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MORE BLESSED TO GIVE
Straight Talk on Stewardship
By John H. MacNaughton
Church Publishing IncorporatedCopyright © 2002 John H. MacNaughton
All rights reserved.
A Foundation on Which to Build
When the stock market crashed in 1929, a lot of people found life a very heavy burden. Some of them jumped out of windows. Some of them lost their power to make decisions. Others did equally desperate things to themselves and others. Why? Because their god had died.
Much more recently, one day I went shopping with my wife to buy a new winter coat. We were in the women's department of a large department store. While my wife shopped I sat in the corner watching the people as they browsed through the racks of clothes. One woman caught my eye, browsing as she was through the most expensive rack of pants suits in the store. She was well-dressed in the latest fashions (as far as I could tell) and projected the image of a relatively affluent housewife. The clerk who waited on her was showing her almost everything that was there, without much success. Then, without any warning, the shopper dropped the last item on the floor and, in a rage, began to berate the clerk, the store, the manufacturer and everyone else in sight about the outrageous prices being charged, the gouging of customers by monthly interest rates on charge accounts, and the scheming fashion designers who changed styles constantly and forced her to change wardrobes to keep up with them. The rage lasted a full three to four minutes without letup until finally she stomped away from the racks and was gone. I have never felt as sorry for a sales clerk as I did then. But why? Why the rage? My guess is that her god, money, had lost some of its power for her and was in danger of losing its ability to comfort her.
These are both extreme examples to be sure. But they do illustrate the depth to which money—the getting of it, the spending of it, and the status and security it seems to promise—has always preoccupied people's minds. I believe this is increasingly true in our own generation.
Ask yourself this question. In your scale of things that are important to you, in what place would you put having enough money to do what you want to do? If you think deeply enough and consider it honestly, the answer will give you a pretty good indication of what you think about yourself and what you think about the kind of world in which you live. The value you give to having an adequate supply of money, or the ability to earn it, is probably the most accurate clue you can find to the kind of satisfactions you want from life and what you believe it means to be fulfilled as a person.
Money, or the material things it will buy, has always held an important place in human society. Our possession of it, or lack of it, has always defined our ability to purchase goods and services. But for most of us, it also defines in significant measure the nature and limits of many of our personal relationships. Money is not only important for what it will buy, but for how it affects relationships between people, and relationships between people and their God.
I will never forget an experience I had one time in the early years of my ministry. It was in a small, struggling parish. In midsummer our water pipes sprang a leak. Nothing serious, but a steady leak outside the building. At our vestry meeting we had to decide what to do about it. Investigation had shown that the leak was on our property all right, but it came in the line at a place ahead of our water meter. It was on our property, and we were responsible for it, but it wasn't affecting our building, and it wasn't costing us anything. In the discussion it was obvious that the decision was going to be to do nothing about it until the city discovered it and fixed it with city funds. Meekly, I suggested that there might be a moral issue involved, that we had a responsibility at least to report it (which might mean we'd have to fix it at church expense). The response I got was to be told nicely but firmly that I could have my morals, and they would have theirs. But right now we were talking about money. Then everyone laughed, and the meeting went on to other things.
Now these were not immoral men, calloused to moral considerations. But when it involved money, in this case just the church's money, the true blue of moral certainty became the faded gray of moral compromise. The men didn't change. The fact that their money was involved changed them. I was too young then to challenge them about it, and maybe I really didn't want to. I thought no more about it. But I've never forgotten it.
We can add to that very simple experience a multitude of others where money has been a major factor, sometimes the controlling factor in human relationships. A thousand illustrations to suggest the point can be summed up in the often-quoted proverb, "Never borrow money from (or lend money to) a friend—or you will lose a friend." When money enters the picture relationships change. Such is the power of money.
Ever since money was developed in some form where it could be saved, the accumulation of money has been a genuine interest for most people and a consuming hunger in others. For a great many people, primary elements of personality are subtly, or not so subtly, wrapped up in the green and silver ribbons of cold cash, or that which represents cold cash. These include:
Self-worth or lack of it
Sense of personal power or lack of it
Sense of status or lack of it
Sense of success or lack of it
Sense of internal satisfaction or lack of it
Sense of standing in the community or lack of it
Sense of standing in a job or lack of it
Sense of power over other people or lack of it
Whatever its economic purpose, money and the ability to earn it and possess it came to be regarded very early in human history as one of the clearest measures of the worth of human beings. Little has happened in history to suggest that this measure has lost any of its appeal or power over human life in our own time.
