mainestewards

November 21, 2014

Why Not?

Filed under: Financial Commitment — by Lisa Meeder Turnbull @ 1:21 pm

Our ingathering was a wonderful celebration, but now we find ourselves chasing down pledge-stragglers. I didn’t realize the annual commitment season would have such a long tail.

First-Year Pledge Chair

The most common question that I hear in the month of November is, “What can we do about the pledge stragglers? We have a number of people who give faithfully—and generously—but getting a pledge card out of them is like pulling teeth! We know some just aren’t going to give us a pledge card. What can we do?”

The short answer, of course, is “not much.” The more discerned answer, however, is “more than we think.” In my years of sitting with vestries, bishop’s committees, stewardship committees, and congregations, I have seen patterns emerge among the non-pledgers. In my experience, these faithful and generous members fall generally into three categories:

Matthew 6: 1-6

The first group is the one from whom I have learned the most, and through whom I have grown the most as a steward myself. These faithful members look to Matthew 6:1-6 in discerning their response:

1 “Beware of practicing your piety before men in order to be seen by them; for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven. 2 “Thus, when you give alms, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by men. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. 3 But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4 so that your alms may be in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. 5 “And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by men. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. 6 But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

I have tremendous respect for these members of our congregations and I in no way seek to persuade them to alter their faithful response. You may find that some give in cash, so as to fully preserve the prayer-integrity of their giving. Others will write checks, sometimes even noting “pledge” in the memo line. This gives you some indication for your records and does allow you to do some “soft” planning around income, even without a formal pledge.

None of Your Business

The next group are those whom I lovingly refer to as the “none of your business” folks. And I do mean “lovingly.” Early in my ministry, I found this group to be incredibly frustrating. But as I have grown to know them better, I have grown also to appreciate the pastoral opportunities that they bring to our communities. We all have our own histories when it comes to money; for some, it is simply more comfortable to by-pass on the pledge, knowing in their hearts that they will give along the way.

Sometimes the roots lie in family politics or differing views on giving within a household. Those who perceive themselves as having less than others may feel uncomfortable, or even ashamed, in making a modest pledge. More affluent members might fear that their pledge will be judged as too high or too low. All of these represent opportunities for pastoral engagement. It might be as simple as getting to know people and understanding their lives—a bonus for the community on many fronts—or you may want to do something more structured, such as the Talking About God and Money discussion series.*

With pastoral care and encouragement, some of these members may move toward a pledge. Others will remain faithful and beloved curmudgeons. That’s OK.

Variable Incomes

The third group are those who do not pledge simply because they honestly cannot predict their income. Those with a variable income (farmers, lobstermen, fishermen, guides, small business owners, hotel and guesthouse owners, artists and artisans, the independently employed, retirees with market-based income, and hourly wage-earners) offer us some wonderful opportunities to bring a creative approach to the annual commitment.

One congregation experimented with moving the annual commitment into the Lenten season. This not only shifted the spiritual appeal from gratitude and “should” to a more contemplative discernment, it moved the practical aspect of pledging into a season when people have a more concrete sense of their income—put simply, April is when we know what we’ve made for the year. This practice of “giving in arrears,” if you will, actually has a Biblical foundation—the tithe was brought at the harvest, when the farmers and herdsmen celebrated their yield by bringing crops and livestock to the temple. If your community is predominantly one of variable income, why not take this as your model, why not make April 15 a time when due is rendered not just unto Caesar, but unto the Lord as well?

Another approach is to invite members to pledge a percent of their income rather than a dollar figure. In this way, the church lives into the message that it is part of the community; it rides the tides of fortune in communion with its members. It also brings people into a more intimate relationship with their income and their giving habits. By asking people to commit to bringing forth a certain percentage whenever they receive income, giving takes on an immediacy and abundance becomes tangible. This is equally true for variable-income households as well as for retirees and salary-earners who have a fixed income.

