“Clergy and laity alike seem to find money talk of any sort an embarrassing and silence-inducing topic”
One of our seniors at Gettysburg Seminary has received a call to a rural parish in Pennsylvania. She knows as she prepares to be ordained and begin her call that her salary and benefits package will be 62 percent of the annual budget of the congregation. It’s a struggle for the congregation to meet minimum synod guidelines for clergy compensation.
She knows she faces an extra difficult task in teaching and preaching about money because whenever she mentions financial giving, church members will still interpret that what she is really talking about is her own salary. She runs the risk of being seen as avaricious or greedy for talking about money. What is she to do?
This is a common issue in every synod and most every congregation. A parish where the pastor’s salary makes up more than 50 percent of the annual budget simply makes the issue more visible. Clergy and laity alike seem to find money talk of any sort to be a vaguely embarrassing and silence-inducing topic of conversation.
According to the research of Robert Wuthnow in God and Mammon in America, most laity prefer to keep spirituality in one compartment and money in another. While they seem to overlook or forgive their own avariciousness with money, they don’t want the church to become materialistic, because the church is to represent spirituality. Most pastors help parishioners out here, but don’t really want to talk about money either!
In fact, Wuthnow suggests that the lack of teaching in the churches about the dangers of wanting a lot of money is perhaps one reason why so many people in an affluent country like the U.S. can also retain strong interest in religion.
Money, of course, is a consuming interest of Americans. The editors of Worth magazine published the results of a survey entitled, “Americans and Their Money.” “We wanted to know,” they declared, “how Americans . . . spend, squabble over, and think about money.”
They began their report this way: “Your money or your life? Not a simple question, since most people can’t seem to differentiate the two. Just read the dollar signs. Forty percent of Americans think about money more often than sex. Fights over money are the number one source of marital discord . . . and 56 percent of us say there comes a point in every marriage when money becomes more important than sex.”
The phrase, used twice in this short quote: “more important than sex,” can summarize the whole article. We Americans are just as confused about the idea of money as about the idea of sex. Perhaps even more confused…
How have the churches dealt with this confusion? Says Robert Wood Lynn, “Over the last half century … churches have at least tried to deal with the mystery of sexuality. Yet during the same period these Protestants have paid comparatively little attention to the idea of money.” Money remains the “forgotten” subject. In fact, Wuthnow’s research indicates that when people who attend religious services every week are asked how often they discuss their personal finances with other church members, they don’t! In fact, the least likely group with whom conversations about personal finances take place is fellow church members. Ninety-seven percent never discuss personal finances with other church members! Of course, 89 percent never or hardly ever discuss family budget with anybody outside the immediate family. Why?
Americans are so ambivalent about money and possessions. Eighty-nine percent agreed, “Our society is much too materialistic”: 90 percent agree that “children today want too many material things”; 75 percent agree that “advertising is corrupting our basic values.”
Yet, money and material possessions are among the things we cherish most deeply. Money (or its manifestation as power, prestige, or security) seems to be the ultimate value against which many people measure everything else. People worry about money a lot.
People are willing to do almost anything for more money – play the lottery, take a stressful job, work longer hours, or move away from family and friends. No matter what their present income, almost every American wants “just a little more!” Our consumer habits reflect this. We spend huge amounts on products (many of which we don’t need); we are increasingly in debt; and we see ourselves under enormous financial pressure.
Unfortunately, churchgoers, as a whole, don’t differ very much from this profile of American society. Church-goers maintain their preoccupation with money and possessions by sharply compartmentalizing their faith. They seldom think about the connection between faith and money. This leads Wuthnow to conclude: “What religious faith does more clearly than anything else is to add a dollop of piety to the materialistic amalgam in which most of us live. We don’t feel compelled to give up any of our material desires, only to put them ‘in perspective’.”
In short, commentators on the American scene say that the market logic is the dominant logic of our society and of the church.
This is not to say that Americans do not give. Total giving in the U.S. to charitable organizations of all kinds, both in absolute figures and as a proportion of income, is higher in the U.S. than in virtually any other advanced industrial society. By the early 1990s, this giving had risen to more than $100 billion annually. Religious organizations received 64 percent of the giving from private households. More than 50 percent of Americans gave money to religious organizations. The average gift in 1990 was $715.00.
The bad news is that giving to churches is declining. The percentage of gifts to churches keeps declining. The Empty Tomb, Inc., has published statistics showing that the average gift among Protestants has declined from $3.09 in 1965 to $2.65 in 1991.
