A mentor warned me of two sermons that bring fear and trembling to a pastor – the Easter sermon (because you can only do so much with the story and because you have a larger than normal audience and because most of them there are not committed Christians so you have to temper your sermon a different way than you would for the people who are there week after week, and because for some reason everyone expects your sermon to be so amazing that everyone who is there will be inspired to become a committed church member) and the Stewardship sermon because your salary depends upon it and the babies need to eat.
Lets leave the Easter sermon baggage aside for now – we can only tackle so much at once - and consider the Stewardship sermon. For those who are not clear what it is that I am talking about, it is the sermon the pastor gives on the Sunday when the parishioners are supposed to turn in their “pledge card” saying how much they are willing to give to the church for the next fiscal year. Based on those pledges the church leadership then makes a budget for the next year. Staff positions are created or cut, people’s salaries are raised or decreased, and the heating bill is paid or pipes freeze. For some reason folks think that this Stewardship sermon is the one thing that will convince people to give or to give more and if the giving is not as good as it has been in the past it must be because the sermon was less then brilliant. No pressure for the pastor!
I often wonder if this is the best way to approach issues of money in the church. I know of other churches that do not have a Pledge Sunday, but simply go “on faith” that they will have enough to cover their expenses. Yet I wonder, how do you plan for the future, have any vision, or try anything new if you do not have a sense of what you will or will not have in the next six months. Maybe these churches do not have any budget and just do what they want without any sense of direction or planning. This would drive all the “A” type personalities crazy! There are those other churches that make up a budget, take the pledges from people in the congregation, and then, after noting a shortfall between the projected income and the desired expenses, add a “faith percentage” hoping and believing that somehow God will make up the difference for whatever it is that they want to do. Everyone else would call it a deficit budget, but believing people who love the Lord, call it a faith budget. Still drives a certain kind of people crazy. They don’t like seeing red.
No matter what you do, if you are a pastor, money is going to be on your mind in one way or another. If you do not have a pledge Sunday, then you will very likely be freaking out week to week if there aren’t enough people in the pews to cover your needs for clothing, food, and peanut butter sandwiches. If you do have a pledge Sunday then you will be freaking out four to six weeks before that Sunday hoping that at worst pledges stay the same and at best there is a small increase in giving.
I would like to step back from the Pledge Sunday anxiety (although mine is coming up) and think about the idea of giving in a church context and from a faith context. Pledge Sunday could be a great opportunity to consider our relationship with money in the context of our faith and to invite people to bring God into that relationship with money. It can be a good opportunity to invite people to consider their resources from a faith perspective.
If you believe that God is in control, if you believe that in God’s hands “all will be well,” then money should not cause any anxiety. Maybe you won’t have the greatest of homes or luxury items, but you will be ok; or this is what you are supposed to believe. Don’t plan for things; don’t think about budgets or investments or anything else because it is all in God’s hands. This could be an approach to faith and money. Yet the amount of Christians who really believe this, or who at least live as if they believe this, is far and few between. If you have a retirement fund, then you have taken a step back from the hyper-literalistic and hyper-deterministic notion that God is in complete control and all will be ok. The moment you save money for that emergency, that unplanned unknown, you are saying that maybe God is not in complete control and you need to be prepared.
You may respond and say that God wants me to save because God knows that these things are going to happen and God has blessed me with just the right resources to be prepared – God is still in control. Maybe. Maybe God blesses you with various resources so that you can plan and prepare for the worst, but God can’t make you save or budget. In these sense God probably has as much control as a parent trying to feed his or her infant. You can bring the food up to the baby’s mouth, you can plead and cajole and make as many stupid games as you want, but you can’t make that baby open his or her mouth and eat that mush that we try to pass for food.
Here is a theological position that I like to take: because of the gift of free will (or what some theologians call the freedom to do stupid things) God is not in control. God is active. God is present in the world. Yet God is not in control. We can decide to work harder or not. We can decide to save or not. We have responsibility and we are in control.
