Several aspects of parish life are symptomatic of the spiritual health of the community and its members - including hospitality, worship attendance, faith development, outreach to others, and stewardship. Priests who are discerning a call to serve in a parish are especially interested in examining these practices in light of their own priestly gifts and vocational emphases.
Together at St. John's, we have been exploring these practices and other areas of congregational health in a variety of settings. We are now at a crossroads when Christian stewardship of possessions must have our full attention. In many ways, how God's people relate to their possessions and how they express their generosity toward God touches every other aspect of personal spirituality and the common life of the parish. When we practice the spiritual discipline of stewardship our hearts are gladdened and we become more generous. Generosity changes both the giver and the Church.
This is nothing new. St. Paul addressed this relationship with the members of the Corinthian Church: “You will be enriched in every way for your great generosity, which will produce thanksgiving to God through us; for the rendering of this ministry not only supplies the needs of the saints but also overflows with many thanksgivings to God” (2 Cor. 9:10-12). Jesus said it this way, “Strive first for the kingdom of God and God's righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well” (Mt. 6:33).
During conversations prior to my arrival in Jackson Hole, the Wardens and Vestry impressed upon me that they wanted me to help the parish take the next steps that will lead to a lasting change in the culture of giving at St. John’s. My assessment is that parishioners should focus less on the church's need to receive and focus more on the giver's need to give to God. It is possible that many members have not taken full responsibility for their own personal stewardship because the parish has begun to lean too heavily on other sources of income. I’ve been told that some don’t give because they think St. John’s doesn’t need their contributions. That viewpoint misses the point of Christian stewardship altogether.
Emphasizing the church's need to receive is a fund raising strategy. In contrast, emphasizing the giver's need to give fosters Christian stewardship. One is based on need, the other is based on God's bountiful generosity toward us. One is consumer-oriented, the other is God-oriented. One anticipates receiving something in return, the other is our response to something already received. There is nothing wrong with fund raising, but personal stewardship must be the foundation for the Church’s mission.
We give to God, not to a budget. Budgets and financial statements are are useful indicators of spiritual health and they provide assurances about the fiscal management of the parish. But they are not an adequate basis for Christian stewardship, have provided very little motivation for greater generosity, and certainly should never be an excuse for a Christian to withhold what belongs to God. We give to God first because God first gives to us. We give to God because we believe that all that we have, whether spent, saved, or given away is a sacred trust from God. We give to God because of our consciousness that we are the only creatures created in God's image and entrusted with the divine vocation to be stewards of everything God has provided. Giving to God is our heritage, our birthright, and our privilege.
Today's generation of worshipers at St. John’s are heirs of the generosity and stewardship of those who went before us, moving St. John’s from a humble frontier mission to the place of being the largest Episcopal Church in Wyoming. I believe God is calling this community to be even more than that; St. John’s ought to be the leading Episcopal Church in Wyoming and beyond. Since leading by example is basic to all leadership, setting an example of generous stewardship is a key to the future impact of the gospel.
Is it possible that other sources of income have become a stumbling block instead of a steppingstone? Are we leaning on fundraising, Browse ‘n’ Buy, weddings, and the endowment to balance our annual budget instead of rising to new and more generous levels of stewardship in each generation? The ordinary day-to-day mission of the parish should be sustained by the generosity of all its members so that the other sources of income will make it possible for St. John’s to do extraordinary things.
A common question that is asked during interviews with prospective rectors for large parishes is, “How heavily do you depend upon sources other than member contributions to balance the budget for the ongoing mission of the parish?” The correct answer is, “ZERO.” At the present time the answer at St. John’s would have to be, “Thirty-five percent.”
Now, during this period of transition, St. John’s has the opportunity to take the step that will change that answer! Your Stewardship Committee and I believe that every member can find ways to step up in generosity. If every member will take this step as a matter of spiritual growth, it will make a remarkable difference in your life and also allow this parish to continue the heritage of generosity that has been entrusted to us.
I recognize that some people find that talk in Church about possessions makes them feel uncomfortable. I hope that you will pray for the grace to live with that discomfort long enough to find in this challenge a priceless opportunity for spiritual growth, both for you and for the Church you love.
Like many other congregations in America, ours is emphasizing stewardship of financial resources at this time of year. On October 11, we’ll do everything possible to persuade everyone in the congregation to make a new, and hopefully increased, pledge of financial support of God’s work for the coming year.
I'm not sure why we have to work so hard to get Christians to do something so central to the Chris-tian way of life. It came to my attention years ago that a substantial number of Christians consider the topic of stewardship to be less popular than some other ones. On several occasions, I’ve had church members suggest that I soft-pedal stewardship because some people might get upset. I’ve never taken that advice and here’s why.
