Stewardship in a Liminal Time

Recently I have heard the word “liminal” used many times to describe this season we are experiencing in the life of our churches. The word liminal comes from the Latin word limens, which means “limit or threshold.” Author and theologian Richard Rohr defines liminal time in this way:

“It is when you have left, or are about to leave, the tried and true, but have not yet been able to replace it with anything else.It is when you are between your old comfort zone and any possible new answer. If you are not trained in how to hold anxiety, how to live with ambiguity, how to entrust and wait, you will run…anything to flee this terrible cloud of unknowing.”

Rohr goes on to say that ancient cultures referred to liminal space as “crazy time,” because it is like nothing we have ever experienced before. Think of it as that space, that time, when a flying acrobat has let go of one swinging trapeze and is in mid-air, anxiously seeking the grasp of another who is swinging their way.

Liminal times can come into our lives as planned or unplanned. These are times when life is forever different – when life is divided between before and after the event. They include, but are certainly not limited to, the following: the loss of a loved one, the birth of a child, the loss of a job, retirement, moving, a health diagnosis/crisis, the beginning or end of a significant relationship, graduations, and military service.

Lee Ann Pomrenke, an ELCA pastor in St. Paul, Minnesota, has described this period of time as much like the season that congregations experience in those times when a pastor leaves and a new pastor has not yet been called. The marks of being in a liminal (literally: “on the boundary between”) period are unsettling for a congregation but also potentially freeing.

During this season we know we will emerge changed from how we entered this era, but we cannot see what that will look like yet. Pomrenke encourages us to trust those who have led through interim periods that while it is stressful, there are also blessings.

Begin by asking these questions:

  1. Why has the congregation done it that way before? Is this working for people? What might work better?
  2. What new ministries have developed recently that meet the needs of our people? Which ones will we continue? How can we provide the resources to make that happen?

Pomrenke suggests there are three important values we should embrace during our liminal time, and I added some thoughts about how you might use this liminal season to expand and modify the Stewardship ministry of your congregation.

Honesty

We are all unsettled, disoriented, and fearful of the unknown right now. Naming this honestly builds trust in our leadership, in our relationships. This is also an unprecedented time to be honest that change is coming. Consider the following:

  1. Be transparent and share how the church is maintaining its ministry.
  2. Be aware of people’s shifting values on how to spend time and money.
  3. Give the session and other congregational leaders plenty of space and permission to lead.
  4. Listen to the fears and concerns of the congregation and acknowledge them.
  5. Learn how to support one another in new and different ways.

Shared Creativity

A break in the flow of activities is ideal for trying new things, old things with a twist, adding, or subtracting from our regular patterns to see what really matters. Sometimes that means letting go of some things to make space for something new. Consider this:

  1. Revisit and modify the budget you approved for this year.
  2. If your congregation has been affected by unemployment and reduced finances during this season, recalculate the potential giving.
  3. If priorities for ministries have changed, revise the line items for ministry resources. This does not mean you are “cutting” the budget. It is a refocus.
  4. Think of new ways to lead your fall Stewardship program that builds on the energy and creativity you have seen during this liminal time.
  5. Create ways for your congregation to envision the future of the church by establishing or promoting a legacy fund.

Flexibility

Obviously, we have “never done things this way before,” but now we are extraordinarily free to experiment and pivot when something does not work.

  1. Find new ways to receive and celebrate gifts during worship.
  2. Implement online giving if you have not already done so.
  3. Be open to short-term planning to try something new.
  4. Evaluate plans for designated resources to free up those resources for something new.
  5. Learn how to “let go” of ministries to enable new ministries to flourish.

Now is a wonderful time for us to envision the future of our church and our congregations. We need to embrace the abundance we have been given and learn how to use that for renewed ministry. Life is different and that’s okay! God is at work in us helping us to see beyond this liminal season.

Deborah Rexrode, PhD
POJ Associate for Stewardship

Stewarding Congregational Wellness

Some stewardship committees focus most of their attention on the fall Stewardship emphasis. Frankly, that’s plenty of work. But our calling as stewardship leaders is not just to the fall “ask.” We are also called to help shape the identity of stewards among our peers and as a community. We are entrusted with many assets, some of which are physical (like buildings and money) and some of which are relational (like our congregational community or our congregational mission). All of these are inflection points where we can invite others to think and act like stewards.

