The Problem with Deferred Maintenance

Deferred maintenance in the church is like an onion; it has layers and it stinks.

Deferred maintenance is defined as “the practice of postponing maintenance activities such as repairs on both real property (i.e. infrastructure) and personal property (i.e. machinery) in order to save costs, meet budget funding levels, or realign available budget monies.”

In the church, we tend to encounter the practice of deferred maintenance in three distinct ways.

The first way we defer maintenance in the church is the one that comes most easily to mind. As church membership and attendance fail to keep pace with escalating maintenance costs of aging buildings, putting off needed upkeep and repairs is an all too common strategy for balancing a church budget. For a season, this practice allows the church to put off hard decisions about program and staffing but with each subsequent year the hole that is dug gets deeper and deeper.

The problem with deferred maintenance is that it is borrowing upon the promise of the future for the sake of the present. A broken physical plant is a terrible thing to gift upon the next generation.

Understanding the second way we defer maintenance in the church requires us to think about the nature of change. In a healthy system, change occurs over time in incremental steps. This doesn’t mean that healthy churches don’t change dramatically but moments of quantum (transformational) change become part of the natural progression of the community. A certain level of discomfort is valued in a healthy system as is diversity. Each aids in keeping the system on its feet, so to speak, and in developing a culture that asks good questions about its communal assumptions.

In churches that defer their maintenance, necessary, incremental, change is avoided because it might cause conflict or some amount of tension. Such communities grow very set in their ways, comfortable, but also increasingly insular. New ideas may be welcomed but only if they don’t threaten existing activities or force conversations about letting go. Core practices like worship grow stagnant and fail to evolve, growing increasingly irrelevant to the lives of the people they aim to serve.

When change inevitably rears its head in such communities, it is typically prompted by external forces: a new pastor or members, a budgetary crisis, larger church or societal pressure. Very often, the people initiating the conversations about change are seen as the enemy with little regard for intent. Without the practice of incremental change, discomfort and ambiguity are experienced as threatening and, particularly in religious communities, seen as schismatic and unorthodox as uniformity, and comfort, are held sacred.

The problem with deferred maintenance is that it is borrowing upon the promise of the future for the sake of the present. Nostalgia for the past is a poor substitute for an engaging spirituality in the present.

The final way we defer maintenance in the church is on a personal level. As disciples, we are called to live into the abundance that Jesus promised but instead we adopt a scarcity perspective that drives us toward over-consumption, anxiety, and busyness. Our desire to have all of the possessions we are told we need, and our chasing of things like success and the respect of others, deviates us from the tasks of our own spiritual maintenance/discipline. It also undermines our witness to a God who is bigger than the next big thing and equally concerned with all of humanity and creation.

Because of our deferred spiritual maintenance, we find ourselves in a difficult place when life starts to throw us curveballs. The equilibrium we maintain on good days is shattered when we haven’t cultivated the spiritual infrastructure requisite for the challenges (and opportunities) we now face. Instead of feeling grounded like a well rooted tree, we encounter these seasons of life as leaves desperately clinging to branches when the autumn winds increase.

Again, the problem with deferred maintenance is that it is borrowing upon the promise of the future for the sake of the present. A full stomach today is not as beneficial as a practice of contentment for everyday.

We defer maintenance in each of these three areas for a variety of reasons. Sometimes our practice of doing so may feel like a necessity, and perhaps there are situations where it truly is. The question we should be most concerned with, as the church, is whether it is faithful. Let me add one thought that might be helpful in that consideration.

I believe that it is the presence of hope that determines whether we are acting in good faith as we make decisions about deferred maintenance. Now, real hope isn’t the sort that pushes off tough decisions to the future, avoids conflict or difficult conversations, or neglects to resolve spiritual questions and longings – real hope trusts in God’s providence tomorrow for our faithfulness today.

  • Real hope might cause us to let go of a building before it is crumbling around us.
  • Real hope will lead us into difficult conversations and discomfort because we know good change is healthy.
  • And real hope is bound to cause us to reprioritize our lives in ways that will liberate us.

Deferred maintenance is often packaged as hope for a better day where the debt can be balanced. But again, the problem with deferred maintenance is that it is borrowing upon the promise of the future for the sake of the present.

And nothing about sacrificing the future to avoid pain today seems all that faithful.

Photo Credit: “St. Agnes Church-Detroit, MI” by Mike Boening Photography via Flickr, CC. Cropped.

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