None of these insights solve the Finance Committee’s need for concrete information, but they do offer some various ways of thinking about those who choose not to complete and return the pledge card. Ambiguity is hard, especially when budgets need to be passed, contracts need to be renewed, and bills need to be paid. But, Thanks Be to God, we are a community of faithful souls, with all the quirks and habits that make congregational life all that it is. To all of you who read this, I wish you a harvest season of abundance, in whatever form that season takes.

 

*I tried to attach Talking About God and Money, but the upload repeatedly failed. If you are interested in this resource, please write to me at mainestewards@yahoo.com.

September 12, 2014

Walking the Way

Filed under: Financial Commitment,Lectionary — by Lisa Meeder Turnbull @ 11:47 am

Are you looking for fresh materials, ideas, or conversation starters for the upcoming annual commitment season? TENS: The Episcopal Network for Stewardship offer some wonderful, flexible tools as part of its Walking the Way 2014 stewardship program. Because Maine is a Diocesan Member of TENS, these materials area available to all Maine congregations, free of charge!

Some congregations find the materials most useful as a complete set–letterhead, stationary, sample letters, pledge cards, and bulletin inserts–creating a theme and framework for the annual appeal. Others prefer to pick and choose, taking ideas from the sample letters, using the introductory material and evaluation material, then filling in locally appropriate tools or adapting the ideas to fit lectionary weeks other than those covered by the bulletin inserts. If your committee–and perhaps your congregation–is ready for a break from the personal testimony style of appeal, perhaps use the bulletin inserts as starting points for small group discussion, or as a basis for lectionary-based Bible study or adult forum. This year’s material also offers special bulletin inserts for the Feast of St. Francis and All Saints, adding even more flexibility to an already rich resource.

The complete Walking the Way toolkit is available via the links below in PDF, Word, and Excel formats. If you have any trouble with these attachments, please e-mail me directly at mainestewards@yahoo.com and I will be happy to provide you with an alternative for fool-proof access.

 

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October 20, 2013

Something (B)old, Something New

Filed under: Congregational Development,Financial Commitment,Leadership,Lectionary — by Lisa Meeder Turnbull @ 3:23 pm

Whenever I talk about the gift of prophecy, someone inevitably walks up to me later and says, “So, let’s hear a prophecy.”

So let me begin by dispelling a myth: prophets are not fortune tellers. They are not oracles. They are not soothsayers or magicians. Prophets hear the word of the God and speak truth to power. Prophets speak bluntly in the court of public opinion. Prophets say out loud what everyone else is thinking.

It’s no surprise, then, that prophecy is the spiritual gift that no one wants. Prophets may be summoned for an audience with the king, but they are rarely invited to the after-party. They aren’t known for their extensive social networks. In fact, if scripture is to be believed, their lives are a constant stream of insult, misery, and rejection.

For quite a few weeks Jeremiah has been trying to tell us about new beginnings, about opportunity in what appears to be defeat, about looking at things in a bold and creative light.

Back in September when God told Jeremiah to go down to the potter’s house, he saw the potter at the wheel and watched as he formed the clay into something lovely, yet imperfect. He saw the potter mash the clay back into a lump, wet it a little, and try again.

My first reaction to this scene was, “What?! But the rainbow…the promise…God wasn’t going to do that again!” Yet as I reflected on this reading, I came to understand that while it was true that God had promised he would never destroy creation again, God never ruled out the possibility of a do-over.

In mashing up the clay and beginning again, the potter does not destroy the clay. The potter reuses the same clay, reshaping and redirecting the material at hand through new beginning.

This is a wonderful metaphor for our congregations facing decline, whether the “clay” of ministry resources available for renewal comes from within the bounds of the congregation or, increasingly, through regional ministry partnerships. But because this is a lengthy processes, it will inevitably overlap with at least one cycle of annual financial commitment. The prophets who serve on our planning teams will worry that members will opt not to pledge this year because they aren’t sure what’s going on, or they don’t trust the process, or they’re confused about the future. People may be hearing rumors, or may just assume that the church is going to close.

