I am not a resident of the city of Detroit. I live in a northern suburb, yet I ache for my brothers and sisters in Detroit after the city declared Chapter 9 bankruptcy last Thursday afternoon. Brand new to the east side of the state, I have only lived here four weeks.
I have no experience yet with Detroit, no credibility, no voice. All I have is my heart, which breaks for a once thriving and still proud city that has played a pivotal role in the history of our country for more than a hundred years. The bankruptcy filing is not a surprise, for many factors have brought Detroit to this place.
- Detroit exploded in the first half of the 20th century with the arrival of the automobile industry, but that pace could not continue. A city of 1.8 million in 1950 is now home to 700,000 people, a 63% decline. Of that decline, 28% took place since 2008.
- The city has experienced a severe economic downturn and shrunken tax base over the last several decades, with businesses relocating outside the city and many of the wealthiest people living in the suburbs.
- There is an enormous 139 square mile city to maintain.
- Overwhelming health care and pension costs and unfunded liability are unsustainable. The City’s General Retirement System and the Police and Fire Retirement System filed a lawsuit last week seeking to protect retirement benefits.
- An outdated computer system, poor record keeping, and widespread mismanagement hamper effectiveness.
Kevyn Orr, the city’s Emergency Manager, had been working for weeks, trying to avoid bankruptcy by gaining concessions from creditors and offering pennies on the dollar. It didn’t work. The statistics are beyond staggering. The city’s debt is now estimated to be $18 billion, which has affected city services in ways that are simply dangerous to citizens.
- The average response time after calling 911 is 58 minutes, whether priority or routine. The national response time is 11 minutes.
- Of all the streetlights in the city, 40% do not work, which exacerbates crime. Detroit is consistently in the top tier of the FBI’s list of “America’s Most Dangerous Cities” and has an alarmingly high rate of murders, violent assaults, rapes, robberies, and manslaughter.
- On an average day, only 10-12 of the 38 ambulances are operational. Some ambulances have 300,000 miles on the odometer.
- There are 78,000 vacant structures in the city. Of all Detroit fires, 80% are in blighted or unoccupied buildings.
- Multiple payroll systems result in the city paying $19.2 million per year or $62 per paycheck to process payroll expenses. Other cities average $15 per paycheck.
Last Thursday Michigan Governor Rick Snyder stated that Detroit has been borrowing to pay its bills for the past decade and that 38 cents of every dollar is going to repay debt. Snyder also said that the filing will enable Emergency Manager Orr to invest $1.25 billion in police, fire, trash pick-up, lighting, and other core services. As of last Friday, an emergency appeal with the Michigan Court of Appeals in three cases had been filed by the state Attorney General’s office, seeking to block Detroit’s petition for Chapter 9 bankruptcy in federal court.
I can’t even begin to imagine the complexities that face the city of Detroit. However, I am familiar with urban, suburban, and rural churches that face the same issues, albeit on a smaller scale. Declining churches often have these six characteristics:
- The lack of a vision and mission: Congregations that have no road map for the future wander aimlessly in the present. What is your church’s strategic plan for the next several years? Do you know where you are going, or are you simply dream cruising down Woodward, as we say in the Detroit metro area?
- An inability or unwillingness to adapt to changing conditions: How will your congregation grow if you have no interest in learning about and investing in the hopes and dreams of the people in your backyard?
- Living beyond their means: Some churches keep on going by simply not paying apportionments or reducing programs and staff. Others build additions beyond their means under the false assumption that “If you build it, the new people will pay the mortgage.”
- An insular mentality: Congregations in distress have little energy. Church members tend to hunker down, retreat inward, and assume a survival mentality instead of giving themselves away by moving outside the church in mission and outreach.
- Poor lay and clergy leadership and decision-making: Identifying, equipping and empowering lay leaders for effective ministry is one of the best ways to increase church vitality and effectiveness. However, too many clergy don’t prioritize their time in this area, and too many laity view leadership as a burden rather than as an opportunity to be a part of the building of God’s kingdom.
- Denial of reality and a lack of honest conversation: It’s amazing how long churches can ignore warning signs without acknowledging the elephants in the room. Address reality. Have the courage to speak truth. Search for creative solutions, which may mean the congregation will look different. When was the last time your church leaders had an honest conversation about attendance decline, stagnant worship, decreasing revenue, poor morale, and ineffective lay or clergy leaders?
What I am learning from the crisis in Detroit is that the sustainability of the city has been in question for decades, but many of the systemic issues were ignored until the entire system collapsed. On Friday Governor Snyder said at a press conference, “Now is our opportunity to stop 60 years of decline. How long has this gone on and people have not stopped to say, ‘Stop kicking the can down the road and do something’? We are doing something.”
What can we do in light of Detroit’s filing of Chapter 9 bankruptcy? I am reminded of Jeremiah 29 where the prophet is encouraging the exiled Jews to settle in Babylon for a time, make it their home, and seek the welfare of the city. He encourages them to build houses, plant gardens, and marry and have children. “But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.”
We are called to pray for the leaders who are entrusted with guiding Motown through this morass. At the same time we recognize that the Detroit metro area is home to some of the most ingenious and entrepreneurial minds in our country and has a history of persistence and determination in the face of hardship. We pray that those with special gifts will step forward to help, for we are all in this together.
We are called to pray for the citizens of Detroit whose health and welfare will continue to be jeopardized by reduced city services as everything is sorted out. At the same time we seek to understand and confess the impact of racism in Detroit, as white flight has taken tax money, jobs, and expertise away from a city that is now 80% African-American. We are also charged to ponder what it means when an overwhelmingly white Michigan legislature may be making decisions on behalf of an overwhelmingly African-American city.
We are called to pray for our United Methodist congregations as well as all Detroit city churches that are literally in the trenches, ministering courageously in the most difficult of circumstances. At the same time as they continue to be beacons of light when the streetlights go out, saving stations when the ambulances do not come, shelters that provide safety and food for those without a place to lay their head, and sanctuaries of counsel and comfort for all whose lives are jeopardized by the city’s plight, we are charged with offering assistance in any way we can to strengthen their ministries.
We are called to pray for renewal and revitalization for all churches and organizations that are facing difficult decisions. May God grant us vision to discern the times and engage in honest conversation about the health of our organizations. At the same time we ask God for strength to recognize when the old must die in order for the new to arise from the ashes. May God grant us a future of hope. “For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.” (Jeremiah 29:11)
What will Detroit look like 20 years from now? I can’t even imagine. But I do know this. Detroit will be reinvented, for Motown has a future with hope. Detroit will be reimagined, for we are all in this together. Detroit will be reclaimed, for God has a special love for the city. Detroit will be rejuvenated because the living, breathing, gathering, dancing, motating Holy Spirit has just begun to spring into high gear. God is not done yet with Detroit – or us.