Category Archives: Stewardship Year-Round

Why Rush?

In 1847, Ebenezer Davies, a visiting Englishman, was invited to preach while in Cincinnati.  Later he wrote, “At the close of the sermon, having pronounced the benediction, I engaged, according to English custom, in a short act of private devotion.  When I raised my head and opened my eyes, the very last man of the congregation was actually making his exit through the doorway; and it was quite as much as I could manage to put on my top-coat and gloves and reach the door before the sexton closed it.”  Ebenezer Davies, American Scenes and Christian Slavery; A Recent Tour of Four Thousand Miles in the United States.  (London; John Snow, 1849)

Americans have always been in a rush.  Sometimes we notice ourselves hurrying through time; sometimes we are astonished to find time has gone past faster than we expected; somehow we are always surprised to discover that rush and hurry don’t make us more efficient, that speed affords less profit than we imagined, that we get a hint of some other value we might want, when suddenly we are forced to stop a moment.

I’d bet that most intentional Christians in their own places of worship have had a hard half year–hard years are a norm, even with joy and gladness interspersed.  Congregational leaders have certainly had a hard half year so far—most are working for most of the time with fewer members than usual; at any given moment some were surprised by the former music director’s taking a new job in mid-year; some have not been able to raise up new leaders for essential ministries yet; all have kept up with hard work of getting their congregational house in order—learning how to plan for building maintenance rather than letting the building reach emergency needs first; learning how to become good stewards of the members’ trust in them; getting  finances from a state of savings and funds in many coffee cans to a gathered, intentionally ordered unity of giving and resources, planning how stewardship and giving will reflect the whole church and provide for the whole church’s work in mission and ministry.   The heaviness of the half year thus far might have made some feel anxious or pressed on them a sense of falling behind, but I’d be surprised if most meet and work in this way every month.  Some leaders have been changed by taking up the habit of praying together at the close of each meeting; some leadership groups  have taken on praying each for the members they represent and care for, in some order of grouped names each month.  Praying for their work and the people they are keeping house for, changes leaders, gives them a vibrancy in the Presence.

Bishop Ronald H. Haines has proved one of the five most influential people in my life.  He was an extraordinarily busy leader, working steadfastly while under rather constant attack from many of his peers for his decisions, including his decision to ordain the first openly lesbian priest in the Episcopal Church while he was Bishop of Washington, D.C.  He never sounded rushed or hurried, anxious or angry as he went about his work.  I knew him in retirement.  I asked him once why all these pressures did not affect him in that usual way.  “You should ask yourself:  what’s the good in that?” he said.  “Remember: it took a long time for things to get into the state they’re in; it’ll take a long time to make them better.  You can’t get to the end before you start, and you’ll never begin if you rush.  Nobody can really think in a hurry.  When I drop things and I get angry, I know I’m going too fast.”

Here’s an interesting thing:  It’s hard to hurry through evening prayer, especially if one is using a liturgical service like Compline.  The rhythm and language of the liturgy opens time to reveal us as we are, where we are, when we are:  always moving and breathing in God’s presence, in whom there is no rush or hurry that overlooks details, drops things, inclines to forgetfulness or defensive anger.  True:  we can’t keep from being American, from holding an almost instinctive impatience with whatever it is that holds us back from going fast and even faster.   But we can grow more mature as Christians by practicing the virtue of patience until we find ourselves formed more closely as the people God can call and into whom God can pour increasing energy  for worship, witness and service.

Your session, vestry, consistory, council, meets on a regular day of the month.  Why not take time at the end of the evening on those days, throughout the rest of this coming year, and read Compline yourself, or some other service of evening or night prayer, wherever you are, joining your leaders in prayer and praying for them by name, once a month, as they do the work of leadership you have laid on them for 2013?

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Is Clergy Overtime Inevitable–or Good?

Quick:  how many hours a week does the Protestant clergy person work, on average ?  45?  65?  80?  The answer is 65.  How many of you were going to guess 80?

What percentage of Protestant clergy currently have half-time jobs working overtime?  50?  60?  90?  The answer is 64% of Protestant clergy work, on average, 65 hours a week.

“Goes with the territory,” is the terse answer of most whom I asked about this.   Really?  Why?

How can egregious overwork for God be ‘territorially’ right for clergy?  Is it,then,  also ‘right’ for ordinary members?  This concept seems to me to amount to a denial of abundant life.  –Or, a refusal of the promise, but definitely not fulfillment.  For the Body, egregious overwork of leaders signals poor leading of community.   Overwork may supply a short-term need, but as a professional habit in the church, this overwork and overtime does not fulfill the leader’s call to help others grow to full maturity.     The clergy’s choice isn’t just a personal thing, after all.  The clergy overtime habit affects the whole Body. 

When I read reports of surveys made of clergy who routinely work 65 and 70 hours a week, as being more diseased, more likely alcoholic, more likely overweight, divorced, depressed and anxious than their fellow-Christians or their fellow-citizens (not necessarily interchangeable groups), it distresses me to think that I am part of this picture and that any clergy person thinks it’s for my benefit.   After all, clergy cannot be Christian for anyone else, and what else is working overtime about? Still, every member of a congregation led by a clergy person working over time is an invisible part of the problem.

