for themselves. This is a brute fact of parish life, as well as of economics. Churches can’t escape it.
Christ asks us to go beyond simple fairness, as the example of the shepherd leaving the flock to search out the lost sheep shows. (No sane shepherd would do that – thus the sharp edge in the parable.) So a parish has to bear the free rider problem in whatever way it can in order to be faithful to Christ. But there are painful limits, as recent news shows. Take a few stories from just the past few months:
Thousands of devoted, faithful Catholics will be hurt by this. People who have given sweat and money and years of their lives as volunteers will see the doors close on the churches they sustained. I feel for the bishops and pastors and other leaders who have to do this. But it appears they often have no choice. Free riders aren’t the only cause – population shifts have also had their impact. But the explanations for the closings always come down to two big things: too few priests and too little money to sustain things as they are.
I don’t envision our parish is at risk of closing or merger, at least in the near future; we and the surrounding parishes are too big. But we’re not exempt from the pressures other places experience. We’re stretched thin, in priests and money, and those of you who are consistently generous are being unfairly burdened by others who don’t give their fair share. We accept this burden for Christ; generosity – even beyond fairness – is the way we imitate Him. Until next week, peace.