We are in control, but God is still guiding us, calling us, and blessing us and this is where we are called to let go of our control and trust God. Part of this act of letting go and trusting God is done through our weekly giving. It is the basic Sunday School lesson about tithing. If you get $10 that is exciting; you may be able to get something like a Venti-Double-Shot-Dirty-Chai-Latté and have some change left over (but not much). Now imagine that on your way to the local coffee shop your pastor shows up, looking sad, slovenly, and a little hungry. He sees the crisp $10 bill in your hand and asks about your tithe (your 10% offering… $1 for you non-math types). Now you have to make a choice. Do you trust that you will still have enough to get what you need? It may not be the Venti-Double-Shot-Dirty-Chai-Latté, it may be just a regular, run-of-the-mill cup of coffee, but will it be what you need? You are being asked to give up control over what you may want for only what you need (or a lesser version of what you want). You also have to trust that the money you give to the pastor will go towards something worthy. If you then see the pastor at that coffee shop drinking that very Venti-Double-Shot-Dirty-Chai-Latté purchased with your offering you may get a little annoyed (unless it is coming out of his aforeagreedupon salary… another conversation for another time). You are trusting that your money is going towards something that you may deem worthy, or at least agreeable to God. When you give, you are letting go of the ability to dictate exactly what happens with every cent of your contribution. Again, you have to give up control.
This may be a good time to reference an earlier post I have written on making and earning money and using it to help others. It is also a good time to reference Darin Collins’ post about caring for (or not caring for) the poor. And while we are at it, the podcast episode I did with Bill Trench about money. That is probably enough self-promotion for now.
Not only is our giving connected with the notion of trust and control, but it speaks to a commitment to whatever it is that we might be giving towards. When you are involved with a cause, with your time and energy, you will come to see and understand what a difference your money could make with that cause. When you give to a cause you may be drawn to a place where you want to be involved because you care about what happens with your money. I realize that giving money is at times used as an easy out from responsibility – that we can write a check and then walk away with that smug sense of satisfaction that we have, somehow, made a difference in the world (regardless if that is true or not). This is why it is important to be involved with whatever it is you give to if it is at all possible – including your church. And remember, involvement can pertain to prayer as well as collecting bulletins after a service or singing in the choir.
At a theological level, your relationship with money shapes your relationship with God and your relationship with God shapes your relationship with money. When you are giving to a ministry (the church or whatever) part of the act of giving calls for you to trust. Part of the giving calls for a level of obedience. The bulk of your giving is calling you to participate in the action and activity of the Lord and to trust. You are saying that you want to be a part of the good work that God is doing. You are saying that what God is doing is more important that the luxury items, the luxury comforts that you might be able to enjoy. If you feel that your money is more important then various ministries, then in part you are saying that the work of God, the actions of the Lord are not as important, are not vital as those other things that you hold dear. On the other hand, if you feel the call of God to love the least, to help the helpless, etc., is real and is a part of God’s real work in the world then you will do whatever you can to be a part of that work. This is not a call to poverty, but to trust and commitment. Maybe it starts with prayer, but your prayers, if they are sincere, will lead you to spending time, and the time you spend, if it is real, will lead towards your giving to help and to further be a presence and support. Time and prayers will build a relationship with that ministry and with God. Your relationship with God should guide and lead your relationship with money.
I realize that I have meandered about a bit. This is a deep and important topic to consider and one that is often avoided by pastors and theologians alike. There is a lot of thinking that still needs to be done on this topic. But I have said enough for now.
For now, when I work on my annual sermon to give on our pledge Sunday I need to remember that it is really a good ole’ fashioned evangelical sermon calling people to commit to God and to give their lives to Christ. I need to let go of the worry about making enough money and think more about helping people claim, consider, and articulate their own relationship with the Lord. The rest should work itself out. Now, about Easter…