In the Massachusetts Conference I’m known as the “stewardship guy.” Of course, most people hear that and think “money guy.” Funny thing, I think of myself as the “mission guy.” Because, for me, the money is only important to the extent that it’s making mission and ministry happen.
I’m often in churches preaching on stewardship and meeting with church leaders. We talk about annual giving, planned giving, and capital campaigns. We discuss the proper management and use of endowment funds, and good budgeting practices. The problem of not seeming to have enough money to fund the budget almost always comes up. Like everyone, it’s hard for churches to pay the bills.
But, after twenty plus years in ministry, there’s something I know in my bones: No one was ever inspired to give generously by the call to “help us pay the bills”! As with all charitable giving, church people are inspired to give when they understand and believe in the church’s mission, know how it’s making a difference, and have confidence in its leadership.
As Don Remick wrote recently, understanding our essential “WHY” as a church is fundamental. From there, we can organize ourselves to live into that “WHY” in tangible ways. When this is happening consistently, leaders of all kinds will get credit because they will be seen to be moving purposefully, with transparency, toward shared ends. In short, many of the same key characteristics of vital, healthy, resilient churches also happen to be the characteristics of those churches that are doing well inspiring giving among their church members.
Which leads me to think of my favorite moment during Sunday morning church visits: greeting the congregation on behalf of the Wider Church.
I typically say something like, “I bring you greetings from the Massachusetts Conference and its 360 plus churches with whom you are partners in mission and ministry – whether you know it or not!” I go on to tell them how we are partners, naming things we can only do because we choose to do them together. Yet I also affirm what they are doing AND who they are.
That’s my favorite moment because I take time to scan the congregation – looking into people’s eyes, seeing their faces. Recognizing all of them together for what they are: A unique expression of the gospel made manifest, the living Body of Christ, up and about, doing and being the good news.
In that moment, I not only see the people, I appreciate them. I know they’re doing important things in their communities, caring for people nearby and afar, fighting injustice. They’re expressing a denominational value once made explicit on a UCC bumper sticker: “To believe is to care. To care is to do.” There’s power here that I hope they’ll take seriously in the service of God’s mission.
Yet beyond the doing something else important is happening in and through them that we usually take for granted: being church together.
As we get clarity about our essential WHY, we should take seriously the extraordinariness of just being church. Just as our WHY as Christians has never only been about preaching the gospel, it’s also not only about doing the gospel. Worship, faith formation, fellowship hours, and even meetings can demonstrate our commitment to the good news. There’s transformative power here too. Because in a fractured world, every chance we take to live the values Jesus taught us as a counter-cultural model of community is potentially a source of healing and reconciliation for individuals and society.
When we remember this, it may just be that our efforts to be vital, healthy, resilient, and generous churches will find the true integrity required to make these things a reality.
Rev. Jonathan New is the Associate Conference Minister for Stewardship & Financial Development for the Massachusetts Conference, UCC.
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