With some wonderful and exciting exceptions, the Lutheran church, in all its multiple denominations and forms, is a bit of a sinking ship when it comes to finances. The parishioners at cathedral-style urban churches watch their buildings get older and crumble. As their neighborhoods and ministry styles change, the flow of offerings can’t always keep up. The urban and suburban neighborhood churches are hurting too. Once they had two fulltime pastors and a robust roster of staff; now two pastors has become one, and church staff often work a small fraction of the week. Offerings still come in when folks are around, but when sports, vacations, long hours of work, and old age keep folks from church, the plate looks leaner.
Of course, the rural churches have their own stories to tell. Often, their entire communities have emptied out, along with the funds needed to keep the doors open. Most rural churches seek out first-call pastors, those lower on the pay scale. Hands and love keep the church going when the money doesn’t stretch as far.
With this reality in many congregations, all the other, non-congregational outfits are hurting as well. Synods, national church bodies, para-church organizations and general missions are all looking, hoping, and praying for more money to materialize. But what is a church to do when finances are already so tight? And how does one loosen up the flow without offending those sitting in the pew?
The current trend in church stewardship practices is to have a wide-ranging “this is not about money” conversation. Instead of about money, this conversation is about what one likes about church and faith in general. At multiple pastoral and synodical gatherings, we are encouraged to think abundantly, look on the bright side, and to wonder about and discover the call to live fully the life God seeks to give us. There are also longstanding practices of letters sent home, phone calls encouraging attendance at a celebration meal, and, at the center of it all, the mighty commitment card on which you estimate how much you think you’ll be giving to church this year. All of this is dressed up as a gift to you, the gracious and benevolent donor, though the heart of it all is the need for money.
In my experiences with rural churches over the last six years, I have seen something very different. Instead of the fanfare of something that “isn’t really about money,” I’ve seen a difficult conversation unfold in multiple congregations. In each instance, the gist of it is that the council president, or another leader of the congregation, stands up and says, “We need to talk about money.”
There is usually no personal sharing of experiences, at least not from the one up front; there is usually no party, meal, or celebration. In our parish, it most often has been one farmer standing in front of a room full of other farmers and families and saying, “See, this is how it is: we need more money. If you want the church to keep going, we’ve all got to give more and keep pitching in together.” Sometimes there is a bit more conversation, sometimes a letter too, but the idea remains the same: there is a problem folks, and we’ve got to fix it. God gave us those fields out there and the weather to grow our crops; we need to be doing his work too.
Whatever form our stewardship takes, the broader issue we must confront is how we think about stewardship in general. In addition to talking about money, we might also need to have an honest conversation about the nature of sin, greed, and ourselves.
Let’s be honest about stewardship. We assume that everything we have—money, possessions, etc.—is ours to hoard and ours to make decisions about. And so our stewardship, how we use what we have, becomes an outgrowth of our sinfulness. We want to hang on to our goods. When we don’t truly know and trust in God’s forgiveness, when we aren’t hearing this word of forgiveness preached to us, then we’ve got to cling to something else instead, so why not grab on to a large house, a new car, or a flush bank account. If you haven’t got God’s word holding you afloat, you better grab the nicest thing you can find because this world can be a rough place.
We need to be telling the truth about greed and our own behavior. Jesus often did his best truth telling in parables and actions. In Luke 20 (and the matching texts in Matthew 21 and Mark 12), Jesus tells the Parable of the Wicked Tenants as he is teaching in the temple. His audience then is a mixture of disciples, average folks in the temple, and the chief priests, scribes, and elders who have taken notice of his presence and are now gathered as well.
