Bishop Smith’s reflections—October 13, 2015
It’s not recognized as a liturgical season, but it’s here in most of our congregations nevertheless: “Stewardship Season.” It usually coincides with another important but less visible season known as “Budget Time.” For many, neither is among the more enjoyable or inspiring periods of our church year.
As a young pastor, I truly loathed that season, in part because if I pushed the least little bit about money, people pushed back even harder. “That’s all the church cares about—the Almighty Dollar!” “Do we have to talk about money ALL the time!!??” “Yeah, sure, that little preacher wants us to give more to the church because he thinks he needs and deserves a raise. Well, somebody should tell him, in the REAL world….” “Preacher, we really like you, but people are starting to talk. We’re not used to hearing about money from the pulpit, and the Ladies’ Sunday School class has told us to ask you to stop.”
Mark’s Gospel keeps hammering home that servanthood is what makes us great. How does that apply to our money? Well, money itself has no intrinsic value. It’s only as good as that for which it can be exchanged. What if we thought about money (and time and talent) as “stored servanthood?” What if we looked at our checkbook registers and credit card statements and online banking and asked, “How am I releasing what is entrusted to me as a follower and servant of Christ?” Or not, as the case may be.
Your congregation, the NC Synod, the ELCA, the three expressions of this church, all need money to operate so that they can release what you entrust to them in our common missional service. Even the utility bills, the salaries, the lawn service, and the property insurance serve that end. Just a few more thoughts to ponder:
1. Of all the sayings of Jesus, the top subject is “the kingdom of God,” but clearly in second place is money. Jesus thought how we use it is an important gauge of our spiritual health. When people complain that I’m talking about money, I tell them to take it up with Jesus.
2. Whereas many charities—universities, worthy medical research, and helping organizations, etc.—have an international donor base of hundreds of thousands if not millions of people, only congregational members contribute to their congregation, and only congregations support the synod, and only synods support the ELCA. That is to say, if we don’t make it happen, it isn’t going to happen.
3. Money is neither good nor evil. It’s all about what we do (or don’t do) with it. Money isn’t the root of all evil, but the love of money is. Stuff. The more we get, the more we want.
If you find the Church asking you to share your money offensive, consider this: Almost anywhere you go in this culture, some sort of financial transaction is simply assumed and accepted. Your doctor or your lawyer, your children’s teachers (private schools, or through taxes) require money for their noble services. If you don’t pay, you can expect a threatening call from a collection agency. Though the church is not a “billing” organization, we get thrown under the bus when we ask. Have you complained to anyone lately that you went to the grocery store and loaded your cart, and the clerk had the nerve, focused as she is on the almighty dollar, to ask you for money?
Your government (“Caesar”), your hairdresser, your financial adviser, your favorite restaurant, the department store, the airlines and the gas stations ALL will come after you, “guns blazing,” if you avail yourselves of their services and don’t pay.
Your utility companies will all send you a bill each month. The church won’t. You can make an appointment for counseling and pastoral conversation, you can show up at worship each week, you can participate in numerous educational and artistic programs, and you won’t get a bill.
Your pastor and lay ministers will come see you in the hospital, but you won’t get a bill in the mail or online from them. We will baptize your babies, bury your parents, and go to great lengths to make your place of worship beautiful and comfortable. We’ll also feed the hungry, uplift and shelter the elderly, respond to disasters, and support the ministries of the larger Church. The synod will handle your call process even if you’ve sent nothing our way in years! No bill for any of it! We just say, “We need you. Will you help?’
Sure, the church has bills to pay, like anyone else. With too little money, our mission and service is diminished. But we won’t demand a ticket price to the sanctuary or to the altar. We just ask that you be true to your need to give and support the work of God through the Church in the world.
It’s your responsibility, ultimately, what you give or not. It’s our responsibility to ask you and to lift up the opportunity to share. I’m asking you to share with your congregation and your congregation a call to support financially the ministries for which we are stronger together than we are apart; namely, the synod and the ELCA. We’ll be better off on every level when we share!
Bishop Tim Smith
North Carolina Synod