How can we, as leaders, keep everyone on board?

Jeremiah has some suggestions.

First, it’s OK to be angry. Jeremiah is very clear that we do have the option of not liking what we hear. We can eat all the sour grapes we want. Grief and anger are a normal part of adaptive change. Through our baptism we live as stewards of one another’s hopes and dreams, fears and worries. So if a members needs to set their teeth on edge for a while, we must assure them that they will be met with the love, the compassion, and the prayers of the congregation.

The second option Jeremiah offers is to go “all in.” Jeremiah challenges the people of Israel to move from an external covenant confined to a tabernacle, and move toward an internal covenant that lives within their being, a covenant that is part of who they are. Jeremiah challenges us likewise to move toward being the people of god in a new way, grounded in the baptismal covenant that lives within our being, always present as part of who we are.

In calling the people of Israel to a new covenant, there is one option that Jeremiah explicitly takes off the table: We’re not going to sit and do nothing. We’re not going to ride it out, wait for the crisis to pass so we can get back to where we were.

No. Jeremiah is very clear that above all, the people of Israel—and by extension, we—are called to live in the now. Through baptism, the Great I Am—the god whose very name is the present tense—calls us to radical relevance in mission and ministry.

That is Jeremiah’s call to each and all of us, not just to our diocesan leaders, or clergy, or vestry, or planning committee. In the coming weeks many of us will be invited to make a pledge in support of our congregations—in support of the congregation that is, the congregation of the here and now.

I encourage all members of every congregation not to think of letter and pledge card that you receive as merely a request for money. Think of it as an invitation to partnership in the radical relevance of mission and ministry. The future is a work in progress. The present calls us to make offerings of prayer, of effort, and of dedication; offerings brought forth from the first fruits of our life and labor, in the name of the one whose covenant is written on our hearts.

Amen

June 5, 2013

Word Gets Around

Filed under: Congregational Development,Financial Commitment,Leadership,Lectionary,Social Gospel — by Lisa Meeder Turnbull @ 11:48 am

This week’s readings present two very similar scenes—Jesus comes upon a burial procession. The deceased is the only son of a widow, leaving her among the most vulnerable in her society. Like Elijah, Jesus calls upon God to revive the son, and returns him to his mother.

As he does in so many of the familiar Gospel stories, Jesus extends the words of the prophet that would have been familiar to those around him.

But there is one key difference: In the reading from Kings, we know a great deal about the widow, her son, and her relationship with Elijah. We know that there is a long history of faith and trust between them. In fact, the raising of the widow’s son is the third in a quick succession of events that give us a sense of the big picture: First, having spoken truth to power, Elijah found himself on the run. When hiding out and letting big scary birds bring him food proved to be unsustainable, God gave him Plan B: Walk straight into Jezebel’s home town and introduce yourself to a random widow. Trust me; it’s fine. And things are, indeed, fine…for a while. But then the son dies. Now Elijah is stuck: The widow trusted him and his god, choosing Elijah’s words over what would likely have been her own trust in Baal. And where did it get them? She ends up just as vulnerable as she was when the reading began. Elijah needed this miracle as much for his own credibility as she needed it to ensure her social and economic safety.

In the Gospel reading, however, we don’t know anything about the widow, or about the son, or about any prior encounters they might have had with Jesus. We are permitted to assume that the widow has done nothing to “earn” Jesus’ favor. Jesus doesn’t owe her a good turn, nor does he have anything at stake. He simply “looks on her with compassion.” And in addressing the immediate grief of her loss, he also meets the deeper need of her circumstances. Jesus  models mercy and justice.

….and word gets around.

As Jesus’ ministry spreads, people hear of him; they are drawn to him. And they come not just because his miracles of feeding and healing meet a practical need, but because he feeds a deeper hunger, heals a more profound kind of hurt.

I believe that in these passages from Kings and from the ministry of Jesus, we are offered a model for our congregations and our communities in our lives together.

