This post is also an article in this week's The View, the parish newsletter for St. John's Episcopal Church in Decatur, Alabama. To read more from the newsletter and learn about St. John's, click here.
A few weeks ago, I let my passion get the better of me, and I made a mistake that I wish I could take back. I had driven up to Bowling Green, Kentucky, to support my friend and colleague Steve Pankey and the people of Christ Episcopal Church, where he has recently begun his ministry as their rector. I had been looking forward to the trip ever since I saw that they had scheduled the service for the Celebration of a New Ministry on a Tuesday night, when a clergyperson with regular Wednesday-evening commitments like me could go. Not surprisingly, my efforts were rewarded.
Church music in a university town is almost always resplendent, and the choir did not disappoint. Another colleague and friend of mine delivered a compelling sermon that effectively combined humor and exhortation, leaving me with a renewed sense of vocation and possibility. The bishop, although remarkably formal in his liturgical style, conveyed a genuine love for Steve and the people of Christ Episcopal Church that reassured everyone in the room that God would use this partnership—bishop, priest, and people—for the building up of God’s kingdom. Everything worked well. The people were warm and inviting. The worship was beautiful and inspiring. And, then, it happened.
As expected, the bishop explained during the announcements that the offering would go to Steve’s discretionary fund to help him meet the needs of the poor in that community. Eagerly, I reached into my pocket and pulled out my wallet. Not one to carry much cash, I had made a special stop on the way to ensure that I would have something to put in the plate. I always look forward to making my offering, and I wanted to show my support for Steve and his ministry in a particular way. When the ushers brought the plates forward, however, they looked at the choir and visiting clergy, who were seated in the first few pews, and then skipped right over us.
“Excuse me,” I whispered to the usher nearest to me too softly to be heard over the offertory anthem. “Ahem!” I said more loudly as I mock-cleared my throat, again to no effect. Finally, in a full, sharp voice, I barked, “Sir! Come back! Don’t skip over us!” at which point the red-faced usher returned and passed the plate down our pew. Immediately, I realized with embarrassment what a spectacle I had become. A visitor who had been welcomed with true hospitality, I had let my desire to give and my frustration both at having been passed over and the theological and cultural crisis that that exclusion represented bring me to a disproportionately disruptive response. I sought the usher out after the service to apologize, but I never found him.
On the drive home, I had plenty of time to relive that moment and ask myself why I had reacted so strongly and negatively. My nature prefers decorum over disruption, and the recklessness with which I hollered after the usher had been an out-of-character and almost out-of-body experience. Initially, I identified the root as a perceived sense of wrong at having been excluded from the people’s offering. As a clergyperson who usually receives the alms basins at the altar rather than passes them down the pew, I have fallen into the shortsighted habit of paying my pledge electronically rather than adding my own offering to the plate before placing it on the altar. This was my chance to do what everyone else gets to do every Sunday, and it had been denied me. Soon, however, I realized that there was more to it than that.
Most people do not like asking others for money. We have convinced ourselves that it is rude, burdensome, and uncharitable, when, in fact, it is the opposite. When the usher passes the plate down your pew, she is giving you the opportunity to be a real, actual, tangible part of the community of the faithful. The plate is an invitation to give something that matters to you back to God. As such, it is an invitation to freedom—freedom from the false belief that you need every penny in your pocket in order to survive, freedom from the idolatry of your bank account, freedom from the delusion that you are the only thing keeping yourself and your family alive. Even if you pay your pledge through an online bill pay as I do, touching the plate is an opportunity for you to engage the practice of making your offering by recalling the check that will be written and mailed to the church on your behalf. The realization is even stronger, of course, if you place an extra dollar or two in the plate, but to wave off the usher and miss the chance to touch it entirely removes you from that moment in our worship—a moment that is absolutely and unequivocally focused on presenting the offerings of our lives and labors to the Lord.
That is why a deeply held anger and resentment bubbled up from within me in that moment—not only because I was left holding my money but because an usher who would skip over the choir and clergy is a symptom of a much more serious problem, and that problem starts with the clergy. Actually, I don't know why the usher skipped over us, but I do know what I thought when he did. Of course the usher passed over us! Collectively, we the clergy are worse than anyone else at discussing stewardship. Many assume that the clergy, who already work for the church, have no need of offering anything else back to God, and we are guilty of allowing that falsehood to persist. Why? Because we do not enjoy asking people for money either. It touches on that awkward balance between inviting people to give and inviting people to pay one’s own salary, but that discomfort reveals an unbiblical understanding of stewardship. When we invite people to contribute, we are not asking them to fund a budget or a salary. We are inviting people to grow in faith, and we have no reason to be shy about that.
Just as Moses warned God’s people in Deuteronomy 8, we have spent generations living in cedar-paneled houses and reaping the harvest of our bountiful land, and we have forgotten the life-giving nature of offering the first fruits of our harvest back to God. We are scared of stewardship, and our money-obsessed culture is desperate to rediscover it. I wish that I would have held my tongue that night or, perhaps, that I had slipped quietly to the back of the church where I could give my gift to the usher, but I do not regret the passion that it reawakened within me. I believe in the power of stewardship. I believe that giving away more of our resources is the most important thing we can do to deepen our faith and grow closer to God. I believe that the church is not faithful when it fails to encourage people to give. And I believe that each of us has an opportunity to share the good news of God’s limitless bounty by inviting others to take stewardship seriously.