It is surprising to many people to discover that Jesus understood, as well as anyone who ever lived, this deep and compelling potential for good or ill in the relationship of a person and his or her money. If one were to ask a variety of people to describe the subject Jesus talked about most, I suspect the answers would be such things as forgiveness, prayer, sacrifice, joy, peace, and the Kingdom of God. A careful reading of the New Testament, however, suggests another and perhaps surprising answer. The subject Jesus talked about most, as the New Testament records it, is the relationship of persons and their material possessions.
It has been established that fully one-sixth of all the words of Jesus in the New Testament are concerned with this one subject, over one-third of all Jesus' parables are devoted to it. The fact is that the subject Jesus talked about more than any other was the proper use of one's possessions. To him there was little else that could potentially deepen or destroy a person's relationship to God and to other persons than the way he or she earned, thought about, and used his or her material possessions.
Consider only a few such obvious references in the Scriptures as the parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19–31), which relates vividly and unequivocably to the responsibilities and potential dangers of the misuse of wealth; the parable of the rich farmer (Luke 12:15–21), relating to the temptations of greed; in the midst of the great collection of spiritual wisdom that is the Sermon on the Mount, the teaching of Jesus on freedom from worry about possessions (Matthew 6:19–34); and the story of the widow's mite (Mark 12:41–44), which relates to the spirit and motive of giving. And these are only a few of the many references that could be cited.
And Jesus was not alone in his concern. The Old Testament is heavy with references to the same subject. The prophet Amos speaks of how God's judgment will fall on those who selfishly earn and spend money and allow it to be valued ahead of their worship and before God (Amos 8:4–8). The writer of Deuteronomy, in a powerful passage that takes the form of a commandment, exhorts people to remember and to thank God as the source of their wealth (Deuteronomy 8:10–18). And throughout the Old Testament there are numerous references to tithing, not necessarily as a system of giving but as a way to be reminded that God is the source and giver of all wealth, to whom thanks are to be offered (Leviticus 14:22, 27:30–33, Malachi 3:6–12).
In all of this two things seem clear. Money, and what it represents to us, has been a major preoccupation of every generation as it is in ours. Jesus, and others of God's servants before him, understood that and tried to speak to it in many, many ways.
It is important for us, then, that to live in this world as religious people we must develop a clear understanding of the meaning of money—the theology of money, if you will. And as important as having a clearly thought out theology of money is making that theology clearly evident and understandable in the ways in which we, as the Church, approach the stewardship task with the people in the parish.
Yet, how badly some of us sometimes handle that task, year after year! There are almost as many approaches to stewardship as there are parishes and years in which the task is undertaken. But, with some variations, the approaches I have observed seem to break down into three major categories. I have to admit that I recognize these primarily because, at one time or another, I have used them all.
A. THE NUMBERS APPROACH
In this a parish sits down and calculates what it will need next year, in addition to what has been given this year, to carry out the church's work in that parish. For example, let's suppose in a given parish it seems a 17 percent increase will be needed next year. It's carefully worked out: The church property is in disrepair and will need some work; the hardworking rector simply must be given a raise (and simply raising the salary to keep up with inflation won't do); the Sunday School program needs a lift for new materials and/or a paid director; a program we are trying to do in the community is in need of extra support; the diocese is asking us for more money for next year; and inflation has taken its toll on the church budget as it has on the family budgets of its members. So, the message is communicated that, all told, we believe we can manage next year on about a 17 percent increase in our giving. Therefore, (whether this is said by implication or directly) if everyone would just raise their pledge for next year by 17 percent, we will make it fine. And thank you very much.
Perhaps that is overdrawn some, but in a thousand ways this is the message that is delivered and heard.
Now, I'd like to suggest that there are several things wrong with that message.
1. IT PUTS THE EMPHASIS IN THE WRONG PLACE
The Numbers Approach will always put the emphasis on the dollars the church needs rather than on the dollars out of which we can give, that is, the giver's income. To start with a budget, whether it be last year's (to which a percentage increase has been applied) or next year's (which incorporates that increase), the center of attention remains on the numbers, on the balance sheet. You can talk all you like about program or ministries that the numbers will pay for, or giving out of income as a responsible Christian, but the natural tendency, I believe, is that few will hear what you say about ministry because many will be sharpening their mental pencils to go over the church's budgetary needs.
2. IT'S UNFAIR.
The basis of the message is that everyone is giving evenly, that parish family A and parish family B are already giving conscientiously in relation to their means and that a 17 percent increase from them both will continue to keep them conscientiously even. But the facts belie the assumption. While many families do give conscientiously, a great many more give, and will continue to give until challenged, far less than they could or should. To ask for a percentage increase, even by implication, puts an unfair burden on those who are doing their best to be faithful in their giving and allows the token givers to remain exactly where they are. Even if they respond to the percentage increase and give it, in all likelihood they will remain what they have been, token givers.