Giving to God

Stewardship is not just a way of life; it is a good way of life. In fact, for many, it is a way to a better life. Stewardship means belonging to God. It means allowing God to rule our lives, putting God in charge of everything, including our time and our money. Surrendering control does not come easily to any of us. But God is good at ruling people’s lives. If we really do belong to God and if we really do put God in charge of everything, we will not be the worse for it.

A Season of Numbers

Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect.
Romans 12:2

September is only a couple of days away and signals many things…vacation is over, children return to school, fall church programming kicks off, and congregations hear about Stewardship (hopefully not for the first time of the year). It’s a season of numbers! Sessions, Finance Committees, Stewardship and Generosity Teams, Pastors and members of the congregations look at all kinds of statistics: 

Is the Church a Business

Recently Minner Serovy, one of the Ministry Relations Officers for the Presbyterian Foundation, shared an interesting experience she encountered while participating in a panel for an adult education class. The opening question was, “Is the church a business?” All the other panelists were members of the church where the panel was taking place, and all were businesspeople. They explained their reasons for thinking of the church as business. With some discomfort, Minner said, “I could not find my way to agreement.” 

Telling Our Story

What is the importance of telling our congregation’s story? First, and foremost, we tell our story so that others can hear the message of God’s love. We are called to “Go, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.” This is the mission God calls us to in our congregations.

Ask, Thank, Tell

December is just around the corner. From a stewardship perspective, December is typically the biggest giving month of the year in churches and also for many non-profits. So, what can we do as church leaders to provide an opportunity for our members to give to the ministries of our churches as part of their end-of-the-year giving?

Charles Lane, in his book, “Ask, Thank, Tell: Improving Stewardship Ministry in Your Congregation” reminds us that the focus of biblical stewardship is on the fact that generous giving is one of the basic acts of discipleship. Charles suggests that there are three foundational verbs that help us to focus on this aspect of stewardship:

  1. Ask. If you want people to give more as year-end approaches, you need to ask them. You can communicate this message in whatever way works for your people: letter, from the pulpit, video, whatever social media platform works for you. We are often far too hesitant to ask people to give. The message can, and should, come from the pastor as well as from leaders of the congregation.
  2. Thank. As you ask, be sure you clearly thank people for their giving so far this year and for their commitments to give next year. If you didn’t send out thank you letters or notes for pledges, do it now. You can’t thank people too much. Most churches do it far too little.
  3. Tell. There are two ways you called to tell the story.

Tell the story of your ministry this year and your vision for the next year. Hopefully you already did this as part of your fall stewardship emphasis. Don’t worry about repeating it. And if you didn’t, do it now! Share with people the difference their giving has made. Whether or not they make an additional gift, it further reinforces their commitment to give to your ministry in 2019.

Tell the truth about your financial situation. If you are facing a real shortfall, be honest about it. Do it clearly and calmly, without a “sky is falling” panicky message. It’s not helpful for leaders to protect the congregation from financial challenges. They can’t step up to help if they don’t know about it.

If you have an abundance of resources, be honest about that. Some leaders think, “We don’t want to let people know because then they will stop giving.” People will keep giving if you give them a reason to give. Make your Christmas offering something significant that will benefit the wider community, and invite people to give generously.

Charles concludes his book with this wonderful vision of Stewardship ministry:

“One of my favorite novels is A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. Each year at Christmas I try to see either a play or movie version of A Christmas Carol, or to read the original. A big part of the appeal of the story is the incredible contrast between Ebenezer Scrooge at the beginning of the story and Ebenezer Scrooge at the end of the story.

Notice Dickens’ description of Scrooge from the first pages of his novel, ‘Oh! But he was a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone, Scrooge! A squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner! He was hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire.’ Many, many pages and three Christmas ghosts later, Scrooge wakes up on Christmas morning. To say the least, he is a changed man. He sends a Christmas turkey to the Cratchit’s that is twice the size of Tiny Tim.

