I’ve been reading In Pursuit of the Almighty’s Dollar: A History of Money and American Protestantism by J.H. Beumler. It’s a fascinating read, if not a page turner.
The history of Stewardship in Protestantism in the United States is the story of trying to figure out how to motivate individuals. This was a whole new concept in religion brought about by the American experiment. In Europe, the church and its structures and places of large gathering held historic and intrinsic value. Larger institutions were maintained by the state for civic and charitable purposes and as a legacy of national and cultural heritage. The great Cathedrals of Europe, Chartres, Amiens, Cologne, etc. were built by the hands of generations and rebuilt after the devastation of war. They stood as symbols of the health and recovery of their community or they performed essential civic function. One could hardly crown a King or Queen in England without a Westminster Abbey, after all.
But in America, individualism and the intentional separation of Church and State made for a sticky problem of support. Our history is laden with a series of approaches and experiments on how to do just that by appealing to individuals. “Pew Taxes” were levied, appeals made out of need, encouragement driven by wanting something (new organ, new steeple, or indoor plumbing). The urgency to give due to specific circumstance was used. The Old Testament concept of “Tithe” was resurrected in a variety of ways to tie individual action to corporate need.
The take away of 300 years of doing this? There are (in other words), no “silver bullets” of stewardship approaches in the history of American Protestantism. But, running through the book is a silver thread. In the nearly 300 years of Protestantism on this continent, there has always been enough to do the work required at the given time.
All this comes as a word of preparation to you.
We will soon be “building a budget” at St. James for the coming year, and typically (as well as historically) no matter how the “push” for pledges is done, we will get about a 1/3 response on pledges distributed to individuals and households returned to indicate giving intent.
The amount pledged to give in a year will vary per household from a high of a few giving over $10,000.00 per household to a low of around $600.00. We don’t record or register “Zero” pledge amounts, although we do get them as a matter of principle from some who either do not want to reveal what they intend to give or as an indicator that life is too unpredictable for them to put down an amount at this time.
There is a strong desire in the organizational psyche to want to have a “balanced” budget, but such things are fantasies when you only have a voluntary commitment from 1/3 of your constituents. At best, the budget we put together at St. James is a “spending plan” of what we think should be attainable given the variables known at this time. The Council monitors that spending plan closely throughout the year, looking for places where spending can be adjusted, planning wasn’t quite on top of need, and making decisions about any major projects with which we need to move ahead.
So, when it comes to planning for Stewardship, the old Pastor in me has two letters that he really wants to write.
The first is the expected one. That is the letter you’ve received every year that outlines this year’s stewardship theme, introduces the “memorable” slogan that is supposed to prompt you to think about what you will give in the coming year, and all the accompanying literature produced to prompt you to think about it.
Then, (using those enclosed charts, tools, books to read, and bible studies) you are encouraged to figure out how much you wish to contribute to the mission and ministry of God through St. James.
I will no doubt put together another such a campaign for your benefit as members (as they can be helpful) and for the benefit of leadership being able to say we encouraged giving.
But the second letter is my fantasy letter.
It is the letter that says, “Did you look up at the sky today and give thanks to God for what you saw and what you received?
A pattern the clouds?
The bright oranges, pinks, golds and violets that glowed with iridescent light?
Did you feel the warmth of a summer raindrop hit your face or the soft sting of snow as it lit on your cheek?”
In all seasons God is faithful and provides for you. What would you pay to have that moment again tomorrow?
You cannot buy it. Not from anyone, not even from God.
But, you can give thanks for that moment and every moment freely given to you.
And you can give a gift out of the abundance that has been given to you so that someone (namely, your Pastor) will remind you to look for that sign of God’s goodness and grace and will be there to point out moments like that to you again and again. He/she will also be there in time of crisis, and joy, to speak of God’s unfailing love and presence at the right moment.
You can give an ongoing contribution so that some place (namely, your church) will be there to remind you and others that tomorrow comes again, as do the seasons, and that God loves you through and through in all of the seasons of life.
You can make a contribution from the abundance given to you, so that pantries can operate, Girl Scouts, square dancers and neighborhood associations will have a place to gather, plan and participate. You can touch others simply by making sure a place exists on a street corner that bears witness to God’s continuing presence in the midst of this world.
Did you find a way to give thanks to God today? And, whatever you gave, was it in some measure “enough” in proportion to what you yourself first received from God?
That’s my fantasy letter. One that appeals not to the figures and the planning, and all the “head” stuff, but rather appeals to the heart and helps you simply get in tune with what you already know. Because (quite frankly) all the fancy marketing words, special graphics, charts tables and cutesy slogans in the world won’t get to you or get you to give. Not unless God has captured your heart with God’s love and you feel that love renewed in every new day, and every sunrise.
So, go check out the sky tomorrow, look for God to greet you in the new day, and then find your way to give thanks for it.
Rev. Merle Brockhoff currently serves as Pastor at St. James Lutheran Church, Kansas City, Missouri and is a Stewardship Coach for the ELCA. He has served in rural, suburban, and small city congregations, as a mission developer, and as Intentional Interim Pastor in settings in Nebraska, Kansas and Upstate New York.