 The subject is thick with overgrowth.  Paths lead everywhere, once you start looking.   I’ve wondered–is everything that clergy do, so necessary?  If they stopped doing 60+ hours of church work every week, would they stop being Christian?  Would they not be seen as clergy if they worked only 45 hours a week?  Would they fail in dedication?  Would churches really fall apart?  Is the 40 hour clergy work week causing churches everywhere to shrink and die?  Is overwork and all its consequences, a real definition of ordination? 

I would say yes to that one.   Yes.  Overwork probably an unwritten part of every clergy contract.  Clergy must start out thinking it is part of the fulfillment, part of the sacrifice and dedication in the job and calling.  Why?   Why should egregious overwork  be glorified?  Why is it acceptable to all of us as the healthy, fruitful Christian life for clergy, or for ordinary Christians for that matter? 

Of course there is a kind of balance struck in this peculiar ordering.  There are rewards.  Dysfunction does pay off, for all involved, in a twisted fashion.  At the least, each group is then justified in myriad complaint about the other.   It would be better to start facing facts.  As long as we all accept clergy overtime in all its implications  as the normal way of things, we live in deformed community, are a deformed body. We lack accountability for all the gifts of freedom and life abundant we have been given for the healing and well-being of the world.

We are in a far country, here, and we need to come to ourselves.  Make a change of culture low to the ground, in humility.  Community by community,  let clergy and ordinary Christians together find themselves truly free, in awareness of God’s presence and call.   Such freedom comes in being responsible in mutual submission to the Spirit’s leading, to the Baptismal Covenant and in constant mutual discernment and affirmation of God’s gifts and calling to each of us in ministry. 

For the common good, for healthy, faithful community and for reliable witness to Christ’s promises:   no more clergy overtime, and no more Sunday Christians.

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Prayer as Due Diligence

Year-end budget activity always leaves me feeling undernourished.  I drive to and from the vestry meeting not thinking about money matters.  I think instead about the pitifully weak nod to prayer  we’re bound to make at the meeting’s beginning and end.  This prayer, so standard in every denomination, is like Wonder Bread.  The meeting’s matters and content are the tuna salad, Lebanon bologna, cheese and pickles, whatever.  The lids of a sandwich, of course, are just there to hold the contents in place, right?  We treat prayer the same way.  Isn’t the budget more important than the prayer?  Aren’t the votes of more consequence than the praying? 

Well…  Can that be true?   

By now, everybody knows what poor nutrition comes in any sandwich made with two slices of Wonder Bread (I feel obliged to qualify that last word with ‘fake’, given all the preservatives replacing ingredients my grandmother would have used in the kitchen).  Our 15 second prayers at start and finish of vestry/session/council meetings (ok–take 25 seconds, if you protest) are as helpful to us in the meeting as Wonderbread is to a child’s lunch.

We  always say a prayer before the meeting starts, and of course we say one at the end.  These amount to “Bless this meeting and our decisions,” and “bless us going home.”  In between we make our decisions:  approve this much of a deficit to keep things rolling and the roof on, disapprove that much in the deficit to salve conscience.    “Let us start the sandwich prayer now,”  and “let us join in prayer as we close the sandwich now.” 

In the beginning, 40 years ago when I started going to session meetings, I entered into the invocation with full intention to  pray with everyone else.  But the moderator’s prayer blew right by before I’d even settled my awareness of us in God’s presence.  Whish! 

Since then, I’ve watched and listened, but have given up really praying at the start or end of session/vestry/council meetings.  Instead, I am wary as we all bow our heads at the necessary signal.  We come into the meetings primed to decide on this or insist on that, to defend the other or attack something else, to resist that power push and to hold ground against the opposing power pull and play.  There’s no good way I know of to pray all that.  I have trouble praying “God bless our side in this war,” and I have the same trouble exactly, asking God to bless a church leadership group in contention over anything, budget battles included.

Because I grew up in a series of Presbyterian (PCUSA) missionary boarding schools, I learned early on (with all my peers–it’s not an isolated gift to the odd individual) to pray in a group.  I learned to hear the sound of prayer in common, the wordless, quiet joining of intentions to a single focus voiced by one speaker.  I can still do this kind of listening; anyone can learn the skill.    Here’s what I hear when all of us around the table obediently bow our heads at the signal for the invocation:  we draw breath, we breath out, and then comes a  dry rattling moment when everything in our minds rushes into an infinitesimally minute and simultaneously expanding moment of awareness.  You can hear the wind picking up all the big dry oak leaves on the ground and whisking them along the paved street.

As each of us joins in the single moment of calling on God together, our separate thoughts racket into a chute and collect just behind our foreheads.  “Will the mission line items survive?  I’ll vote yes to cut the choir’s retreat budget, no on cutting the funds for extra nursery care, I’ve got to get the rear tire replaced, should have written Janet already, forgot to email Jim about the survey, should have taken two minutes at supper to ask G how his day was instead of rushing out, getting here early, does everyone else have these blank thoughts about praying and these crammed thoughts about what we’re really doing, come to think of that, what should we be doing in the meeting, I wonder what God hears or pays attention to,  is this praying a bit of traditional magic, I wonder why we never talk about this part of what we do together, what are the assumptions, what is the really deep right thing to do, does everybody really think this is just about bank balances, oh, we’re done, time to pay attention in Christ’s name.  Amen.”

