The assumption goes that congregation members can support the salaries of their leaders. But that’s not necessarily the case with prison ministries, college ministries, and ministries focused on people experiencing homelessness. In today’s post, campus ministry leader Rev. Sarah Hooker explains her approach to inviting members to support college ministry. As Sarah explains, the invitation to give has a catch.
Adam Copeland, Center for Stewardship Leaders
Seeds of Generosity
Rev. Sarah Hooker
Jesus also said, ‘The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.’ -- Mark 4:26-29
Sometimes, in moments of indulgent narcissism, I fancy myself a gardener. I’ve successfully grown produce in a small plot at the seminary community garden, flowers tend to thrive in front of my house, and somehow the blueberry bushes haven’t frozen.
But they miraculously survived the winter forgotten and untended, so it’s probably more accurate to call myself an accidental gardener. I appreciate the flourishing surprises of the neglected and forgotten flora. Like Jesus notes in his parable, most times you don’t need to do much, just scatter that seed and see what pops up through the season.
In my two brief years working with college students as a Presbyterian campus pastor, I’ve had to adjust my regular expectations about what stewardship looks like, and what the outcome of that stewardship will be. In congregational ministry, discussions of tithes and offerings center around a reciprocal nature of the relationship: you give us time and money, we give you (and the community) a nurturing spiritual home. I quickly learned this model doesn’t work in college ministry. Most public college ministries rely on outside congregational financial support for their very existence. A major part of a campus pastor’s job is to go from church to church, raising funds to sustain the ministry, which can stir both frustration and joy.
One of my favorite approaches is to share with stories about the amazing young people with whom I get to minister. These students are deeply faithful people, eagerly exploring the complexities of being in relationship with a God who loves them, and figuring out how that all fits in with the stressors of emerging adulthood and a suffering world. After sharing their stories and a request for a four-year financial commitment from the church to support campus ministry, I hate have to temper their expectations for what they’ll “get” in return. Local church leaders, no matter how much they contribute, likely won’t be seeing any of my students sitting in their pews on Sunday mornings.
But such support shouldn’t be given with the idea of “buying” young people’s involvement. This support is helping cultivate a faith community for its own sake. Students alone are not going to cover ministry salaries, overhead costs, and supplies with their financial contributions. Sure, they throw in a few bucks a week for dinners or special events, they will scrounge up money to go on a retreat, and they will find that last twenty dollars to pay for the awesome ministry t-shirt filled with inside jokes. Sometimes, that’s what generosity looks like, but it goes further than money.
College students are actually some of the most generous people I know, often donating precious time to volunteer for organizations and causes that they are passionate about. When you consider that these students are often taking full-time classes, squeezing in a part-time job, juggling student organizations or sports, and spending around 5 hours a week volunteering, you can’t help but admire their giving spirit and generosity.
So my plea -- to the church, congregations, and denominations alike -- is to take a cue from Jesus and his gardening tips. There needs to be good soil; Jesus is pretty clear on that. Good soil is the foundation for growth in Spirit. One way you are able to make good soil is by your stewardship of college ministries, providing stability in staff salaries, educational opportunities, weekly programming costs, and scholarships for students.
Make good soil in your broader discipleship journey by contributing in various ways to create healthy, generous communities. With the nurturing of that good soil, the seeds can be planted. And then (here comes the hard part), let those seeds do their thing. Leave the plants alone. Don’t place unnecessary expectations on when they will sprout, or when the harvest will be ready.
As Jesus reminds us, God works in those seeds without our knowledge or influence. These students, when provided a spiritually healthy place to grow, will be guided by God to grow with sensitivity and sensibility. Then, in time, they will find their own church home and steward the next generation of good soil.
About the Author
Rev. Sarah Hooker, is ordained in the Presbyterian Church (USA) and serves as the campus pastor for UKirk Atlanta, a Presbyterian ministry currently located at Agnes Scott College and Emory University. She is astounded every day with the faithful vigor of the students she meets, and is frequently appreciative of the latest social media app tips they share. She accidentally gardens at home with her husband and six year old son.