And then Dickens writes, “The chuckle with which he said this, and the chuckle with which he paid the cab, and the chuckle with which he recompensed the boy, were only to be exceeded by the chuckle with which he sat down breathless in his chair again, and chuckled till he cried.”

I don’t wish for any of God’s children to be scared to their senses by night visits from past, present, or future ghosts. However,

  • I do have a vision of people in your congregation so enjoying their generous giving that they chuckle until they cry.
  • I do have a vision of people in your congregation who discover the radical truth of Jesus’ words, ‘Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.’
  • I do have a vision of people in your congregation whose generosity grows by leaps and bounds, and who discover that this generosity has indeed led their heart to Jesus.
  • I do have a vision of people chuckling, or at least smiling as they drop their offering into the plate on Sunday morning.”

If you have a special story to share about your fall Stewardship program, I would love to hear it! What’s been special about your celebration of stewardship this year? You can contact me at deborah@presbyteryofthejames.org or 434-996-6032.

Deborah Rexrode
Associate for Stewardship for the Presbytery of the James

The Currency of Money

“I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength. (Philippians 4:12-13)

The Rev. Lisa Cressman, an Episcopal priest and the Founding Steward of Backstory Preaching, recently wrote an article for the Center for Stewardship Leaders at Luther Seminary titled, “How Our Failure to Address the “M” Word Damages More Than Budgets.”

With stewardship season fast approaching and knowing many preachers feel uncomfortable talking about money, Lisa wanted to know why. Why does preaching about money — or talking about money in just about any context — make us squirm with awkwardness? Here’s what she concluded:

When did talking about money become taboo?

Interestingly, while talking about money may be taboo for you and me, it isn’t off limits for everyone everywhere, because talking about money—or avoiding it—is culturally specific.

For example, in some cultures talking about money is seen as genuinely helpful, and not discussing it is rude. If I’m paying a higher price for rent than you are, or I paid less than you did for a car, it’s polite to talk about it so we can both pay what’s fair. In the United States, especially among the middle class, it seems we inherited the taboo of talking about money from early American colonizers from England.

In England, the wealth of others was easily estimated based on the amount of land one owned and all it required to build up and maintain it. A person’s wealth, and the status, power, and prestige it implied, was self-evident. People who had money didn’t need to talk about it. Therefore, those who talked about money were the ones who didn’t have it.

And thus, the discussion of money was associated with those in a “lower class.”

To oversimplify hundreds of years of social development, to be “classy” (meaning to be polite, genteel, respectable) meant not talking about money—and so our social norm was established.

What is the cost of avoiding the “M” word?

Think about how much time, emotional energy, and relational labor is spent worrying about money in the life of your average congregation member. Practically speaking, this taboo around money talk traps people in ignorance, stress, and scarcity:

  • financial illiteracy leads to uninformed consent when we sign on the dotted line, leading to unwelcome surprises when the bills come due
  • as a country, we continue to amass the greatest amountof personal debt in the history of the world
  • financial distress is a factor correlated with domestic violence
  • immense unnecessary stress occurs when the spouse who managed the finances dies without leaving a trail of bread crumbs to the family’s bank (or the computer passwords to the online accounts)
  • college grads amass student loan debtwithout calculating whether a chosen profession provides an adequate salary to pay it off
  • women and minorities continue to experience injustice in pay equity because ignorance of what others are paid makes it impossible to know if they’re paid the same

What we gain by breaking the silence? 

Money itself is amoral—neither evil nor good. But our perspective toward it can make it decidedly corrupt or benevolent. As Stewardship leaders, we have a responsibility to disrupt the “don’t ask, don’t tell” culture of silence around money to cast a sacred vision for money.

When we avoid discussions of money, we forfeit an opportunity to free people from the anxiety or shame of financial distress. Here are some of the ways we might do that:

  • promote justice for our lesser-paid colleagues by advocating they receive the same pay we earn for the same work
  • teach financial literacy—beginning with our kids so they learn sound financial decision-making skills
  • focus on the joy of living well within one’s means with enough left over to give to those in need
  • learn the virtue of patience, which is so often missed with every purchase we pay interest on
  • provide dignity and respect to our loved ones after we die by sharing with them the amounts and locations of our assets and debts
  • experience joyful financial giving because we no longer care whether we are “keeping up with the Joneses.”