In this long green season, the visions we develop for mission and ministry that will later be expressed as a budget proposal will probably not include raising the dead and returning them to their families. It is likely, however, that such vision will call each of us to look more deeply into our own baptismal ministries.

It will call us to bring fresh energy and resources to renewing ourselves as a community that proclaims by word and example the Good New of God in Christ; seeks and serves Christ in all persons, loving our neighbors as ourselves; and strives for justice and peace among all people, respecting the dignity of every human being….

It will call us to find the joy in giving, offering a proportional gift or tithe as a symbol of God’s abundance in our lives…

It will call us to see our congregation as a place where people look with compassion not just on one another, but on those beyond our walls, beyond our community, and even beyond our understanding….

…and word will get around.

People who may be more inclined to place their trust in other things, or who may know themselves to be vaguely seeking something that they can’t quite put their finger on will see that we don’t just worship on the surface of our Sunday morning lives. Word will get around that we gather in a place where deeper hungers are fed and more profound hurts are healed. Word will get around We follow Jesus’ example, building on Elijah’s model of speaking mercy to those who grieve and restoring justice to the most vulnerable.

Word will get around.

Thanks be to God. Alleluia, Alleluia!

May 14, 2013

Do You Hear What I Hear?

Filed under: Financial Commitment,Lectionary — by Lisa Meeder Turnbull @ 1:00 am

No matter how many times I experience the practice of reading the Day of Pentecost passage from Acts in many languages simultaneously, I never get used to it.

The second voice takes me by surprise.

The third voice unsettles me.

And as the cacophonous chatter builds, I ride an arc of feelings from surprise, through anxiety, and finally to a place not of hearing words and languages, but of knowing the presence of the Holy Spirit in the rush of it all.

However, in my close reading of this familiar passage over the past week, I was struck not by the many languages that the apostles were given to speak, but by the writer’s emphasis on the crowd’s ability to hear. Listen to their reaction:

Are not all these who are speaking Galileans?

And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language?

In our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.

In this reading, the crowd seems to assume not that the apostles were speaking in many languages, but that somehow a common language was being heard by each person in a way that he or she could receive.

That shift in emphasis, that change in perspective, is powerful. It raises some very exciting possibilities for me as one who strives to live fully into a life of stewardship.

My first reaction is to jump back to our reading from Genesis.

I realize, of course, that in this passage from Genesis the Lord was speaking to a very different situation. But for me as a post-Acts Christian, if you will, I take great hope from the notion that nothing we propose to do will be impossible if we are able to understand one another.

Note that the focus here, as in Acts, is not on speaking, but on hearing. We don’t actually have to speak the same language; our strength comes from the much harder work of hearing one another. If we can manage that, we can achieve anything.

The second thing that excites me about this emphasis on hearing of God’s deeds of power in my own language is recognizing that this moment of Pentecost is something that any one of us can experience firsthand, at any time. It is not confined to a moment in the history of the early church, nor to a single Sunday in the liturgical year.

Sometimes we experience it in those “big moments” of hearing the Holy Spirit and knowing how we are called to be God’s people in the world. Perhaps more often we feel the Holy Spirit moving in those little, every-day moments as we live into our baptismal covenant, seeking and serving Christ in others and loving our neighbors as ourselves.

This Spirit-led way of life is precisely what we mean by “stewardship,” defined broadly as “all that we do, with all that we have.”

When we understand ourselves to be stewards of all our many kinds of abundance, we grow into the truth that we are, first and foremost, stewards of the Gospel. Before we talk about time and talent, and certainly before we bring money into the conversation, we are called to be stewards of the Good News of God in Christ.

We are stewards of the hopes, and dreams, and prayers of our brothers and sisters in Christ, called to minister not just to one another, but to those beyond our walls, beyond our borders, even beyond our understanding. The church budget is but one of the ways we express this common ministry. It is a living document of our faith. It expresses our values; it explains how we will act out our commitment to live as stewards of the Gospel.

