Thursday, May 11, 2017

Transformational Giving

Yesterday, in a moment of frustration, I tweeted, "Stewardship: inviting people to give is the same as inviting them to love Jesus. If clergy can't do that, they need to quit." Some people, including clergy, don't like talking about or hearing about financial stewardship. They don't like asking people to give, and they don't like being asked to give. I respect that. I would much rather write a larger check to my children's school than have my children sell doughnuts, coupon cards, or anything else no one really needs. But, when it comes to asking people to give a part of their income to God's work in the world, I can't do it enough, and it has nothing to do with raising money to fund the ministries of the church, including the salary that provides for our family. I love asking people to give because giving money is one way--and perhaps the most real, tangible, consequential way--to invite them to offer their lives to the transforming work that God is doing in the world through God's Son, Jesus Christ.

Elizabeth, our children, and I give a considerable portion (13%) of our income to what God is doing in the world through a pledge to our church because the act of giving has transformed us and continues to transform us into grateful, faithful disciples of Jesus who are dedicated to the gospel's work "not only with our lips but with our lives." I won't use this post to offer my testimony of how proportional, sacrificial, first-fruits giving changed my heart from one filled with anxiety about whether my family and I would have enough to one filled with confidence in God's provision for my family, but I will say that the act of devoting that first portion of what God has given us back to what God is doing in the world has changed us. It has deepened our faith. It has made us available to God and God's work in new ways. It has enabled us to say "yes" to God and God's call more readily and significantly. It has opened our eyes to recognize the blessings in our lives and all around us. That kind of giving has had that kind of effect, and there's no other way I know to get it.

I believe that God is using the gospel of Jesus Christ to shape this world into the love-filled, love-driven, love-reflecting world that God made it to be. I want to be a part of love's work. I want to share that good news of Jesus with others. Our family's stewardship is a response to and participation in that transformational work. That's why our family gives, and that's why I take great delight in asking other people to give, too. It isn't about the money--at least not the amount that is given or the amount that is raised. It's about the gesture--the sacrificial, proportional, first-fruits yielding of ourselves to God that brings transformation. When I invite people to give, I'm not asking them for money. I'm asking them to take a step of faith toward trusting God and, by doing so, to invite transformation in their lives.

When I invite people to make a pledge to God's work in the world, it doesn't matter whether they give to our church, to the United Way, to Greater Birmingham Ministries, to the Committee on Church Cooperation, or to any other group that is doing God's work. I think the transformative power of that gift is most effective when it is given to a ministry in which the person takes part. I think individuals and families should ask, "Where do I see God's work being done? Where am I a part of God's work in the world?" Those are the places where we give so that we can even more fully participate in the transformative work. For most of us, the primary place that we participate in the work of the gospel is our church. For a clergy family, it is overwhelmingly our church. (We also give to other gospel-focused charities, but the first-fruits gift goes to the church.) For members of the vestry, it is almost certainly our church. For a loosely affiliated pew-sitter who comes to church twice a year, it might be the homeless shelter where they volunteer twice a week...but I don't know a lot of people who are that committed to the work of the gospel who don't also manifest that commitment through regular participation in the life of the church. The point is that this isn't a tax to be paid to an organization you don't see or know. It's an opportunity to join other people in work that makes a difference in our lives and in the world.

I don't normally write a lot about stewardship on this blog. Usually, my focus is the lessons for the upcoming Sunday or whatever lessons are the basis for a midweek sermon. On Tuesdays, there is often a parish newsletter article that I share here, and it sometimes has to do with stewardship, but I rarely break in for a message on honoring the giver of all gifts by caring for what we have been giving. This week, however, I am at a stewardship conference, and I've got giving on the brain. This conference has had some really good components. It has focused not only on annual giving but also on fundraising (e.g. capital campaigns), planned giving (e.g. estate gifts), and the unique work of identifying, fostering, securing, and nurturing major gifts. Much of it has been good, but some of it has been really disheartening.

