How does your church measure “enough?” Does the yardstick look different depending on who’s using it? The challenge with measures is we can sometimes miss the forest for the trees. When we do so, we end up making idols of numbers, measures, and data. In today’s post, Natalie Hall reflects on an experience of measuring in her own life -- and the life of her young daughter. Enough, she explains, is revealed in the promises of God, rather than the numbers we use to measure faithfulness.
Adam Copeland, Center for Stewardship Leaders
Natalie L.G. Hall
My first baby, a daughter Maryam, was born seven days ago at the time of this writing. From the time I delivered (and even before), Maryam was measured, weighed, and assessed to determine whether she met the criteria of “healthy enough.” Only after the healthcare team verified her scores were “enough” did they hand her to me.
After a nearly two days daze of sleepless delight, a nurse saw some green tinge in Maryam’s spit up and wanted her to go to the NICU for an x-ray to rule out abdominal catastrophe. “Yes, so long as you don’t admit her,” my husband and I said.
The NICU tested Maryam’s blood glucose levels; the results on the lower end of normal so they refused to release her until the numbers increased. Treatment focused on the “not-enough” numbers failing to acknowledge the manifestly healthy neonate. After watching our daughter’s heels bruised from the test pricks, we reluctantly assented to a bottle of formula and sugar water. Her glucose levels soared into the high margins, and we could finally go home.
“Enough” in the NICU was a matter of achieving stark numerical goals. It wasn’t until our pediatrician said, “Do what is enough. She’ll let you know what she needs,” that we were liberated from numbers and into the freedom of parenting. From the tyranny of specifics to a ministry of enough.
When Maryam cries we evaluate her needs. Her flourishing life is full of expectant wails, trusting her cries will be met with satisfaction. Maryam’s experience is of expectation and receiving enough. Similar to the basic human experience Martin Luther wrote in his Small Catechism that God as heavenly parent meets our expectant cries with “food, clothes, home, family, daily work, and everything we need from day to day”.
With declining enrollment and fading cultural relevance, even financially solvent churches are subject to the tyranny of specifics. Carefully outlined budget plans manage the immediate needs, yet often result in fixation on meeting only on-paper demands. Like the NICU neonatologist that focused on glucose numbers rather than seeing the thriving infant, it is possible for congregations to fixate on average Sunday attendance, monthly cash flow, and the annual strawberry festival, failing to recognize actual ministry needs. To be stewards of budgets alone ushers God’s people only toward the bottom line “Was the electrical bill paid? Is there enough for the next six months? Ministry accomplished.” Yet, that is not the kind of stewardship expectation God demonstrates and encourages in scripture.
Scripture offers a pattern of promise-expectation-fulfillment. For example God approaches Abram, to bestow on him promises of land and descendants (Genesis 12). Abram wonders where he will go. God responds, “Pack your things. I’ll show you.” Abraham (formerly Abram) wonders how many descendants. God responds, “See these stars? These are like your descendants-to-be. There will be a lot” (Genesis 22). God stirs up expectation in Abram by offering promises, giving Abram what he needed to set out by faith. And God came through. Land was granted; the descendants many. Scripture repeats the story again and again: God fulfills God’s promises.
If we really believe God will supply enough for ourselves and the expectations we stir up in others, we can let go of the bottom line desperation to respond to the real needs and God’s actual call, which is more than the lights or the roof -- a call and demand to pour ourselves out for anyone crying out for a full belly and warm, welcoming arms.
Glucose is necessary to live, but it isn’t living; water-tight roofs and stable cash flow are necessary for ministry, but are not sufficient. These resources must be directed toward a concrete, specific goal beyond church walls and outside the confines of the community insiders. God has promised to raise up faithful people. God’s promise about the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church remains trustworthy and true whether or not individual church doors open or closed. Real ministry -- focusing on promise, expectation, and fulfillment -- endures regardless of the bottom line. By the grace of God, the real ministry of faithful disciples has been and will continue to be enough.
There is enough to work out God’s providence in the fullness of time to accomplish the salvation and reconciliation of a fallen creation. I suspect light bills would be more dependably paid if stewardship committees focused less on cash flow and more on how the communion of saints could contribute resources to God’s ongoing, assured plan of salvation. Similar to our daughter Maryam, achieving particular glucose numbers is not nearly so life giving and sustainable as focusing our attention on bringing milk to her belly and enthusiastic arms for a cuddle in a ministry that constantly, joyfully seeks to bring her enough.
For More Information
The Rev. Natalie L.G. Hall is a Pastor-in-Residence at First Lutheran Church (Pittsburgh, PA). A graduate of Luther Seminary, she previously served two congregations in the Pittsburgh area and is now developing a confirmation curriculum due for publication with Spirit and Truth Publishing in 2016.
Stewardship Speaker Series: On August 18, the CSL invites you to campus for our last breakfast event of the summer. Pastor Drew G. I. Hart, author of Trouble I’ve Seen: Changing the Way the Church Views Racism, will be our speaker. For more information, and to register, visit www.luthersem.edu/stewlead.
Executive Certificate in Religious Fundraising: Luther Seminary, in partnership with the Lake Institute on Faith and Giving, is hosting a four-day intensive course, October 17-20, 2016. For more information visit:www.luthersem.edu/ECRF.
Practical Resources for Churches is offering several webinars on Stewardship & Finance this fall. To see individual topics, and to sign up, visit their website.