by Jan DeVries
I grew up in a family where money was rarely discussed. In my early ministry, I worked with pastors on how their personal attitudes about money influenced the congregations they served. It was a remarkable education for me that began by reconstructing my own attitudes about money in the church.
My first church memory is from Fourth Presbyterian in Chicago in the 1950s — huge, gothic, formal. My mother wrote the check weekly, put it in the offering plate and I watched what happened. Men in mourning coats received the offering. Their heels clicked down the marbled center aisle with gleaming brass offering plates in hand. The formality of the process led me to believe that you could only touch money if you were male and dressed to the nines. After the offering was received and the doxology sung, the ushers clicked back down the center aisle and out the door. The service went on, but the ushers never reappeared. I had no idea if the mourning coats disappeared, but somehow I got the message that managing money was more important than the sermon.
Another early memory comes from a much different congregation in Washington, D.C. There, I discovered who ruling elders were — church leaders partnering with my dad (who was the pastor) and each other to lead the congregation. Leaders. Example setters. This was also the time that I was being told to allocate some allowance to my church offering envelope. Because of that, I was conscious of what everybody in the pew was doing with the offering plate. I noticed that as the plate passed down the pews, my Sunday school teachers and elders did not put anything in the plate. Nobody told me they might have written a check once a month.
All I saw was that there was nothing going into the plate from people who were the designated leaders. Further, I was incredulous that if you sang in the choir you could receive communion, but you didn’t have to put anything in the offering plate since it never made it to the choir loft. I was aghast in all my 9-year-old assumptions. And, I was sure that if the offering plate was empty, my father the pastor would not be paid and that we were going to be out on the street within a month looking for a place to live. I was pretty scared, and sat on those feelings until sometime in my 30s when I shared those images with my parents. Then they were aghast.
Do you fear the congregation where you serve will be aghast if you talk about money — really talk about money? Perhaps their current perceptions would startle you. Or just maybe, in opening the doors for honest dialogue, we can join God’s activity in a way we never imagined and be astounded at God’s grace together.
GOD’S NEW THINGS
Grace Presbytery has dissolved 15 churches in the last five years — closed by congregational initiation because they could no longer sustain ministry financially or physically, congregations with rich history and witness now stand as vacant buildings. We have fewer churches able to support full-time pastors. It’s harder than it was even 10 years ago to grow churches, though we have a few congregations that defy all odds.
Increasingly, churches may be facing such crises because they are unclear about the next steps God has called them to make in their ministry. Perhaps they want to improve the church they already know instead of a new reality God is calling them into. Perhaps they are hesitant or uncertain how to embrace a changing neighborhood or a changing culture that also requires changing practices in the church.
Gil Rendle, senior consultant with the Texas Methodist Foundation, recently responded to this tension in his monograph “Waiting for God’s New Thing: Spiritual and Organizational Leadership in the In-Between Time (or, Why Better isn’t Good Enough).” His article stresses that this is an opportune time for church leaders to examine how to guide their congregations into new realities and building ministries that are sustainable because they are viable — rather than futilely trying to save floundering ones from a slow death.
OUR NEW CHALLENGES
Rendle reminds us that while God is always doing a new thing, it’s sometimes hard to perceive. He suggests that church leaders need to come to terms with three challenges.
Challenge 1: Understanding change
We have approached change as if we could “manage” it. In reality, change isn’t managed. Rendle suggests that we lead in the midst of change rather than managing change. When we think we are making progress, we are frequently running in place.
For example, estate gifts are unsustainable income to the church, however gracious they are in the moment. We have learned to take satisfaction, for example, in those bequests left to the church when they are not really “new income.”
The majority of Gen Xers and millennials are unaffiliated with religious institutions like our congregations rather than flocking to them. “Nones” (as current literature calls them) differ from people like me who can’t stay away from a Saturday presbytery meeting and who find comfort in the religious life found in congregations and presbyteries. How do we understand the need for changes in institutions that organized with standing rules, standard meeting times, historic mission commitments and a sacred time for worship on Sunday morning? How do people who find comfort in the traditional and familiar do more than tolerate worship that is not dependent on pews and offering plates?