Over half of the recorded sayings of Jesus Christ concern possessions. Jesus knew how possessions interfere with our relationships with God, our neighbors, and our spiritual identity. Don’t most wars, lawsuits, family feuds, and legislative battles finally boil down to who possesses what and how much?
A rich man approached Jesus and asked, “Master, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus told him to sell all his possessions, give the money to the poor, and follow Jesus. The man couldn’t do it. Why? He was possessed by his possessions. He derived too much of his identity, security, and status from his possessions.
Jesus was not condemning wealth. Jesus was trying to help a man find the freedom and joy that comes from living in a right relationship with his God, his neighbor, and his stuff! Like Jesus, I want to help people have a healthy relationship with their possessions so that all the other relationships of their lives will be healthier and they will know the kind of freedom Jesus called “eternal life.”
The story of stewardship is grounded in the story of creation. When God created human beings, our role as stewards was imbedded into our DNA. As the only creature made in the likeness of God, humans have the distinct privilege and responsibility of managing God’s resources in ways that further God’s creative and redemptive purposes.
When we abdicate our role as stewards, we lower ourselves in the pecking order of creation. Before long, we make idols that stand between us and our God. In exercising the vocation of stewardship we become more fully human and fulfill our God-given destiny in creation. We need to give!
Finally, it is important to help the community of Christian people see how necessary the work and witness of the community is to the ongoing redemptive mission of Christ. The first thing Jesus did in his public ministry was to form a community. Throughout his ministry, he worked to shape that community into an apostolic, missionary force. The last thing he did before his Ascension was to send that community into the world to bear his message and transform lives. When the community of Christ's followers is healthy and vibrant, the apostolic witness impacts the mission field at our doorstep in powerful, divine ways. We can't be faithful stewards if we neglect the community into which we are baptized and to which Christ has entrusted so much of his redemptive work.
When our lives are focused on stewardship instead of ownership, we experience greater freedom. When we embrace the pattern of Jesus’ life that is characterized not by having but by giving, our relationships are transformed. When our giving strengthens the Church, the divine mission given uniquely to the Church can be accomplished.
As a Priest, why would I want to soft-pedal something like that?
Here is a portion of the Epistle from last Sunday:
There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all. But each of us was given grace according to the measure of Christ's gift… The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ. We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people's trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming. But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body's growth in building itself up in love. - Ephesians 4:1-7, 11-16
Isn’t it exciting? We are called and gifted in unique ways for the purpose of ongoing service and growth into Christ, constantly becoming a whole and holy community, built up in love.
In that spirit, the vestry and I have been working to strengthen and further develop our organizational plan. We have adopted a rotation policy that establishes three-year appointments for committee members, limits committee chairs to two years in that role, and ensures that each committee has a vestry liaison. Members of the vestry will not normally chair committees. In the coming year, we will prepare for the rotation of members and leaders. Then, next July 1, we will start the process rolling. We hope this plan will open more doors for new leadership to emerge and prevent the burnout that happens when people do the same thing for too long. And, since the Holy Spirit gives a variety of gifts, we believe it will allow members to serve in a variety of ways.
We have also developed committee charters with succinct descriptions of the work and expectations associated with each committee. These charters have been posted on our parish website and HERE.
Please read them and, if you feel called to serve on one of these committees, contact me so we can talk about it. Committee charters are not chiseled in stone any more than are the needs that prompt our service! As needs and circumstances change, the charters may be modified to reflect God’s call to us at given points in time.
How we organize and manage ourselves for mission and how we stir up and rely on spiritual gifts contributes to fruitfulness in the mission entrusted to us. The rotation plan and charters are necessary to healthy organizational life. But those things would be only about maintenance without the presence and power of the Holy Spirit, moving us toward maturity and working through us for the building up of the Church in love and service to God and our neighbors.
The Rev'd Steve Muncie, Rector of Grace Episcopal Church in Brooklyn, New York, has something similar to say:
God is inviting – challenging – us to see the world with all of its brokenness through the eyes of divine love and mercy. We are called to a broader vision for the loveless, a deeper look at the plight of the powerless. The danger for the Church is to remain blind to God’s great vision while we busy ourselves with our own limited sight, reducing God’s Mission in the world to our maintenance of the local church. The local church and its ministries are vitally important to building up the people of God. We need to make plans and establish priorities for strengthening congregational ministry. We need structure and accountability. We need to maximize participation in sharing the vision. However, God’s great vision is still waiting to be seen by those who have eyes to see.
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