3. GENERALLY, THIS APPROACH REPRESENTS A MINIMUM RATHER THAN A MAXIMUM REQUEST.
It has been said that politics is the science of accomplishing what is reasonably possible. Politicians could take lessons from church vestries and finance committees. When the subject of next year's budget needs comes up, some important questions are given short consideration:
What do we really want?
What do we really want to do here?
What things would we really like to do if money were not a problem?
They aren't asked because what occupies the mind is the single question,
What can we reasonably expect to get?
Perhaps it is the fear of asking too much and facing failure that tempers us. Maybe it's just our reluctance to ask at all that frightens us. But, with the Numbers Approach, what we ask as an increase is pretty well informed by what we are fairly certain is attainable, or by how far short of our goal we can reasonably fall without getting hurt. Thus, the asking is generally calculated to meet a minimum standard of giving dictated by timidity rather than any maximum effort dictated by creative imagination about ministry and opportunity.
4. IT DOESN'T CHALLENGE ANYONE SPIRITUALLY.
One of the deepest concerns about much of the church fund raising we see is that we ask our people to give to the Church, or to a given parish, when what we need to ask them to do is to give to God. The effect of asking people to give to the Church is to base our appeal on the responsibility we can put on people for the parish to survive, on parish loyalties, on interest in parish activities, or even on loyalty to a particular parish priest. None of these are so much wrong or bad as they are incomplete. To base our appeal on these things is often to preclude any serious consideration of giving as a matter of a person's spiritual life, as a serious matter between a Christian and God.
We who are church people always operate on at least three levels in our spiritual life. We live on the level of denominational loyalty. That loyalty may be very strong or very weak, but one thing that holds us to the church is our denominational bonds. In addition to that, we live on the level of parish loyalty. To work in a particular parish, to give to a parish, is to be tied to an interest in seeing that parish survive, prosper and grow. Sometimes our parish and denominational loyalties are unbending, locking us into an attitude that is offended when things change. To see what is happening in the Church today and to see the response of many church members to what's happening is to see this locked-in attitude with crystal clarity. Beyond these loyalties, we also live on the level of a loyalty—a commitment—to God in Jesus Christ. Ideally, all three of these complement and reinforce each other. Realistically, however, one cannot help but observe that all too often the first two loyalties are used as a substitute for the third. We are so easily caught up in a kind of "Churchianity" that it shuts out the growth of our Christianity. Indeed, to be faithful to a church is a far easier commitment than to be faithful to Christ, or so it seems. When we deal with our stewardship task on the level of either denominational or parish commitments, we run the real risk of allowing these to be a substitute for any challenge to grow in relationship and commitment to God. Again, while we may say that our stewardship is a matter of the spirit, a matter between us and God, when the push really comes, it's the other necessities and other loyalties on which we are really banking. That's the real message church members will hear loud and clear and assume they are being asked to respond to.
B. THE "AREN'T YOU ASHAMED OF YOURSELF" APPROACH
Using this method, someone takes the trouble to find out where people are really spending their money. This will vary from place to place, but it can be rather precise if someone wants to be thorough. The message comes across something like this.
Someone has recently done a study on where people spend their money. And this is what they discovered. Nationally, we spend roughly:
$3 billion on cosmetics and personal care ...
$3.5 billion on tobacco ...
$10 billion on recreation and entertainment
$12 billion on alcoholic beverages (with their attendant headaches) ...
$9 billion on jewelry, furs, gambling, and other luxuries ...
(and here is the kicker)
$1.5 billion on churches and other charities of our choice.
What this means (we say) is that we care roughly:
2 times as much about our personal care than we do about God ...
2 ½ times more about our cigarettes than we do about the Church ...
8 times more about entertaining ourselves and our children than we do about providing our children with a religious education ...
10 times more about drinking than we do about praying ...
7 times more about our luxuries than we do about the Church's necessities ...
And the climax of all that is the finger-pointing question, stated or implied, "Aren't you ashamed of yourself?"
The approach is summed up neatly in a little poem I clipped out of a parish newsletter not long ago. It was labeled "Quote of the Week," and was used during its Stewardship Drive.
Excerpted from MORE BLESSED TO GIVE by John H. MacNaughton. Copyright © 2002 John H. MacNaughton. Excerpted by permission of Church Publishing Incorporated.
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