The Episcopal Diocese   
of Western Massachusetts

21st Century Congregations -- 
February 2016 
The Rev. Canon Pamela Mott
Thinking about Stewardship: Part 2
One of the best things about working at "37" (Diocesan House) is that I get to work with fabulous people who prompt me to think about and learn new things. I am always so appreciative of Steve Abdow and Rich Simpson's words in 21st Century congregations and they always make me think. I loved Steve's column last month last months' column and wanted to take the opportunity to continue the Stewardship conversation through some other doorways. So, some loosely connected thoughts about the "S" word!
Mixed messages
The average American adult is exposed to an average of 590 ads a day. Some estimate it is as high as 1500. I have collected ads over the years:
"The best things in life are basic."   (Basic cigarettes)
"Come around to real value." (Old Gold cigarettes)
"The good life at a great price. Guaranteed."   (once a tag line from Sears)
What are the best things in life? What is real value? What is the good life?
An advertisement for an entertainment group pictures a dummy with earphones on and says: "When you've got them by the ears, their hearts and minds will follow."
The language of the spirit has been co-opted. We are promised security when we accumulate, and security when we save instead of spend. Hard to have it both ways! We are offered a third alternative: see your money as a gift from God and use it for the life and health of the world. This is a different message we get from the world. We talk about "making a living". Consider what life you are making; what has you by the ears? What is of real value? Pondering those questions prayerfully is part of the stewardship question.
Reframing the questions
A long time ago, I was struggling with forgiving someone. "He does not deserve my forgiveness!" I said to my spiritual director. I was justifiable angry and hurt and the one who had hurt me showed no signs of remorse. My spiritual director, a very wise man, said to me: "It is not whether or not he deserves your forgiveness, it is whether you want to be a forgiving person." I did think of myself as a forgiving person, yet, did not want to forgive...hmmm... I have often used this reframing around stewardship and generosity. At first, in my adult life, I gave $5 and called it a day. But then I became involved in a church that talked about tithing. I had a lot of questions: 10% of what? My gross income? My net income? What about other giving - my seminary, the Christian Children's Fund, the (then) Presiding Bishop's Fund for World Relief? And I realized that the question wasn't figuring to the penny what 10% was, it was "Am I a generous person?" Or "Do I strive to be a generous person?" Different question. We are invited to be generous people in response to God's generosity in creation and in our lives.
Playing the Scales
I played the piano for about 20 years. About a third of my practice time was spent doing scales and other exercises. The scales helped my fingers become accustomed to the keyboard, and helped me become more dexterous. These were to form the foundation of knowledge and action that would enable me to play more advanced pieces. When we worship, we are not only placing ourselves before God, we are "practicing" a whole life of faith - we are practicing holding one another in prayer, listening for God's word in scripture, sharing bread with one another, greeting one another with peace. When we place our offering in the plate, we are practicing generosity in our lives - practicing putting God at the center of everything - our relationships, our way in the world, our work...and, yes...even our money. Our financial pledge is part of our spiritual practice.
My way or the highway
Let me use the last sentence from the last section again: our financial pledge is part of our spiritual practice. It is not the means by which we control our church communities - either by giving a lot so that I can get my way and wield influence, or by withholding a pledge until I get my way. Your gift is a gift for the life of your church community, your presence is for the life of your community, your service and presence in worship is for the life of the community, and all for the glory of God. Oh, and when you offer of your worship, your service, your presence, your financial gift with a glad and generous heart, you give God the opportunity to heal and transform you, and you can begin to see ways to be part of community rather than finding ways to control it, or limit it only to your vision of how things ought to be. You begin to have hands that have been clenched tight pried open to receive and to offer.
YOU are the church; you are somebody!
A long time ago, I had the sad duty of "secularizing" a church. A church is set aside for sacred purposes when it is consecrated and so, when a church is no longer going to be used as a "set aside" place, we have a very brief service of Secularization. When there are a number of people gathered, I ask for any memories. At this particular service, there were about 60 people...many spoke of their memories, and most indicated that they had not set foot in the church for years and years. One such person said tearfully: "Someone should have saved this church!" He did not realize that he was the "somebody". If we want to have our places of worship, we are the ones who are invited to care for these spaces. Not "someone else." Sometimes it is time to wonder anew how God is calling us to use our beautiful and much loved space and sometimes it is time to let them go. The thoughtful, prayerful decisions around our buildings, your thoughtful prayerful presence in conversation and community is the best way to preserve what is good and holy AND to let go of things that are no longer of life. But, you are the "somebody" and you are invited to be that "somebody" as an ongoing part of community.
An ATM in the narthex?! Pay Pal in the collection plate?!
Finally (at least for this essay), I have come to understand that young people do not carry cash. Of course, as I push the middle of "middle age" - young people means people under 40. Let me say that again: many young people do not carry cash. My 34 year old family members do not carry cash, nor do they have checking accounts. Think about what this means in terms of how they give (not just how much they give)! A 30's visitor in my church was embarrassed when the plate came around because she wanted to give but didn't have any way to do so. We are cutting off two things if we do not rethink and reframe this moment in our liturgy. We are cutting off the opportunity of young people to "practice" their faith in the form of generosity, and we are cutting off the giving to our churches by the very segment of the population we all hope will be part of our churches! I always used to put my check in an envelope and put it in the plate but, because I am often in church without my wallet, since I don't carry one on Sunday morning, I kept forgetting the envelope on my kitchen counter. I had to let go of the action I had been taught as a young child, and find another way to give. Now it is deducted from my checking account automatically, and it is the first "check" I record each month, as a symbol of that "first gift". What new ways do we need to explore so that we can encourage the practice of our faith in this movement of commitment and generosity?
Stewardship is not just how much we pledge. It is about the care of our lives, and the lives of God's world. It is my hope that these words somehow added to the conversation that my colleague Steve began last week and that, as we deepen and continue this conversation we will find new avenues to respond to the gifts God has given us.