“A man planted a vineyard, and leased it to tenants, and went to another country for a long time. When the season came, he sent a slave to the tenants in order that they might give him his share of the produce of the vineyard; but the tenants beat him and sent him away empty-handed. Next he sent another slave; that one also they beat and insulted and sent away empty-handed. And he sent still a third; this one also they wounded and threw out. Then the owner of the vineyard said, ‘What shall I do? I will send my beloved son; perhaps they will respect him.’ But when the tenants saw him, they discussed it among themselves and said, ‘This is the heir; let us kill him so that the inheritance may be ours.’ So they threw him out of the vineyard and killed him. What then will the owner of the vineyard do to them? He will come and destroy those tenants and give the vineyard to others.” When they heard this, they said, “Heaven forbid!” But he looked at them and said, “What then does this text mean: ‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone’?” (Luke 20:9–17)
Included in this bit of scripture is some important truth telling that lends itself to thinking about stewardship. The tenants have everything given to them. The owner, God himself, plants a vineyard, sets the whole thing up, readies it to prosper and thrive, and then he hands it over to tenants, the temporary occupiers. They have to care for the land, but they also get to enjoy it. The owner returns for his share, but the tenants have become greedy and assumed ownership over that which is not truly theirs. They have claimed the vineyard as their own, are unwilling to give back or share, and beat up and kill the messengers in the process.
God has given us so much that is good and wonderful: his creation to consume and enjoy, intellect and resources from which we can explore the world and create, and the many items we call daily bread like food, clothing, home, family, money, etc. But for most of us, our gut reaction is not a desire to turn it all back over to God, but a desire to claim it as our own: ours to make decisions about, ours to hoard, ours to use however we deem fit. And we’re just as quick to close our ears to the messengers who come pointing back to God.
For all of our greed, true generosity will rear its head when and where we least expect it. At my instillation some years ago, we designated the offering to go to a ministry run by our synod that distributes grants to first-call pastors, paid directly to their student loans. As is much talked about these days, seminary graduates are coming out of school with more and more debt (another difficult conversation we are afraid to have), and many serve in rural congregations in which only the most basic of payment guidelines are met.
My husband and I had both benefited from such grants; so had many of our fellow pastors. It seemed only natural to take this opportunity to give toward this fund at my instillation. During announcements, I shared a few words about this ministry, how it always needs more funds, how it supports the spread of God’s word through preaching, and how these congregations themselves end up benefiting from it.
One of my husband’s parishioners, a rather gruff and rustic older man, a manual-labor kind of guy, was apparently inspired by this ministry and promptly wrote a good-sized check to the fund. The offering was sent to the synod, which sent back a thank-you note, an information slip for tax purposes, and some further information about the purpose of this special fund.
The gruff and rustic giver decided to keep giving more and more, each time receiving in return the token thank you, tax slip, and information pamphlet. Meanwhile, back at the synod, concern grew. Why was this man giving so frequently to this ministry? Was there something wrong with him? Did he think he was being billed and he had to send in more checks? His generosity alarmed the synod-office staff to the point that the treasurer called my husband, the giver’s pastor, just to check things out.
No, there was no problem, this man just saw a need and was enjoying giving. This man loved his own church, appreciated the sermons he was hearing, and upon realizing that a fund like this was actually supporting the ministry he received, he decided to give and keep giving. This man is rough around the edges; when we invited him to join us for Thanksgiving Dinner one year, he arrived with a loaded gun in his jacket pocket, because “you never know when you might need it.” He’s got no time for fluff, no interest in commitment cards and sitting around talking about what he loves in the world. But he’s acutely aware of his own sins, of which he’s got plenty, and even more aware of God’s grace. He’s not afraid to give back to God what was God’s all along.
In the more recent conversations and trends around stewardship, we have tended to spend so much time praising ourselves and our own work in the world. We are losing sight of the vineyard owner and of our own greed in trying to run the place how we wish. We’re losing sight of the truth of our hoarding, the truth of God’s greatness and his offensively shocking generosity, and are instead hiding in our few acts of public service as an attempt to justify our private feelings of self-reliance and self-sustenance.
In our churches, we need to have some honest conversations about money; what it takes to run a church and to spread God’s word in the various ways we seek to. We need to talk honestly about the responsibilities of Christians to step forward and make that happen by opening their wallets and their whole lives for God to use.
We also need to have some honest conversations about ourselves; that what we enjoy in this world was never ours to start with, but rather comes as a gift from God. Our churches are dwindling, and even more importantly, God’s word is not being spread with the urgency it deserves, because we aren’t having an honest conversation about to whom the vineyard really belongs.
Katie Koch is pastor of United and Our Savior’s Lutheran Churches in rural northwestern Minnesota.