In our economic crisis, we are circling the wagons. Everywhere we see retrenchment; everywhere we see retreat — in our businesses, in our schools, in our homes, in our churches. But is retrenchment and retreat the proper response for the church?
Immediately we must concede that we cannot pretend that these economic trials have no effect on our congregational life; indeed, to do otherwise would not be good stewardship of our resources. But it also seems that the church reacting simply in parallel to the rest of society is a denial of our understanding of what we are called to be as the “body of Christ on earth.”
Throughout the entire biblical story, and continuing through our witness to the subsequent history’s unfolding, we see that God works throughout the good times and the bad. God has moved the story of hope, redemption, and salvation through so many imperfect and even sinful human beings. Each era presents opportunities for the church to witness to that hope, redemption, and salvation precisely because of times of great trial and testing. And if this is one of those times, what should our response be?
Of course our response must be responsible. We cannot simply use our financial resources without thought and care. Assuming we took Jesus’ call literally and sold off all our possessions and gave the money to the poor, what would that mean for our responsibility in the protection and nourishment of the Church of Jesus Christ? More importantly, what real good would be accomplished? While certainly there would be some relief for many people in great distress, it would be really only temporary. There is not enough money to permanently eradicate poverty. Such a goal requires changing culture, akin to the “giving the fish vs. teaching to fish” argument. But perhaps there is a relationship between how the church acts in stewardship and our ability as Christians to change the culture in ways that further the coming of the kingdom of God.
What might it mean, particularly as a witness to our community and world, for the church to see these times as an opportunity for a redemptive community to be truly a place of hope? Amid all the retreat and retrenchment, we, as a community of faith, are willing to use our resources (within our understanding of our call as Christian stewards of course) to keep our ministry strong, because we know that by this commitment God will work through us (and through our commitment) to change the world. We understand that the effect of our efforts will be proportional. As a single congregation we know we cannot change the whole world in one fell swoop, yet we cannot in good conscience as believers think for a moment that the effect of our efforts, as nurtured by the Holy Spirit, will be meaningless. Indeed, we will probably never be able to quantify what those efforts might be. Such is the nature of how God can multiply small things exponentially. And if we do not think this possible, then we are much too concerned with numbers alone for the sake of numbers alone. And by those concerns and by that measure, if we looked at the three years of Jesus’ public ministry we could easily conclude that it was pretty ineffective. We must be instructed by our faith that the ripples of our ministry through the waters of God’s world often reach shores well beyond our sight and our time.
One proposal: Congregations where there are significant reserves (and the sense of the word significant must be allowed to be considered in their congregational contexts), church leadership takes bold action to draw upon those reserves, often in percentages that far exceed current church policy, in order to keep their ministries whole, not simply for the sake of appearance, but for the sake of our part in God’s kingdom.
In this action, however, there is another responsibility. Using reserves to keep program and ministries “in place” cannot supersede the continuing need for spiritual growth and spiritual journey in possibly new directions. There are too many assumptions made far too often that “the way we’re doing things, is the way we’re supposed to be doing things.” These assumptions lead to the coronation and idolatry of sacred cows, and certainly we are told over and over by Jesus that such behavior, while clearly “of the world,” is not to be ours as Christians.
Indeed, even seemingly important and valued traditions and practices are “up for grabs.”
To another he said, “Follow me.” But he said, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” But Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God”’ (Luke 9:59-60).
In Jewish tradition, burial, except on the Sabbath, must take place within 24 hours of death. The prompt and proper burial therefore, was not only something to be desired, but mandated. But Jesus told this man that if he was to become a true follower, he would do so at great cost and at great change. The work that Jesus was to do was of supreme importance. Those who worked with him left behind comfort, safety, and traditions. And that applies to us too, if we are to follow Jesus – great cost at great change, and no sacred cows.
The responsibility, therefore, for a congregation in using reserves must be to use the time these reserves allow for discernment of what God is calling the congregation to be, and where God will lead the congregation on its continuing spiritual journey.
The key here is the “time” that is “bought” by the reserves. This will allow a congregation to look at itself and its ministry unencumbered by the strain of finances. This is not to say that good understanding and assessment of such self-examination should be in any way not connected to a congregation’s financial resources, but that the financial resources will not govern how God’s call is to be discerned. It frames the context and limitations of the answer. This is not only good stewardship but also good discipleship.
Some things we value might have little current relationship to how we answer our sense of call and others may be integral and essential. But we cannot make assumptions about those values as they relate to God’s leading. To do so is both foolish and arrogant. Our foolishness will be nostalgia. Our arrogance will be faithlessness. This is why we need to look openly and honestly at ourselves, within the freest context we can provide.
Retreat and retrenchment will cause us to run the risk of valuing the wrong things, or value things for the wrong reasons. We might forever lose things of value and importance to God. Our resources are the legacy of saints, and our responsibility is to use them wisely in our part in preparing for the coming of God’s kingdom. Our part in that preparation is our ministry. To use this legacy to essentially “keep the doors open,” with no understanding of how keeping the doors open really furthers ministry, is neither good stewardship nor good discipleship.
God presents opportunities for spiritual growth and movement. We cannot follow Jesus by standing still.
Dennis H. Piermont is executive presbyter of Miami Valley Presbytery, Dayton, Ohio.