Challenge 2: Improvement vs. change
I believe Rendle nails it when he describes the difference between “improving” and “creating.” We work to find ways to improve what we already have in place — whether it’s a congregation struggling to imagine a realistic future or a presbytery figuring out how to do more than move over in our pews for a younger pastor who’d rather wear blue jeans to presbytery meeting than a dress shirt. Often, when we don’t know how to open ourselves to create whatever is coming next in religious life, we instead work at improving what we already have. Guilty as charged!
I think about the proposed changes to the “new” form of government several years ago and the denominational angst that surrounded the changes. In reality, I think the Book of Order now invites us to live more in response to change than in submission to rules. For example, providing the opportunity for an associate pastor to be considered to become the new pastor didn’t entitle him or her to the position — instead it allowed the congregation to respond faithfully without breaking the rules. As Presbyterians, we can seek improvement by asking: How do we breathe creative life into what we’ve always thought was the “rule book”?
Or as we think about denominational mission, how do we continue to involve young adults as YAVs (Young Adult Volunteers) who will stand
in sharp and necessary contrast to the people I know who spent their entire lives moving from one mission field to another? What gifts do YAVs bring that would otherwise be lost to the institutional church?
In what ways can we facilitate what feels like risk-taking and still feel the meaningful history of tradition in our bones?
Challenge 3: Working with “what is” and “what is not yet”
Rendle’s third challenge is how to lead in the tension of massive cultural shifts when we feel like we can make only modest changes where we are.
This made me think about the proverbial way we encourage congregations to undertake mission studies during a time of pastoral transition in preparation for completing the paperwork to start getting names of potential pastors. For the most part, a committee sits in a room and thinks together about what the church used to be, what it is now and what they want the new pastor to promise in order to thrive for the next 50 years.
Everywhere we look, the communities where our churches are located are changing. What would happen if we tried other ways of getting input about what these faithful communities are being called into? What would you add to this list of possibilities?
1. Ask the youth group what they like best about the church and what they’d like to see as they live out their membership.
2. Move the committee meeting from the church boardroom to the local coffee shop and engage the people who come by about what they think about your church on the corner of 1st and Main.
3. Walk around the neighborhood of the church on Sunday morning, Saturday afternoon or any other time to see what’s happening. What you can discover about who lives there, who walks by, who reads the signs, who might need the church or want to come in? Who’s your neighborhood? Singles? Young adults? Older adults who are living in the same place they’ve lived for 50 years? Rental units?
4. Imagine how you might take church outside the walls without treating people as the object of your mission but as the partners in your ministry.
5. Ask someone who is not a member of your church to visit the building and see if he or she can figure out which door to enter, what’s the church’s ministry and what members might do besides worship.
We sometimes tend to answer the questions before we’ve even framed them — making change even harder. We have trouble growing new things along with the familiar to discover that quite possibly the new has more appeal than what we’ve done for the last 15 or 50 years. How can we identify new needs, opportunities and God’s call in our midst and faithfully live into those possibilities? How can we think and talk about and fund ministry in a new way, a new day?
I have written the church and its institutions into 50 percent of my will. I want the church that nurtured me to still be around — maybe not in the same building or even with the same mission priorities I have — but with the same faith conviction that in the swirl of life’s events, there is nothing more important than our shared faith lived out with each other in witness to God we know in Jesus Christ.
Matthew 5 challenges us to be salt, to be coarse, ground up, seasoning for the life before us. Salt, the commodity of hospitality, the easiest spice to use and when it’s missing in the stew, we know it. Tasting salt. Being salt. Time to put my money where my mouth is — or where my salt is.
JAN DEVRIES is general presbyter in Grace Presbytery in central and northeast Texas with 155 congregations. She has spent many years working with stewardship and giving opportunities in the life of the PC(USA) and its congregations — as a child of the manse and ministry in a variety of settings. Write to her at [email protected].