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

Christmas Gift Giving

People born between 1977 and 1985 are often referred to as millennials. However, nine years is hardly enough to qualify as a separate generation and so many who are born in that timeframe feel as though they don’t quite belong. They have one foot in Generation X and one in Generation Y. They are the bridge between an analog childhood and a digital adulthood, and we often remind them of that.

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.

Tithed and Tired v. Storied and Inspired

Many congregations’ websites describe the practice of tithing on their giving pages, almost as placeholder text. Sometimes it’s simple and direct:

“The biblical model for giving is to tithe, allocating 10% of one’s income
to the church, so that should be your goal.”

Other descriptions are more subtle:

 “We appreciate your support for this church, where our mission to share Christ’s light with the world includes the practice of directing 10% of church gifts to support global charities.”

Thereby implying, we tithe as a church so you should, too!

As congregational leaders of Stewardship, we are aware that many in our congregations give closer to 1% than 10%, so giving invitations might not mention percentages at all. But avoiding the conversation entirely may abandon an important opportunity to nurture disciples in the joy of giving. Whether it’s welcoming a handful of crumpled dollar bills from a single parent, or a retiree’s hefty Qualified Charitable Distribution, we must provide a way for everyone to grow in their generosity and giving.

There are serious limitations if we structure our Stewardship message around the supposed “Biblical Standard” of tithing. Let’s rethink how we invite people to give, inspiring their giving rather than obliging it.

Tithing 

The data indicates that, on average, U.S. individuals give around 2-3% of their after-tax income to charities (including churches). So while there may be some tithers in your congregation, average church-goers will give away 2-3% of their income and probably not to your congregation alone. Given this reality, if our Stewardship pitch focuses on the tithe which may be as much as four times what someone is currently giving, there is a good chance our Stewardship goal is probably not going to make its mark.

A fair reading of scripture does not reinforce any goal or requirement that Christians today should give 10% of their income to their local congregation. If tithing became a key concern of Jesus, he would probably mention it. Instead, while Jesus talks about money all the time, he is nearly always addressing people’s relationship with money, and the injustice associated with the distribution of money. In imagining the Christian life, Paul embraced generosity, cheerful giving, and caring for those in need. But there is never any sense of a 10% catchall expectation in the Gospels, epistles, or elsewhere in the New Testament.

The Old Testament includes several passages that note the practice of giving 10% to the Temple. This money went to support the Levitical priests, temple upkeep, sacrifices, and charity. Deuteronomy 14:22-29 suggests tithing also led to huge parties with good food, strong drink, and great rejoicing.

Stories

So, if we don’t use tithing as a rhetorical device to compel giving, what should we do? This path is where we should lean on invitation rather than the obligation. And for Christians, invitation is a key ingredient of discipleship.

As Henri Nouwen famously observes,

“Fundraising is proclaiming what we believe in such a way that we offer
other people an opportunity to participate with us in our vision and mission.”

Stewardship ministry then becomes a way to proclaim what we believe.

One of the best ways to make this proclamation is to tell stories; stories of our ministry, stories of lives changed, stories of the Spirit working through the gifts we give to God in the offering.

  • Tell the story of Dave whose life was changed by volunteering at your food shelf.
  • Tell the story of Nikkeya who led confirmation classes and is now going to seminary.
  • Tell the story of Haden who discovered God on a mission trip.
  • Tell the story of Edna who was touched when the pastor visited her last week.

We are made of and moved by story. Stewardship, at its best, invites people to join in the story of God’s work in your midst — an invitation that can truly inspire generosity.

 

Deborah Rexrode
POJ Associate for Stewardship

 

*Adapted from a recent blog by Adam Copeland, Assistant Professor of leadership and Director of the Center for Stewardship Leaders.

 

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

Stewarding the Church

“Like good stewards of the manifold grace of God, serve one another with whatever gift each of you has received.” (I Peter 4: 10)

We spend a lot of time during the fall Stewardship programs of our church helping our congregations understand what Stewardship is and what God is calling them to do as good stewards of all that God has given to them. We challenge them to consider their response to God for all that they have and all that they are. We plan programs to inspire and encourage them in their personal journey of faith and specifically in their giving.

As pastors and leaders in the congregations where we serve, I think we too are called to be good stewards of the resources we have been given, to serve our congregations with whatever gift each of us has received. We have been given both a responsibility and an opportunity to steward the congregations in our care. How is God calling us, as leaders, to be good stewards of the church? What are some of the gifts we have received?

We are stewards of God’s Word.  In First Corinthians 4, Paul describes the ministry of the apostles in this way, “We are servants of Christ and stewards of God’s mysteries.” That message is just as important to us today. In all that we do, we are servants of Christ and stewards of God’s mysteries. God has entrusted us with something precious to submit our lives to Christ and to proclaim the Word of God. Every leadership decision or action we take is first and foremost spiritual in nature and should focus on connecting persons to God.

You and I have been called to steward the amazing mysteries of God revealed to us in Scripture. That’s part of our stewarding of the church, being good stewards of the gospel so that it is God for whom we bring glory.

We are stewards of God’s vision. We are called to listen deeply to the heart-songs of God’s people and articulate the vision God is imparting to them. The vision for a church answers the question, “What does God want us to do?” We are called to help our congregations embrace a clear vision of God’s call. Every congregation is unique, and every congregation has its own unique vision for what God is calling them to do and be.

We are stewards of trust. We are called to develop and nurture authentic relationships that cultivate trust. As stewards of trust, we serve one another in an open transparent way. We keep the lines of communication open, avoid judgement, become vulnerable, offer and receive forgiveness, and model Christ’s love and sense of welcome to all.

We are stewards of administration. This involves coming alongside our congregations to help them fulfill their vision and mission. The most essential ingredient in this area of stewardship is identifying and equipping new leaders. Most of the issues that plague churches – giving, attendance, evangelism, leadership, and mission – are minimized when church leaders focus on equipping the saints. The process of equipping and empowering people is what helps someone move from simply believing in Christ to being a true disciple. When people are growing spiritually, they will give, attend, tell others, volunteer, and serve.

Finally we are stewards of financial resources. At the core of being financial stewardship leaders is creating a culture of extravagant generosity. Generosity is a spiritual attribute that extends beyond merely the use of money. There are people who are generous with their time, with their teaching, with their love. Generosity is something people acquire in the actual practice of giving.

In Second Corinthians, we read, “But just as you excel in everything – in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in complete earnestness and in your love for us – see that you also excel in this grace of giving.” Churches that practice extravagant generosity don’t talk in general terms about stewardship. They speak confidently and faithfully about money, giving, generosity, and the difference giving makes for the purposes of Christ and in the life of the giver. They emphasize the Christian’s need to give more than the church’s need for money.

Churches that cultivate giving speak of joy, devotion, honoring God, and the steady growth of spirit that leads to greater generosity. Stewardship efforts deepen prayer life, build community, unite people with purpose, and clarify mission. People feel strengthened and grateful to serve God through giving.

As you make your way through this particular season of Stewardship, consider how well you as leaders are stewarding your churches and your congregations. Be faithful stewards of the mysteries of God, preaching and teaching and leading your congregations to become faithful disciples who know what it means to be stewards of all that God has entrusted into their care.

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