I stepped off of the pulpit area to speak to the congregation. This is not totally unusual. But on this particular Sunday, the priestly role blurs with the pastoral role. I am still called to lead, to help others pray, confess, praise, repent, convert, sanctify and serve. Today, though, the topic was a prickly one: money.
Strangely, the passage around which we worshiped is one of my favorites and one often cited in stewardship sermons. I cannot really say why though, given my struggles with the matter at hand. I can handle the woman at the well, for I get being an outsider. I can handle Jacob wrestling with God, for I have wrestled with God and have the existential limp to prove it. But the poor widow, the one who gave all that she had, everything she had to live on, well, I don’t quite get that.
Prior to Sunday, the district superintendent preached on this passage at the monthly district clergy gathering. He challenged us pastors to pastor like the woman: give all that we have. He contrasted the widow with the scribes, as Jesus did. He made sure we realized that the scribes were the preachers. I knew that already, but it was okay to hear it again. The DS even read the passage in a manner that sounded more United Methodist than Jewish.
Gathering a week later for worship with non-pastors, of course, is different. And the dichotomy between the scribes and the widow greatly paralleled the dichotomy between the clergy (me) and the parishioners (them). So I exited the pulpit purposefully. I am confident that I was not trying to escape the passage, nor was I wanting to join “them” in a slight way of escaping the burdens of leadership. It was that my own iniquity around the topic of money necessitated that I leave the monolithic authority of the pulpit and find another way to lead.
The passage in Mark is a stunning indictment on both clergy and the institutions of religion. What is our purpose? Are we really serving God within these gigantic stones? What is nice is that parishioners typically don’t think along these lines. But isn’t it right that all of us confront these elemental matters of money within the church? So I began with a survey which asked the following 5 questions…
- How would you characterize your church’s attitude to money?
- When you give money to the church, what outcome do you hope to see?
- What biblical/Christian/moral teachings guide your approach to money?
- What should the church expect monetarily from its members? What about guests, visitors, newcomers?
- Why is it hard to talk about money in the church?
I also handed out envelopes for the offering. I asked the people to think about question #2 as we are taking up the offering. They could write it one the envelop, pray over it, etc, but in any case, let us make sure that the offering is a spiritual matter. We took up the offering first then dove into the survey.
Have you ever begun a sermon with a lie? I have. I told a joke that in seminary, we were taught that when giving a sermon on money, the pastor ought to take up the offering first! (Enter your yucks here). In reality, for all the thought my seminary gave to economic disparity on a macro level, for all the ways we were able to talk down the rich and talk up the poor, my seminary did very little to help me talk to my churches about money. And in the end, those macro justice matters are often composed of millions of everyday, small exchanges of money (connect Wal-Mart to the sweatshop). Notably, my salary is based on the consistent offerings of $10-20.
Remarkable were the conversations that followed. What outcome do we expect when we put money in the plate? I had been reading Dan Dick’s trilogy on money in the church as well as his book Vital Signs. So often, the things in the church are so routine that their meaning is often way in the background, if not altogether lost. I put money in to keep the church open. To pay for the roof and the heat and the pastor. Some answers were very thoughtful and challenged me. I think of the offering in a very practical way. I want you to be paid appropriately, to have adequate health care. With those things taken care of, you can lead us more effectively. A few things there piqued my attention. Firstly, most people understood the connection between the offering plate and the pastor. I took for granted that the congregation took that for granted. Most of them do not. I also heard that there caring for me was so that I could better lead them. Out in the open, the source of my income was placed in direct connection to the quality of my leadership. A version of this happened in all 3 congregations. I took note that I didn’t feel criticized, demeaned or that I was a disappointment…though certainly I have disappointed some.
In each congregation in a slightly different manner, I got to a point in the sermon/conversation where I spelled out simply and confessionally 1) that most of the offering goes to me, 2) whenever I give attention to that fact it makes me nervous, 3) that I want to be worthy of the support and 4) that I worry about devouring widows’ houses. In the end, I don’t think that I devour widows’ houses. But I know that when I slack on the job, that I am, in a sense, stealing from the church. This talk was last week, and this week I began praying a different prayer over the offering… “Lord, multiply these gifts (something I always say) and help us to be faithful in using these gifts for your kingdom (the new part).” I also drew a sharp line between what we put in and what outcome we hope for. The outcome speaks to our hope for the church as well as a mutual commitment for getting there.
Question #5 got some interesting responses. Talking about money in church is difficult because ‘it’s none of my business what people give and it’s one’s offering is personal between that person and God’. I talked about how the widow’s offering was Jesus’ business and recalled that Jesus often spoke of money. In a teaching angle during the sermon/conversation, I mentioned the Markan frame that surrounds this episode. The opening frame is Jesus riding triumphantly into Jerusalem on a small donkey and, upon returning to the Temple, cleanses it from money changers. He speaks openly about the corruption of the scribes. They devour widows’ houses. Jesus sits down across from the treasury and watches how subtly this takes place. The frame closes with Jesus leaving the Temple pronouncing judgment against it. According to Mark, he never goes back. I tried to teach my congregation that I don’t want them to give their last dime to the church. I would rather they have enough to live on. And I affirmed that I have enough to live on…that their support for me and M. was sufficient and a blessing.
Since each of the 3 churches I lead had slightly different money matters before them, I left the sermon open-ended. I must say that this ‘message’ was as important as any I have led thus far. It should not be overlooked that the majority of the message’s content was provided by parishioners. At the same time, it should not be assumed that this was a message that left people feeling uplifted and encouraged. One thing that I noticed was that the attention level in all 3 churches was high. Another was that the seriousness of the tone was a good seriousness. I think that there was plenty of meat in the message that people of all faith levels felt faithfully challenged. I also observed really high levels of trust in the room. From these observations, I learned some key things: 1) I was surprised how many people trusted me and other parishioners, 2) serious topics can be presented in church, 3) the longevity of my tenure has yielded some new opportunities (I’ve been a 2 churches for 3.5 years, the 3rd church 2.5 years) and 4) God can lead us through many difficulties if we proceed with faith, hope, grace and courage. Not a bad Sunday.
Photo: “Offering Plate, Candle in Window, Wreath” by rmathus