January 29, 2013

Half Time

Filed under: Financial Commitment — by Lisa Meeder Turnbull @ 9:13 pm

As Super Bowl Sunday approaches, this seems like a good time to ask: What does the Offertory look like in your congregation? Does it clearly flow through the liturgy of Word and Sacrament? Or is it more like half time, separating “the first part of church” and the Eucharist?

Our celebration of the Offertory communicates a great deal about the life of our congregation. It also sets the tone for our offerings themselves, a tone that can be glad and joyful or routine and businesslike. Let me share some of the broad “types” of offertories I’ve experienced over my relatively short 15 years in the Episcopal Church. See if you recognize any of these….

You Know What to Do

The late Rev. Terry Parsons, my mentor in all things stewardship, used to refer to this as the “practically Pavlovian” Offertory. The priest gets about as far as, “Walk in love, as Christ….” and the people have already started fishing around in purses or pockets. The ushers are on the job and the organist is waiting to pounce as soon as the sentence ends. Even the priest trails off sometimes, his mind already on preparing the table.

It’s no surprise that pledge and plate is relatively flat in this congregation. Everybody knows what to do.

I Only Have Two Hands!

Closely related to You Know What to Do, this Offertory asks us to fish in our purses for our envelope or try to write a check while the children arrive, the coffee hour hosts slip out, others take a bathroom break….and now you want me to stand, hold a hymnal, and sing?!

Even the altar seems busy—the priest, deacon, acolyte or some combination thereof getting things organized; someone scurrying back to the sacristy; keeping an eye on the ushers to get the timing right; signaling the organist….

Newcomers don’t stand a chance. Some do stick long enough to figure it out, but even seasoned members use language like “during the break” or “settling back down for the Eucharist.”

One Big Family

It starts with the peace. People are up and out of their pews. Everybody peaces everybody, no matter how long it takes to make the rounds. I’ve seen more than one priest to put thumb and forefinger to her lips, miming a whistle to get people’s attention.

Announcements range through the breadth of parish life, news of the home-bound, updates on those named in the prayer list, letters from soldiers and students and others who are away. Then, just as one might be justified in wondering whether this gathering understands the difference between church and coffee hour, the offering is invited and the altar prepared.

On this point I am grateful for an insight that a lay leader shared in one of my stewardship workshops:

I wouldn’t trade chaotic peace for anything! We want to hear everyone’s news and concerns because we’re a family; we live and worship in community with one another. Yes, it takes time and seems out of control, but it lets us take all this stuff from our life together and carry it with us into the Eucharist.

Calm and Collected

We’ll warmly peace those around us, but let’s not get carried away. The priest offers brief announcements, referring us to our bulletins for further detail. In welcoming visitors, he invites them to coffee hour and assures them that all are graciously received at the Lord’s Table.

We sit calmly, perhaps listening to a choral or organ piece, while the ushers move smoothly through the aisle. The altar is equally calm as the priest, and perhaps deacon or acolyte, moves into the sacramental aspects of their vocations and ministries.

So I return to my original question: Offertory or Half Time?

Does your congregation practice the offering in a way that is consistent with the culture and personality of the gathered community? Or does this part of its worship life need a little attention? Here are some starting points:

Mix it up. Terry Parsons used to suggest that one antidote to the Pavlovian problem is to simply change up the Offertory sentences. “Catch them off guard; by the time they realize what you’re saying they will already have listened to the whole thing.”

The Book of Common Prayer is one good source. Another is Celebrating the Offering by Melvin and Manes Amerson (Discipleship Resources, 2007). One of my favorite resources, First Fruits: A Worship Anthology on Generosity and Giving (Canterbury Press, 2001), is out of print, though second-hand copies may be available through various online sellers. Happily, my copy came with a disc and I have attached some of that material.

Talk it through. An instructed Eucharist may be time consuming and tedious, but what about a shorter instructed Offertory? Understanding the place of offering in the flow of the liturgy may be helpful to newer members while re-engaging more seasoned members.

Try it out. Try to set aside the familiarity of your congregation’s Offertory practices to look objectively at how it “feels” and what it “says” about your life together. What works well and what might be adjusted? What small changes might be introduced over time to enhance the experience of worship and community?

Regardless of which approach is right for your congregation, remember that the invitation to celebrate the offering is nothing short of an invitation to spiritual growth, to hands-on and practical experience of abundance, and to intentional giving.

Thanks be to God!

blessings collects and prayers gathering of gifts prefaces sentences


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