We Need a Forced March

2014. május 15., csütörtök

New urban congregations, a flatter church structure and placing greater emphasis on the role of donations – among many other things, elder Levente Kovács considers these changes crucial regarding the future of the Reformed Church in Hungary. We talked to the general secretary of the Hungarian Banking Association in connection with the revision process in the Reformed Church, since he is a reformed person who can simultaneously see the community from the inside and the outside.  

We are having our conversation in the office of the Hungarian Bank Association about the present and the future of the Reformed Church. How can you connect two communities in your life that seem to be so different?

Everyone is a pastor in my family including my ancestors. Not only both of my grandfathers were pastors, but one of my grandmothers as well. Moreover one of my great- great grandfathers, same with my parents and my two brothers, but even my brother-in law and uncle too. As I grew up I got to know the Church from the inside, which is really good, because apart from this with my career and profession I have the opportunity to see it from the outside too. The one who sees the Church from both sides can get to know it doubly as well as those who only know one side of it. This way of seeing things is useful for the Church as well.

With such background and experiences how do you see the present and future situation of the reformed Church?

The hierarchy and structure of our Reformed Church is built on the traditions of a “people’s Church.” These old characteristics are about to fade away and instead of them a new Church membership, different in nature and sociological layers, is being born. In my experience from the traditional godliness and people’s church character we are heading towards the confessor Church as a result of the changes in our society. Besides being born into a religious family, the conscious godliness becomes more important, experiencing and displaying our church membership intentionally. This makes me really happy, but the confessor Church, the Church of the future, should be built up differently in structure.

What would this change mean? A complete restructuring?

Today the structure of our Church has four levels: the most important, the base, is the community on which we can build in the future. The three higher levels follow this: presbytery, church district and the Synod coordinating all these. The confessor church should work with a flatter hierarchy than this. This is based on the fact that with the information technology of today we can reach the church communities much more effectively. For example we do not need to rely on the postal system with our official correspondence anymore, because any circular letter through e-mail can be sent very quickly to any community with no costs. As a result of this, in my opinion the role of the Presbyteries should become more important, because that’s the natural organizational entity, the community which can be seen and reached well. On the other hand, I am not so sure if the church districts should bear the same importance anymore. Maintaining this hierarchical level means great costs, while I cannot really see the added value. The extra cost of maintaining certain church districts can be equal to the costs of building a new church. The role of the Synod is still unquestionably essential. By getting rid of the hierarchical level of the church districts, the flatter Church structure could operate more effectively.

A flatter hierarchy could be useful, but other changes would be necessary too in the Church of the future.

The Reformed Church should adapt to those social, demographical, sociological trends which have characterized Hungary in the last 20 years. Today most of the people live in towns instead of villages. If the majority of the Hungarians live in towns, then the majority of reformed congregations and churches should be there as well, since that’s where the people are. Simply, we must follow the people. New urban congregations must be founded, and the Church must help them financially. It is in the best interest of our Church that as many strong congregations as possible are founded as soon as possible. So, we cannot wait for the small communities to get stronger on their own, we must help these new congregations centrally to establish their church, parsonage and infrastructure. As I mentioned earlier, with flatting the unnecessary hierarchical levels we can reshuffle our budget and have more resources at our disposal to achieve this goal.  

This is by all means a difficult suggestion, and could even be justified, since there are many church communities which are not able to exist alone neither financially nor demographically anymore without receiving help. Where would the necessary church political initiative come from for these changes?  

We missed the social changes because the majority of the congregations are still in the villages. So, we need a forced march to make up for this. I am fully aware of the churches and graves of our ancestors being in the villages, but not the grandchildren anymore. We need active congregations. If we don’t do anything then other historical Churches will step up or even the new small churches.

Who would have the courage to describe the reformed church as an urban one and match its structure to this?

Our Church has a long and valuable past, that’s why we react slower on social changes and take less risk. When we think of the future of the Reformed Church we must understand that, for example, the presbyteries shouldn’t function as pensioner (retirement) meetings. In our church bodies there should be place for active members who can support the Church economically and financially as well. We should change the age of the presbyteries as well: it is only right if every age group is homogeneously represented there from the 30-year-old young adults until the 70 to 80-year-old elders. We should forget about the concept that on the lay side the leaders can only come from the elder, more experienced age groups. There should be more active engagement of the young or even middle-aged people, who have already proved themselves in their lay positions, to renew our church. I think it is time for a generation shift. When it happens, these today still unusual thoughts will come forward and bring a boom to our Church which can only affect it positively. For example let’s think of donation, how much a company manager could do for our Church from the financial point of view as well.

We talked about structure, but now you have mentioned the financial aspects as well. How could the Reformed Church operate well in this field too?

When the elders asked me about improving the management I gave them the advice I tell every foundation and charity organisation: there should be reserves covering the institution’s operation for a whole year, because whatever happens to us, we still have a year to prepare for the change. Since I expressed my opinion on this in my own congregation, they have made great efforts to build up these reserves. We must talk about covering every field of operation for a year, since today the congregations own buildings; they have a pastor and occasionally more religious teachers. We are on the right path in this direction; we can have these reserves in one or two years, despite being one of the smallest congregations in Budapest.

In spite of this positive perspective, most of the reformed congregations are not self-sustaining; they need inner-church support. How much could this example apply for the whole Church?

Today, part of the Church communities can sustain themselves and can pay their pastors from their own budget, even if on a low level. The other Church congregations are not able to do this and require central support. I must note that usually these communities are the ones located in small villages with declining populations. They will not be able to build up such financial resources, which are sufficient to pay the pastors. That’s why we must examine what central assets are at our disposal to help them. The other communities are in such financial situations, thanks to the sacrifices of their ancestors, where they can pay their pastors and maintain their infrastructure even without donations. I can sense some kind of tension here, which must be resolved in some way.