Take a fresh look at the church budget as a source of insight into who we are and what we do, a source of hearing the word of the Lord in action through worship, program, and outreach. Think about the invitation to support that budget as a Pentecost moment—a moment when the Holy Spirit moves through you and among you, inspiring you to give generously and joyfully.

Nothing we propose to do will be impossible if we understand one another, and hear the Holy Spirit at work in our midst.

Amen

February 15, 2013

‘Tis the Season

Filed under: Financial Commitment,Lectionary — by Lisa Meeder Turnbull @ 10:02 am

Jesus said to them, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s,

and to God the things that are God’s.” Mark 12:17a

Well, that’s a cut and dry statement! Very black and white. Does it have to be? I’m not so sure.

Let me share with you an intriguing—and very brave—experiment that one congregation in Maine has launched in this season.

Last autumn, as they began to consider their plans for annual financial stewardship, they decided to “move” pledging from its traditional place in the parish calendar and instead invite communicants to use the season of Lent as a time of prayer, discernment, and contemplation of their pledge. Thus these “forty days plus Sundays” become for them a time set apart, a time of priorities, and yes, temptations, as members of a baptismal community and as individuals of abundance and wealth.

I’m very curious to see how this experiment plays out. The model is brimming with opportunity for spiritual growth and new perspectives on generosity. But what I find even more intriguing is its serendipitous overlap with the secular financial season—this congregation is inviting people to pledge at the time of year when they most closely understand their earnings.

Last fall many of our congregations struggled with pledging. The “fiscal cliff” was causing tremendous anxiety for communicants at all income levels and in all circumstances—what would happen to unemployment benefits? How would the cost of health care change? Would the reintroduction of payroll tax change the calculation in proportional giving? Will I still be able to itemize charitable deductions? We just didn’t know. We made safe pledges or we didn’t pledge at all.

For this congregation, the conversation around pledging is coming after some of these unknowns have settled down. For those who have fixed incomes in the form of salary or defined retirement plans, pledging will be more confident, more accurate.

The timing is also better for those with variable incomes. Maine has a high rate of self-employment—farming, fishing, tourism, and small business are at the core of our communities. One of the questions I’m often asked in my conversations around the diocese is, “I struggle to pledge because I never know what I’m going to make.” Until now, my advice has been to submit a “safe” pledge, and then to encourage clergy and lay leaders to invite the congregation to revise their pledges once they have more information. This approach hasn’t worked terribly well—once pledging is over, the budget is adopted, and annual meeting has been held, people don’t really want to go back. Or they’re embarrassed or shy about bringing it up again. Or they simply forget. So here we have another potential advantage to this new model—move pledging to a time when people have good information.

But in the midst of all these practical advantages, here’s the thing that excites me the most: By moving the pledge conversation into Lent, we muddle up God and Caesar. Instead of wringing their hands over “how do we talk about money in church” these lay leaders have in effect challenged themselves to reverse the question, to bring God into the financial lives of their members.

What will happen when a communicant phones the tax preparer and says, “I need to have my appointment before March 22nd. I’m filling out my pledge card and I need to know the amount I’m tithing on.”

I can’t wait to find out.

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

January 19, 2013

Ta-Da!

Filed under: Financial Commitment,Lectionary,Social Gospel,Time and Talent — by Lisa Meeder Turnbull @ 3:02 pm

When I was 10 I badly wanted a chemistry set. I even asked Santa for it. I can only guess that my mom was gesturing wildly behind my back when he asked me how old I was, then thoughtfully commented that he usually gave chemistry sets to 12 year olds, but he would think about it.

The chemistry set did appear under the tree that year and I promptly set up my basement laboratory.

My favorite “experiment,” the one I did over and over (and over) involved two small beakers of water, each with a different powder of some sort stirred into them. When the beakers were combined, the water turned red.

