Brunger joins PC(USA) task force studying the economy, church

May 5, 2011
Contact: Karen Eldridge, Director of Communications
865-981-8207; karen.eldridge@maryvillecollege.edu

Dr. Scott Brunger, professor of economics at Maryville College, is serving on an 11-member task force assembled by the Presbyterian Church (USA) Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy to look at the current recession and its impact on the church.

The task force, mandated by the 219th General Assembly in July 2010, is expected to present a resolution paper on the study, “Living Through Economic Crisis,” at the 220th General Assembly next year. Task force members are building on the church’s recent Social Involvement Report and assessing “economic trends and practices, including their impact on the church itself.”

“I was nominated to serve,” explained Brunger, who is a member of Westminster Presbyterian Church in Knoxville. “Several pastors in the [national] church know that I am an economist.”

They know because Brunger has researched church economics before.

In 2005, he and Dr. Charles Zech, a professor of economics at Villanova University, published “Plain Talk About Presbyterian Giving,” an eight-chapter report of the church’s giving patterns since the reunion of the northern and southern churches in 1983. Brunger and Zech distributed it widely among the church’s national offices.

“Church giving follows personal income and inflation rates, so it is highly motivated by economic factors,” he explained. “What’s fascinating to me is that many pastors don’t seem to realize that in a recession, when income goes down, giving [to churches] goes down.”

But how Christians should behave in the economy is not a new discussion for the church, the professor added. Those conversations date back to at least the 16th century, if not before.

“Starting with [Protestant reformer] John Calvin, the church has passed down a tradition in creeds and teaching that is extensive about how Christians should work in the world,” he said.

Task force will make recommendations

In addition to economists and pastors, the task force includes church administrators, theologians and social workers. They first met Feb. 10-12 at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Kentucky and will meet two more times before the General Assembly convenes in 2012.

“It’s exciting to be involved in this,” Brunger said. “Attending the meetings is like being back in graduate school again, discussing issues with people who have different areas of expertise and interests. I was on my toes for two and a half days.”

The task force is charged with making “appropriate recommendations” for church members, congregations, presbyteries and local, state and federal governments.

“This assessment should center on the role of fairness and justice in our economy, with particular attention to growing inequality, the decline of the middle class, the tax structure, the shifting makeup of the labor force and its effects on employee rights, the role of regulatory agencies in protecting the public interest, and access to environmental resources that is equitable and sustainable. The study should also reflect the concern of the impact of the economic crisis on women and incorporate case studies of both women and men,” reads the prospectus issued by the General Assembly.

Brunger said he hopes the work of the task force will help people see the “bigger picture” of the recession and that the church will communicate to its congregations and members how people can effectively care for those who are hurting – and care for people on a larger scale.

As an example, the professor said some congregations have started programs to place out-of-work people in good jobs, and those programs (which mainly focus on educational and networking opportunities) can serve as models for other congregations.

“Most congregations that I know are hunkered down, operating in survival mode. They have ‘wish lists’ out there, but they’re not taking on new challenges,” he said.

As a mission volunteer for the Presbyterian Church back in the 1970s, Brunger said he saw similar reactions in situations where resources are limited and dwindling.

“People’s imaginations are limited to what they think they can afford,” he said.

Sharing the study with students

Brunger said he’ll share the study – and his observations – with students in his classes at Maryville College.

“In my macroeconomics course, I use the model of church giving to illustrate how non-profits are affected by the economy,” he said, adding that his ‘Economics of Tourism’ course will likely be informed by what he learns about the sustainability issues tied to the economy.

Next Spring, Brunger will teach a Senior Seminar 480 course entitled “Christian Mission in a Diverse World,” and he fully expects to draw from findings and recommendations of the task force, as well as other related studies of which he has been a part.