How could this be achieved?

In my opinion, those communities owning real estates the income from which enables them to sustain themselves, must take a bigger share from the common public charges. The formal recommendations should be used more effectively to achieve the universal goals of the Church. The other way is to reconsider the role of donations: in the Bible we read about tithes, but for us this proportion does not even reach the one hundredth. The matter of charity must be reconsidered even in the richest congregations as well. It is clear to me that the maintenance of congregations should be based on donations and everyone should have a share in the remaining expenses.

Should there be greater solidarity?

The management of a church community could be based on its real estate properties, which are available at many of them in fact. Worst case: they cannot maintain this. But in the best case, there is significant income coming in from this, enabling the congregation to sustain itself without donations. Besides the real estate, many communities own land, however, these cannot be farmed effectively. Our Church must estimate its possessions and distribute them fairly among the congregations, supporting the goals of the Church. In the first place, I mean that it could be a very effective solution if the small – each only one acre big and often fallow - lands could be united in a big patch on suitable land with good quality. This patch could be leased and the income of this could help the Church financially, and the operation of the church communities providing these lands could be supported through this. On one hand, this central land could release pastors from the burden of dealing with the administration regarding the lands, and collecting the rent from those who have not paid. On the other hand, they could receive higher rent for such homogeneous land. And later from the different offerings the territory of the lands could be expanded!

At many places managing the lands is not the biggest burden concerning the pastors, rather if they can get their already low salary. What could be done regarding the salary of pastors?

It makes me really sad to see that the majority of pastors live among such circumstances that they are not able to show exemplary charity – in consequence of their own bad financial situation. The pastoral incomes are so low that they can hardly make ends meet themselves, while often they have to take care of their big family with more children.  This means austerity for them or often even poverty. We must change this situation and make it so that having children is a manageable financial burden for the pastors. We must thoroughly examine their salaries and find out what could give the base of this income. It should be said out loud: we need a pastoral minimum wage. I must say they are all graduated from university, so their income should be determined from the salary of people working in the public sector in similar status. Based on the number of children further support should be justified. I do not think it is the right way that our pastors must do physical work and their whole day is filled with agricultural work. For this they didn’t have to study theology, their duty is to bring the Word of God to us. I consider the above mentioned intentions for centralisation justified because it could provide a decent livelihood for pastors and their families.

We have not mentioned the other reformed institutions besides the Church communities. Do they need a change as well?

If we look at the whole Church then we can see that almost all of our institutions are mostly maintained from state and government support. It is justified, since our schools are visited by the children of the tax payer church members. But still we must clarify that the money comes from the state. Our Church should make more sacrifices for its institutions. They should receive so much extra support that their quality could improve. If we cannot give any extra, besides overtaking this state function, then there is no point in talking about Church schools, these institutions should be closed immediately. The goal should not be to have as many schools as possible; of course we should have more schools, but those should provide education with the best quality and the most attractive community for the students. This applies for all of our institutions: the Church should provide all of them extra support, so those will not be only average institutions but the most popular ones with the highest standard. If we can express this extra support in numbers, then it should be at least 10 percent. This is not unprecedented! Today the best psychology education is at the psychology faculty of the Károli Gáspár University of the Reformed Church in Hungary. Our goal is to reach a similar standard in every faculty and that the reformed grammar schools should be mentioned among the best secondary schools in the country. But the same can be said about our retirement and rest homes as well. The improvement in quantity should turn into an improvement in quality regarding these institutions.

Church community, organisation, institution, anywhere we look the importance of the state budget is unavoidable. Where is the state’s ideal place?

I have not read much about the state and governmental support from Calvin: the operation of the reformed Churches should be based on their own incomes and the offerings they receive.  Getting additional state support could contribute to the improvement of quality and expansion. In the case of institutions, the state support is justified as a consequence of the big financial burdens, but the maintenance of the Church cannot be based merely on state money. The redistribution of state support cannot be our main task; that would mean the end of the Church’s existence. In the course of history if an institution was financed by an external organisation, then the expectations are also determined by that in proportion to the financial support. While we think, if we could contribute more the independency and self-awareness, then the character of our Reformed Church could be stronger.



Written by Botond Csepregi; translated by Anita Polgári


Biography: “The children of reformed pastors usually do not make a career in the bank sector. If somebody can find success in this, then he could run faster in the wind’s eye than others down the hill following the wind’s tail” – starts Levente Kovács when introducing his career. Today he is the general secretary of the Hungarian Bank Association. Before that he was deputy director of the KDB Bank. He was born into a pastor’s family in 1966 and was a reformed student in Debrecen later. “With my leadership the team of our grammar school won the national informatics competition twice. Sadly, both times we had to share the first place with another group since in that political system the team of a religious school couldn’t win alone.” He went to university in Debrecen to be a mathematics-physics teacher and later attended the MBA course of Corvinus University of Budapest. He obtained a doctoral degree and became the department head at the Economical Relationships Faculty of the University of Miskolc. “The background of my academic work is that I can only fulfill my university obligations in my free time.” He is also the head of the economic council of the Károli Gáspár University of the Reformed Church in Hungary. Apart from this he is involved in the directorate of more economical associations and financial organizations, moreover member of the European Banking Federation’s executive committee. “It’s only worth working very actively and spending a little time sleeping” – Levente Kovács shares with us in response to the question of how he can be successful in so many different areas, in addition to having five sons. Due to his extensive engagement, he takes part in charity regularly and as an elder devotes special attention to supporting the Reformed Church.

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