The experiment was called “turning water into wine.” In truth, however, it was little more than a magic trick. The result wasn’t wine at all, of course. And stirring up some powders and pouring two liquids together contributed nothing to my understanding of science.

Jesus, on the other hand, takes a look at some jars, has a word with the servants, and voila! Great wine.

Is this magic, too? Is it possible that this first miracle, this beginning of his public ministry, is little more than a parlor trick? Or perhaps an apocryphal tale, pieced together from unrelated facts?

To be perfectly honest, I don’t think it matters.

What matters to me this Gospel reading is that six stone jars, holding water for the Jewish rites of purification—wash water, foot water, head and neck water, totally unfit for drinking water—were transformed into the best of the wedding wine—the wine that should have been served first, when it would be appreciated most.

In this first miracle at Canaan, we see directly how God takes what is at hand, and transforms it into what is needed.

This transformation of water into wine is the baptismal image that I hold fast on those days when my life feels…well…when my life feels like wash water, when I feel ill-equipped, if not completely overwhelmed, by the need at hand. I remind myself that in baptism I am transformed. I’m not wash-water; I’m wine. I’m good wine. With God’s help, I have what it takes to be what is needed.

I am not going to pretend that it’s easy. Some days it takes a lot of convincing.

But whether or not I buy my own story, it’s true.

And it’s true of each of us: God created us to be his best stuff. No matter what our starting point, by continuing in the Apostles teaching, and the fellowship, and the breaking of the bread, we have what it takes to live as God’s best stuff.

Because we are God’s best stuff, the second message of this Gospel lesson is equally significant: The best is brought to the table first.

When we bring our glad gifts to the feast…to the celebration of the Holy Eucharist…we bring the offerings of our hearts, our prayers, and the fruit of our labors from what we have…not from what we have left over. Like a bridegroom at his wedding feast, when we commit a tithe or a percentage of our income to the mission and ministry of the church, to seeking and serving Christ in all persons…we make that offering first. We delight in sharing our abundance, that others may also know joy.

With many of our congregations wrestling together with the questions of the present and the challenges to its future, I find in this Gospel three questions, three invitations to prayer and discernment:

How is God working in you and in your midst to take what is at hand, and transform it into what is needed?

How are you called, through your baptism, to be the best wine, the symbol of abundance and celebration?

What glad gifts will you bring, first, to the feast that we share by faith, with thanksgiving?

November 9, 2012

Bring Me a Morsel

Filed under: Financial Commitment,Lectionary,Time and Talent — by Lisa Meeder Turnbull @ 7:44 pm

I love it when familiar readings say something completely new to me.

That’s what happened earlier this week, when I browsed the lectionary to see what sort of message might jump out at me as the season of annual financial commitment is moving toward its conclusion. In this week’s alternative reading from the 1 Kings, I found a richness of themes that made me glad the passage will come around again in another three years.

Today, I’m choosing to focus on how both the surrender to scarcity and the miracle of abundance seem to be lacking in passion. Listen to the widow’s words, as she responds to Elijah’s request for a morsel of bread:

As the LORD your God lives, I have nothing baked, only a handful of meal in a jar, and a little oil in a jug. I am now gathering a couple of sticks, so that I may go home and prepare it for myself and my son, that we may eat it, and die.

Not a hint of self-pity. Not a word of appeal. It is a simple fact that she has run out of resources. She is at the end of her stores. She and her son will eat the last of what they have, and they will die.

By the same token, when the meal and oil miraculously carry not just the widow and her son, but the entire household through the drought, through to the time when rain falls on the land, there is no celebration, no gratitude, no acknowledgement of the power of the Lord. Where is the leaping and praise that we see in Jesus’ healings? Where is the thank offering? Where is the conversion from “as the LORD your God lives,” to realizing that surely Elijah has come to her from a God who desires a relationship with her?

They ate well and didn’t die.

The end.

I want more.

I want the widow of Zarapheth to understand how offering what she had was transformed into having what she needed. I want her to be filled with the same sense of wonder and possibility I experienced a few weeks ago at our diocesan convention.