During this season of Stewardship, find ways to truly talk about money, not in terms of scarcity, but in terms of abundance. What does your budget say about your mission and ministry? How can you free your congregation to share their own financial stories and how it impacts their ability to freely give?

Deborah Rexrode
Associate for Stewardship for the Presbytery of the James

The Currency of Relationship

Last month, I introduced you to a book by the Rev. Dr. Eric Law entitled, “Holy Currencies.” Eric’s focus is on the “currencies” that flow through ministry that make our ministries sustainable and missional. One of these currencies is the currency of relationship.

We are all aware that social networks have value precisely because they help us to achieve what we could not achieve on our own. It is through our networks that we find partners, friends, healthy relationships. We have a choice in choosing who is in our network or which network we are a part of. We also have a choice to decide what to spread through our network. Do we use it to spread lies or tell truth, instill fear or foster trust, propagate hate or share love, break down or build sustainable communities?

You’ve probably heard of “six degrees of separation” which refers to the idea that on average we are only six relationships away from any other person on earth. There is also a theory known as “three degrees of influence” which says that everything we do or say tends to ripple through our network, having an impact on our friends, their friends, and their friends’ friends. Our influence gradually dissipates and ceases to have noticeable effect on people beyond these three degrees of influence.

Consider this…an inspiring worship at a church that moves 100 people to do good in the community can have the potential of influencing 500 people in the first degree, 2,500 people in the second degree and 12,500 people in the third degree to also do good. In a small town of under 10,000 people, this means what happens in worship for a small church can have the potential to influence almost everybody in the community. We have a great responsibility for the networks of which we are a part.

Jesus said, “I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you.” (selected verses from John 15).

Even though Jesus’ initial network was composed mostly of Jews, he also commanded his friends to be his witnesses to the ends of the earth. Building and strengthening the internal network is an essential first step for every church. However, if we are to fulfill Jesus’ command to love our neighbors as ourselves and to spread this love to the ends of the earth, we must learn to develop relationships outside our community of faith, connecting with people in our neighborhood, our city or town, our nation, and across the earth.

Remember the story of Mary and Martha. Martha welcomed Jesus into her home, but she was distracted by her many tasks while Mary came and sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. Many in our churches are like Martha. We are so used to “doing” church that we might neglect to be more like Mary: to be, to listen, and to relate.

Today, one of the determining factors for whether one goes to church is relationship. People go to church because they have relationships with people there, and these relationships are also exchanged for other currencies such as truth, wellness, and leadership. We need to refocus our church’s ministries on being relational. What would our programs be like if we were focusing on building relationships as well as getting the job done?

Having strong relationships among members of the church is essential for a sustainable ministry. Church members will gladly offer their volunteer hours for ministries when they have strong ties to the church community. Through a strong internal network in our congregations, raising leaders is accomplished usually by friends inviting another friend into some leadership role. Members can offer their gifts and skills for ministry, not only as individuals but also working together in teams, because of the relationships that are already developed.

In addition to building relationships among members of our congregations, we need to maximize our relationships with other congregations in our community. Having working relationships with other churches will enable churches to pool their resources of time and place, money, and gracious leadership to create and sustain ministries that can be done together while respecting the unique ministries of the separate communities. Churches in the same area can also enable each other to see the bigger picture of the needs and concerns of the larger community and find resources to support ministry projects they can do together.

The key purpose to developing relationships is to create wellness within the church community – spiritual, social, and sometimes financial wellness. How much time does your congregation spend building relationships? Is there time during and after worship for relationship-building? What portion of your budget includes relationship-building ministries?

 

Deborah Rexrode
Associate for Stewardship for the Presbytery of the James

 

(Taken from “Holy Currencies: 6 Blessings for Sustainable Missional Ministries”
by Eric H. F. Law.)