Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Stewardship Campaigns, "Being Rich in a Troubled Economy," and Passing the Plate

This is the time of year that many (if not most) Mainline Protestant congregations engage in some form of yearly stewardship campaign, where those supporting the congregation are asked to consider giving intentionally to God's work in the congregation in the form of a pledge. That pledge can be a specific number, a tithe (10 percent of income), or any percentage of income. I knew one congregational member who gave 33 percent of his income to the congregation (!). I remember asking him why he did that, and he was taught that by one of his mentors in business, and Jesus. "Jesus said to give it all away," he reminded me. I have known some people who are financially challenged, so they tirelessly serve the congregation with their time and talents. I am often filled with joy and thankful for the generosity of Christian people in response to God's love and generosity.

I have been blessed to be mentored by wise Christians on the subject of stewardship, including Kennon Callahan, Jerry Hoffman, Ron Voss, and Walter Brueggemann (no surprise there). A summary of what I have learned over the years:

1. Say thank you to givers to God's work in the congregation.
2. Encourage people to grow in their giving.
3. Help worshipers make people connections with their giving--tell stories of people affected by ministries of the congregation.
4. Don't bring a spirit of fear and doom to giving.
5. People give in many different ways--don't only connect with people who pledge.
6. The Bible talks about giving more than love, prayer and about any other topic outside of God.
7. Be honest and authentic about your stewardship story and the stewardship stories in the congregation.
8. Most people don't give to budgets. They give to other people.

Though I have implemented these teachings in over 10 years of ordained ministry, there is still an element of manipulation and persuasion in stewardship. These are not inherently bad terms or concepts, but they are corrupted by fear and anxiety. No matter how much I attempt to make a connection between God's generosity and the need for God's children to give, the anxiety of money managers and leaders creeps in. People's jobs are on the line. Ministries for which people are passionate hang in the balance without necessary funding, and people who are served lose a connection point to be fed, clothed or housed. Christian education can be compromised. These are only a few of the consequences of stewardship volatility. What I have tried to convey in "How To Be Rich in a Troubled Economy" is not a message of "Prosperity Gospel" but a message that says investing in people in the life of the Church is about a solid investment as one can make: Jesus said "store up treasures in heaven." We live in an era where the ashes of failed investments are all around us (it happens sooner or later), yet I have not heard from one person who said they regretted investing in and giving to ministries that served people in the name of Christ.

This week my sermon title is "Unleashing the Saints." First, it fits in with the Christian celebration of All Saints Day. Second, "Unleashing the Saints" is a general theme of ministry at First Lutheran Community Church. Without committee red tape--people are freed to serve as God calls them to serve, allowing resources to serve people in the name of Christ rather than an antiquated committee structure. I believe that congregational investments end up helping people in a more effective, efficient and faithful manner not only because of FLCC's organizational structure, but also because of the power of the Holy Spirit, and the gifts, generosity and talents of people in the congregation. Your investment goes far toward "Unleashing the Saints" to serve people in the name of Christ. The financial strength of the congregation has been compromised (in theory) after the departure of Pastor Allen and a drop in worship attendance and possibly the economic downturn. A question in giving planning becomes: "Is the ministry of First Lutheran Community Church a good investment?" If the answer is yes, then, "can I grow in my giving?" In order to continue "Unleashing the Saints" to serve in many ways in the community and world, we need some people to grow in their giving. It would be easy if everyone in the congregation gave 10%, but I am thankful that are called to respond in thankfulness and faith. I believe that people at FLCC will respond if given the opportunity to do so.

Thank you to the people of FLCC for teaching me something new about stewardship. Thank you for taking out the practice of "passing the offering plate" during worship. I don't believe this is necessarily a bad practice. I believe that giving is an act of worship and the context of giving can be in a worship service. I'm not sure that people see giving as an act of worship--passing the plate can be construed as that one needs to pay for admission into the presence of God. By taking out that practice, you have created a more welcoming space into the presence of God. I am thankful to be taught a new way of thinking about giving and congregational life. For those of you who wonder about the practice of offering in the worship service and it's place in Christian life, here is a history of "passing the plate."
Though offering is a practice as old as first human contact with Yahweh, passing the plate is a relatively new practice in faith communities and isn't mandated by the Bible.

I know people approach the topics of giving and money with fear, trepidation and sensitivity. I only hope to be faithful in what I share and teach, and that God will work with my thoughts and experiences so that others may know the grace and generosity of God themselves.

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