In the pre-convention “Stewardship Toolbox” workshop, I invited clergy and lay leaders to spend an unscripted hour offering whatever was on their minds, in any area of financial or non-financial stewardship. As a community, we shared our experiences, asked questions, explored possibilities, and offered insights our own and one another’s expressions of stewardship ministry.

One participant captured the imaginations of everyone gathered when she introduced herself as a lay leader from one Maine’s most isolated and impoverished coastal communities. She beamed as she shared her tiny congregation’s success in transforming the time and talent of a largely unemployed or retired population into the funds the church needs for operations and mission by serving meals to the study groups that frequent the area. She burst with joy when someone asked her what sort of income this ministry generated, “We work with donated food, so the whole $400 per meal supports the church! We are even working toward the possibility of a part-time priest!”

This is a community that could very easily have baked a cake from the last bit of meal and quietly faded into the decline of mainstream denominations and the ever-steeper struggle to remain viable in an unsustainable economy. It happens all the time, in small rural communities and formerly thriving urban neighborhoods. We read about it in the press and study it in ecumenical gatherings.

But not here. Not on this widow’s watch.

I watched in awe as the Holy Spirit moved through our gathering, as the light in her eyes jumped like a flame of Pentecost to catch in the imaginations of her fellow lay leaders. I saw wheels turning as people processed the conversation, relating her story to the possibilities in their congregations. I saw the usual boundaries geography and socio-economic difference melted as ideas bounced around and questions and suggestions fed into one another.

And yet for all her success, this lay leader shared in the same question that challenges all of us: How do we inspire people to give? How do we conduct an annual pledge drive when we are asking not for money, but for the time, talent, effort, and dedication to transform that which we have into that which we need? How do we engage the transformative power of creative abundance?

And there we find another lesson in our reading: Ask.

Elijah is hungry. He needs a drink of water and a morsel of bread. When the widow explains that she can’t, what does Elijah say? “Do it anyway.”

When it comes to resourcing our parish from the abundance (or scarcity) in our community, asking for what we want can open an array of unforeseen opportunities.

So what if this church were to invite an ingathering of time pledges? Talent pledges? Effort and Dedication pledges? What gifts and graces might we discover if people were to “commit ___ hours to the mission and ministry of St. Swithin’s, to be given ___ weekly ___ monthly” just like we traditionally do with our financial pledges? Where might we see vitality bubble up when lay leaders are equipped with a treasury of time, time that will be transformed into whatever is needed for mission and ministry to thrives?

How would the fruits of such an ingathering be celebrated in the offertory? What would the invitation and dedication look like when we lift up what we can accomplish, as a community, with what we have to work with, as people of faith?

How might such a jar of meal not be emptied, nor such a jug of oil fail, according to the word of the Lord?

October 13, 2012

Jesus Looked at Him, and Loved Him

Filed under: Financial Commitment,Lectionary,Legacy,Social Gospel — by Lisa Meeder Turnbull @ 1:14 pm

If “the purpose of religion is to comfort the uncomfortable and discomfort the overly-comfortable,”[i] then Jesus really nailed it this time, didn’t he!

This young man is clearly one of the overly-comfortable. His wealth provides him with material comfort, true, but also, we can assume, with the intangible comforts of status, influence, access to power, and the regard of others.

This in turn allows him the comfort of an ordered life. He knows the rules. He understands his place in the society and in the temple.

But if life is so nicely ordered, what compels him to approach to Jesus?

It is possible that this young man was so accustomed to a life of clarity and structure that he was simply double-checking that he had things in order, that he was on track for eternal life.

Murder? Nope, haven’t murdered.

Adultery? Nope, fine there.

Stealing? False witness? Fraud? Most certainly not!

Honor your father and mother? Absolutely!

Anything else? I’m good to go? Just wanted to be sure I’m not missing anything.

But somehow I don’t think that’s it.