Then we have the meeting.  It goes on, and of course we pass the budget, all of us with our hands in our pockets as we vote yes.

We decry our decisions in parking lot conversations afterwards:  why are we still living beyond our means?  why are we still stinting on youth support?  when are we going to get the green replacement heating system?  what are we going to do to improve stewardship? 

Who wonders what God wants in the congregation that year?  Who wonders what might come to the tongue should God appear and present us with the question Jesus asked of Blind Bartimeus:  “What do you want me to do for you?”  You, plural, of course. 

What would I say?  What would we say?  I have no idea at all what the other leaders who are responsible, with me, for this congregation, would ask God to give us.  We come to such understanding by common endeavor, not by any leader’s perspicacity or political savvy.  We come to such an understanding not because some clergy leader tells us what to know or think or say.  We are responsible.  We  need to figure out how we can become that responsibility, and how that responsibility can become  us.  How can leaders put on and wear this responsibility towards God (usually understood as ordained calling) with integrity and grace?  That would be true stewardship, essential stewardship of the leadership calling. 

So prayer before and after a church leadership meeting has two essential elements:  that we recall ourselves as belonging to God and not to ourselves, and that we become aware of joining each other in mutual  submission and supplication before we undertake our decisions.

The way of becoming a leader is not decision-making.  The way of becoming a leader is prayer.

Here are the essential tasks: 

  1. To learn to know what to ask of God, specifically
  2. To know the congregation well enough to know what to ask for on their behalf and for them 
  3. To understand our direction clearly, to become willing to ask God, in prayer all together, for what we the leaders know we need/want/hope for at any given time in our term of service
  4.  To pray much more seriously, much more often and with more imagination and more discipline than we leaders ever attempt in our committed, commissioned calling. 

Call such prayer due diligence before we undertake or pass any budget in the coming year.

Setting out to learn to pray for the congregation for six months as due diligence before passing the budget… how bad can that be?  Sounds like a good nourishing mouthful to me!

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Create effective stewards in your congregation

The principle known as the Hawthorne effect describes an observation made in the 1940s in corporate organization research.  Tested consistently since then, without any change in outcome, the Hawthorne effect is this:   when any special attention is paid to people, their output goes up regardless of changes made in the system. 

So, any stewardship work that emphasizes attention to particular groups will result in higher giving by those people.  The attention is the source of the effect; the effect is not necessarily the change of heart or spiritual experience.

 But the implication is plain:  you have to keep paying attention to those people if you want to sustain the effected change. 

People can have a change of heart, of course, and a change in spiritual maturity is always possible.  For any result of that depth and quality, leaders are well advised to determine the levels of spiritual maturity of the congregation’s givers.    Some people will waffle on this point, on grounds of ‘privacy’ or on assumption that this determination is an act of judgement.    If you use a model like CDI’s Shape of the Parish, you will be able to prepare thoughtful opportunities for spiritual formation.  That’s how to prepare the heart for change. 

Unless you’re a big congregation with lots of money, you won’t have a full-time stewardship director. Your leaders will be moving on to something else as the seasons roll.  But wait!  Before withdrawing direct attention from the members, help them see a new horizon for growth.  These people are already committed to their course of spiritual maturity.   It is significant that the spiritual formation comes on a path of stewardship.  Though you have to get on with things elsewhere in the church, this new beginning is too important to leave alone until stewardship time rolls around again.

So here’s an idea:  What if you got the original group of participants to pay attention to others?  You can plan  from the start for those who learn some new, fresh perspective on practicing stewardship at the start of the new program, to use their own experience at the end of the stewardship focus.  Invite them to become responsible for teaching and shepherding another group in the congregation.  

If you aim your beginning efforts at, say, developing stewardship in light of members gaining spiritual maturity,  you will then have two groups in the congregation who are actively pursuing the spiritual maturity required for the practice of gratitude and generosity.  This is creative work in congregational development, a stewardship practice well worth replacing the usual fund-raising efforts. If you start out planning to keep this practice in your congregation’s life, within three years of maintaining the program, you will have a small group of strong members who will minister not only to each other as good stewards, but who will want to plan and provide the same experience for others.

Even without an ambitious program of spiritual development, the Hawthorne Effect should still work for raising your level of stewardship, if your first group goes on receiving attention in some form.  The fastest, most rewarding method is to have leaders nurturing the nurturer in a deliberate cycle of spiritual enrichment.  Offering retreats, monthly Quiet Mornings and spiritual direction, for example, to the people who take part in the first attempt to link stewardship and spiritual formation. 

Prepare yourselves from the beginning, though, to encourage each group then in becoming part of a supervisory/shepherding cycle.  This should offer enough regular attention to sustain those who have raised their levels of participation, commitment and giving, until they have changed hearts as well as habits.

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