(RNS) "What if the 'dowager queen' threatens to pull her pledge when we start to make changes?" a participant asked me during a workshop in Louisville, Ky.
"Tell her," I said, "the story that Vermont Connecticut Royster (longtime editor of The Wall Street Journal) used to tell rookie reporters."
The head of General Motors was furious with the newspaper's coverage of safety flaws in Chevrolets. "If you don't stop running those articles, we will pull our ads," the automaker told Royster. The newspaperman's response: "Then pull your damn ads."
"Here's what you tell your 'dowager queen,'" I said. "This church is not for sale."
Nowadays, of course, the once-vaunted Journal has been sold to a right-wing media mogul, the U.S. Congress is bought and paid for, both presidential candidates are promising big donors whatever they want to hear, and many institutions -- including churches -- have lost the spine to stand up to moneyed interests.
"Speaking truth to power" sounds like a noble calling until power pushes back and withholds the "manna" that feeds the institution. When big givers say "Jump!" it is the rare leader who says anything other than "How high?"
It's time for that to change. What a noble service to America it would be if faith communities led the way.
Imagine the moral authority that church leaders could exercise if they turned their eyes outward to a needy world, rather than endlessly surveying the insider crowd for what they want and are willing to pay for.
Imagine if we allowed worship to change in order to make it more accessible to the world. Imagine devoting our resources to reaching younger adults and families seeking fresh purpose in a stale world. Imagine buildings being re-purposed for community needs.
Imagine a church that was giving itself away to the "least of these." And when givers push back, imagine lay and clergy leaders saying boldly, "This church isn't for sale. We have a larger purpose than keeping you happy and comfortable. This church isn't about us. It is about God and the next people whom God is trying to reach."
How could that happen? It would start in shredding old playbooks and realizing that the future has to be different. It would require leaders to stop fighting and to start listening to a needy world.
Then would come ministries that weren't about spending money, but about exercising the will and heart to respond to the sinful and broken -- not in high-profile noblesse oblige charities, but in daily acts of care and compassion, advocacy and action.
Then would come responsible budgeting. By that I mean, spend what you have -- not the money of dead people (i.e., the endowment), but what constituents in the faith community will give for God's work. If they won't give enough, don't go hat in hand to the wealthy and, in effect, give them veto power over church life. Instead, cut back on non-essentials.
That would prompt the debate we have all been avoiding: deciding what is truly essential. Is a building with lofty ceiling and treasured memories truly essential if it is used one morning a week? Is putting so much energy into Sunday morning -- sometimes 90 percent of church spending -- truly essential?
Imagine a congregation saying, "We must care for others, and if that means closing our expensive facilities and joining humanity outdoors, so be it." That is, after all, where Jesus would be.
(Tom Ehrich is a writer, church consultant and Episcopal priest based in New York. He is the author of "Just Wondering, Jesus" and founder of the Church Wellness Project. His website is www.morningwalkmedia.com. Follow Tom on Twitter @tomehrich.