“We don’t even have a budget!” This was the complaint of a recent graduate. She had taken Luther’s Money & Mission of the Church class, and was ready to lead a top-notch stewardship ministry. But, once she arrived in her new congregation, she learned quickly stewardship would take time. The silence and fear around money was so great that not only did they not conduct an annual campaign, they didn’t even have a budget!
Sometimes stewardship leaders know all the right things, heck, they even do all the right things, and yet the pieces still don’t come together as expected. Rev. Catherine Neelly Burton’s post today speaks to these moments when our confessions of faith help remind us again what we believe.
Adam Copeland, Center for Stewardship Leaders
Abundance and Fear
Catherine Neelly Burton
“Do not be afraid.” I hear this in scripture when an angel speaks to a person who has every reason to be afraid.
I’d like a message from a holy visitor.
As a pastor I know what I’m supposed to say about stewardship: that we worship a God of abundance and not scarcity, that there is more than enough. Theologically I believe this. Practically, I’m not so sure. Theologically I know that the church of Jesus Christ is much more than one particular congregation. Practically I don’t want the giving (and the ministries it supports) of this particular congregation to go down on my watch.
I would never tell the congregation I serve that I’m afraid, at least not so plainly. I hope to inspire confidence. All the time, but especially in our stewardship season, I aim to deliver sermons with just the right balance of humility and humor, information and inspiration, and, of course, good Biblical exegesis, all while encouraging generosity. If there is concern about giving I want to express it in an urgent yet calm manner.
The catch is that even if I do all of this, there may or may not be enough. Of course there’s enough of God’s grace, but there might not be enough money to sustain the church at the level at which we’re accustomed. Many of our ministries run on shoestring budgets, but staffing and facility are the underlying support structures, and both cost money.
I serve an incredible, faithful, and generous congregation. Outside groups meet in our building five days a week. We’re present in neighborhood schools. Our local outreach helps to clothe and provide transportation for our sisters and brothers in the city. We give money and look for hands-on ways to connect to people around the world. Our worship is vibrant. The congregation is creative and flexible, and sincerely seeks to follow Christ.
People in the community like our church. There’s an abundance of goodwill towards us, but goodwill only goes so far. For a lot of people, we’re the church they would go to if they went to church. This is a nice distinction, but it doesn’t pay staff.
Part of my approach to stewardship this year, in particular, is to be honest with the faithful in our congregation, asking those who consistently give to keep giving, and encouraging them to give more. I am gently letting them know that the “them” we’ve been waiting for and contribute financially to our congregation has shown up … without much money. “They” are the teenagers from the neighborhood middle school, the family who’s never gone to church before, and the people strapped with debt.
All the while church leaders and I study future giving patterns and options. And we’re learning; no idea is off the table. Ideas range from planned giving to crowdfunding; asking people to consider making the church a beneficiary on a life insurance policy and asking people to give $1.80 (or more) toward a new mission project.
I find that each time I talk with a leader in the congregation about all of this, a funny thing happens. Another voice enters into the conversation and says, “Do not be afraid.” It’s the Spirit reminding me that I am not to carry all of this alone, that despite my fear, God is at work and other people care as much as I do, if not more.
While I can’t predict or control the long-term financial outlook for this or any church, I know with 100% certainty that my anxiety and fear won’t make any of it easier. And so I give thanks. Thanks to God who reminds me -- though not quite with a visit from an angel -- “Do not be afraid, I am with you.”
Rev. Catherine Neelly Burton is senior pastor of Grace Presbyterian Church in Wichita, Kansas.
Upcoming Stewardship Event:
December 14: Wisdom from the Field: Digital Churches + Online Giving Webinar from Lifelong Learning at Virginia Theological Seminary