This work has been sponsored by the College for Bishops (the teaching ministry of the House of Bishops) and the Episcopal Church Foundation (a lay-led, independent organization that promotes healthy work among clergy, lay leaders, and congregations). The premise has been exceptional. We've been asked to focus not on the "What?" or the "How" of stewardship but on the "Why?" That's everything I believe about stewardship (see above) and a correction of everything I think has gone wrong with stewardship in the wider church. The teaching on major gifts and fundraising has been positive because it has been infused with that why-first mentality. But the work we've done on annual giving has been mixed at best. Some of the mechanics--like year-round stewardship and developing a theme and the importance of thank-yous--has been good, but, when it all came together last night in the presentation of an annual giving dinner that we took part in as if we were members of a congregation, giving as a grace-filled, transformative practice didn't come through.

I could offer lots of criticisms for the dinner itself, but that's not my focus. My focus was on the invitation I received at the dinner. After a genuine, heart-felt story of transformational participation in the life of the church, I was asked to help our parish meet its goal of $250,000. To meet that goal, I was asked to increase my pledge by 3%. That's a lovely fundraising request, but it isn't an invitation to transformational giving. I was asked to give a little bit more--not to give God my whole heart. I was told that God's work in the world being done by our parish would be accomplished when a certain amount was raised--not invited to join a parish in the earth-changing work of loving the world until our savior returns. I couldn't keep quiet. When asked if we had any questions, I raised my hand and told the room that I had missed the invitation to transformational giving. I let them know that the work of the gospel had been absent. I reminded them of what they had told the group early on--that the "Why?" had to be the lead instead of the "What?".

Sometimes things don't go perfectly, and that's ok. Given the amount of money and time that are being given so that these participants can take part, I would expect it to go better than that, but it doesn't have to be perfect. The first response I got to my criticism was 100% right. She accepted it, thanked me for it, and invited me and others in the room to work together to revise the presentation we had heard. That's wonderful. But then the president of ECF, Donald Romanik, stood up and said that a parish dinner like this one was not the place to talk about transformational giving."What if there are newcomers in the room?" he said. "How will they even understand what transformation means? We might as well tell them about the tithe! They'll never even come back because they'll think that all we talk about is money." Those words came from the leader of the organization that is dedicated to empowering Episcopal faith communities through strategic planning, positive clergy-lay partnerships, and good fund-raising, and they show a total lack of understanding of why the church is even in the money business to begin with.

Why do people come to church? Why do people even show up at a stewardship dinner? It's not for the spaghetti and cheap wine. It's because they want to be transformed by the love of God in Jesus Christ. They want transformation, and transformation is what we have to offer. If a church keeps that "Why?" in focus, everyone who walks through the door--whether it's their first time in the building or their 10,000th time--will receive an invitation to the transforming work of the gospel with renewed energy and commitment. Apple doesn't ask you to know how to use an iPhone before you buy one. The invite you to trust that buying one will change your life. And people do it because Apple is really good at sharing their "Why?" with the world--that they are dedicated to making life beautiful and simple. The church doesn't expect people to know how proportional, sacrificial, first-fruits giving will impact their lives, but we invite people to trust us, and, if we've shown them that the only thing we care about--the only thing that motivates our every word and action--is the transforming love of God in Jesus Christ, then they will trust us and they will give and they will see and they will share that good news with others.

If we can't share that message at a spaghetti supper, we're in big trouble. If the leaders of our church--the College for Bishops and ECF--don't understand that stewardship is about deepening individuals' and parishes' and dioceses' relationships with God, we're in even bigger trouble than I thought. I'm in this work because I believe it has the power to change lives--not because I believe it's a good way to raise money for good and godly work. This can't be about the dollars we raise. This can't be about the programs we fund. Money and programs are an expression of faith, and they only grow when faith grows, and stewardship is about growing faith.

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