There is a distinct intentionality in the way he runs up to Jesus and kneels at his feet. This man doesn’t just happen to be in town running errands when he notices Jesus and says, “Hey, can I get your opinion on something?”

No. This is a story of yearning. And as the conversation unfolds we realize that it is also a story of awakening.

The rich young man can’t help but suspect that there’s something more to this faith thing than just following a checklist of commandments. But he doesn’t know what that “something more” might be. So he asks.

And how does Jesus respond?

He looks at him.

And loves him.

Jesus does not react to the young man’s wealth, or his position, or his piety as a Jew. Jesus looks deep into his being.

Jesus sees immediately that the thing standing between this young man and a deeper experience of God’s grace and generosity is his attachment to his wealth—not the wealth itself, but his attachment to that wealth.

Adam Kligfeld, an Orthodox Rabbi in Los Angeles, puts it this way:

Life is not about amassing wealth but about amassing meaning, and things and objects aren’t worth nearly what we think they are. And at the same time, we’re supposed to enjoy all the bounty that God has given us. That includes enjoying some of the wonderful things about the modern world, while at the same time putting proper value on them. The key is not to take it too far in either direction.[ii]

That is precisely what moves Jesus to compassion—this man has taken it too far in amassing wealth. Jesus challenges him to amass meaning. Jesus wants the young man to discover that, to put proper value on things, he will have to recalibrate his understanding of God’s grace, his sense of generosity and abundance.

I suspect that most of us, if we are honest with ourselves, have been in this young man’s shoes. At one time or another, various aspects of our lives have gotten in the way of our relationship with Jesus. We have faced the choice of recalibrating or parting ways.

The good news is that ours is not a checklist faith. Our faith is rooted in baptism; our lives are shaped by the vows of a living covenant, not by static, one-time promises.

Notice that the very first covenant that we make in baptism is to be in communion with one another. We commit to continue in the fellowship, and in the breaking of the bread because we need to be at this table. We need to challenge one another’s comfort zones. We need to take strength and reassurance from one another as we wrestle with our own understandings of grace, and generosity, and abundance.

The second vow of our covenant is to persevere. We just name it up front that we’re not going to get this right. We are going to fall short. We do not go away grieving, however, unwilling to face the challenge and grace of growing more deeply into Christ. We humbly confess both the things we have done and the things we have left undone, trusting that, with God’s help, we will do better next time.

It is only from this foundation that we move into that place from which our very energy ripples outward to proclaim the Good News, to seek and serve Christ in all persons, and to strive for justice and peace. It is only then that we genuinely become living stewards of an ever-living Gospel.

Each of us is in a different place on this stewardship journey. You may be growing into proportional giving, or into the tithe. You may be considering an offering from your abundance that is beyond the tithe. You may be hesitant at the thought of committing to a pledge when you don’t know what the year ahead has in store. Perhaps you are attending to the care of yourself and your loved ones at the end of life.

Wherever you are on the steward’s path, I ask you to consider this:

The parish budget is not just a financial outline of what the vestry expects to take in and how they predict they will spend it. It is a living document of how your congregation will act on a shared commitment to proclaim the Good News of God in Christ in Jerusalem, throughout Judea, in all of Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. The parish budget sends a clear message: This is who we are; this is the ministry we share, by faith, with thanksgiving.

In these weeks many of us are being invited to pledge a portion of our abundance to the mission and ministry of our congregations. Such an invitation is nothing less than an opportunity for you to allow Jesus to look at you, and to love you.

So do yourself a favor: Don’t just put down last year’s number, or a pick an amount that feels affordable, or play it safe until you see what transpires. Engage in prayerful discernment. Reflect deeply on your own understanding of God’s grace, on God’s generosity and abundance, and on your own perceptions of what things are really worth.

And then hold fast to your confession. Approach the throne of grace with boldness. And discover the joy and gladness that comes from bringing the first fruits of your life and labor to the Lord.

Amen


[ii] Ibid.

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