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Unglamorous yet vital

June 24, 2015

A church in the Northeastern Ohio Synod describes itself as a “50/50” congregation. It gives away half of offerings received. A significant portion goes to mission support, but the congregation also supports local projects and ministries. I visited this congregation on the day it was bringing in offerings for a special appeal. One by one, somber parishioners came forward and placed their offerings in a basket before the altar.

Farther back in the congregation I noticed a girl, maybe 5 years old, sitting on her father’s lap. She squirmed and wriggled until he gave her his offering and set her loose. She came tearing down the aisle, check held high, looking for all the world as if she had won the lottery. As she returned to her seat, I pointed out the joy of giving this little girl embodied. Someone from the congregation quipped, “It’s not her money.” I waited for a minute and then said, “No, it’s her Father’s money.”

We have a conflicted relationship with money. We claim that it can’t buy us love or happiness on the one hand but measure our worth and security by it on the other. We don’t like to talk about money in church. We’ve talked about human sexuality in this church for years, but we don’t talk about money. It’s just beyond the pale.

I remember an interview with a call committee where I asked to see the treasurer’s reports. I was told: “Oh no, pastor, you worry about spiritual matters and we’ll worry about the finances.” But our relationship with money is a profoundly spiritual issue. Our peculiar relationship with money can hold us in a kind of bondage. Jesus knew this when he encountered a rich man who claimed to have kept the commandments from his youth but still felt something was missing. When Jesus told him to sell everything he had, give it to the poor and follow him, he “was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions” (Mark 10:17-22).  He was possessed.

Giving is a spiritual discipline. It’s a way for us to learn to live by faith. It’s a way to participate in God’s generosity and abundance. It’s a way to move beyond ourselves. It’s also a way for us to be connected one to another. Responding to the grace and prodigal love of God expressed in the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, our giving is a communal act. Giving isn’t a private thing any more than worship is. It’s part of our life together. I’m not talking about the ostentatious and self-serving giving that Jesus warns against in Matthew 6:2-4, but the intentional and, in her case, extravagant offering of the widow at the temple (Mark 12:41-44). Hers was a public act of faith and participation in the corporate life of the community. 

How often does your congregation talk about money? At the annual fall stewardship campaign? In adult forums? Ever? Does your congregation have stewardship education and an annual stewardship program? Your bishops, synod staffs and directors for evangelical mission are ready and eager to work with you. Call them.  

Recently, Bishop James Hazelwood of the New England Synod polled rostered and lay members about mission support. He discovered that about 10 percent knew what mission support is. It’s the financial support congregations send to synods to enable and further the work of the greater church. A percentage is forwarded to the churchwide organization to support the ELCA’s work at home and around the world. Some synods send as much as 55 percent of mission support received. All of our synods are generous, even sacrificial, in their giving. This is work we do together — no single congregation or synod could do this alone. And synods also support ministries on their territories — seminaries, camps, colleges, social ministry organizations, new congregations and much more. 

Giving patterns have changed. I understand that people want to give to specific projects or local causes. That’s great. Keep doing that. In fact, check out Always Being Made New: The Campaign for the ELCA. You can designate to vital ministries to your heart’s content. But be a part of faithful, liberating, connecting mission support. It might not be glamorous, but it makes a difference.

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