Moreover, statistics demonstrate that as a group the most generous financial givers are those who were born in the 1920s and 1930s. Those born after World War II and especially those born after 1955 are both less likely to be in church and less likely to give generously. In fact, data suggests that if an average church member who is in his/her 60s dies or moves, it takes an average of 14 people in their 20s and 30s to match the financial giving level of the older person.
The crisis is even more severe at the synodical and Churchwide level. In 1962 in the LCA and ALC, 18 percent of church expenditures were spent outside the operating budget; almost all of that expenditure was for apportioned benevolence.
Today, the amount spent outside the operating budget has dropped … only 1 percent to 16 percent. However, much more money is kept locally so that the percentage that goes on to Churchwide is down from 17 percent to 6 percent. Today we support Habitat for Humanity, food pantries, clothing banks, LSS, camps, seminaries, etc. This trend has been going on for 30 years in every denomination.
In the history of the American church, whenever there is a funding crisis, the church has departed from the deeper, richer theological teaching of stewardship in favor of more simple (simplistic) solutions to the financial crisis. Christian stewards are people who recognize themselves as caretakers, not owners, of what belongs to God. Living as a steward does not only have to do with finances but is a total way of life! It often takes a lifetime to grow into living as a mature steward.
But when a financial crisis looms, the church often seeks immediate solutions. One of the shortcuts that the church falls back upon time and time again is the tithe. If Lutherans simply tithed, our financial crisis would be over. So, in the recent financial crisis, the ELCA developed the “Tithers by the Million” program.
Please do not misunderstand me. I think the tithe is a wonderful guideline for us as we consider our financial giving. Because of simul justis et peccator we need such a guideline. However, the tithe is not a magical solution for our financial crisis because it does not answer the question, “Why give?” It does not change the heart. It does not conceive of financial giving the way St. Paul does in II Corinthians 8-9.
How can pastors begin to address the issue of money and possessions? Dare they preach on this subject? Why would they want to preach on money and possessions?
Pastors need to make a distinction between preaching on money and possessions and preaching on financial giving to the church. While the two are related they are very different. I once heard an assistant to the bishop say: “I never speak about money from the pulpit. Whenever we need to speak about money, I let the laity do the talking.”
This statement suggests two things to me: 1. The assistant to the bishop is very uncomfortable preaching on money; and 2. is confusing preaching on money and possessions with preaching on financial giving to the church. When we are speaking about giving to the church, it is wonderful if laity will be the primary communicators. Pastors should encourage it.
But preaching on money and possessions is a different matter. The reason to preach on money and possessions is given in the preaching task itself. The center of a sermon is the clear and joyous announcement of God’s gifts to us in Jesus Christ. God’s gift is always central.
Yet for that gift to be fully received, we need to know why it is necessary. What is it that keeps us so separate from God that only God’s gift in Christ can fully heal that separation?
Money is one of the chief obstacles that keep us separate from God. When the preacher looks at the human situation, we find money and possessions at the very heart of our lives because America’s deepest obsession is with money. Preaching is incomplete if the pastor refuses to preach on one of the greatest idols Americans put in place of God!
Moreover, preaching and teaching about money and possessions is Biblical. Jesus taught more about money and possessions than any other subject except the Kingdom of God. He taught more often about money than about prayer.
The call as pastor is to be the stewardship leader in the congregation, not the congregation’s chief fundraiser for its budget.
Stewardship is not fund raising and we must always distinguish between the two. The pastor and lay leaders have roles, which overlap, but are not identical. The pastor’s role is endorsement and encouragement of what lay leaders are doing. The role of lay leaders in stewardship is essentially witnessing – being role models. In fund raising, their role is production.
Ashley Hale puts it this way: Both in stewardship development and in fund raising, pastors and lay leaders must help each other. But the question is: who is helping whom? In stewardship development, lay leaders can help the pastor in fulfilling her/his responsibility. In fund raising, the pastor can help lay leaders with their responsibility.
The pastor is responsible for the spiritual development of members of the congregation. Stewardship is essentially a spiritual matter. The pastor is the primary teacher of stewardship within the congregation, and has the authority to establish spiritual goals for the congregation. But pastors do not have unilateral authority to establish a financial goal, or even the annual operating budget. Pastors are not responsible for the success of a fund-raising campaign or even for the annual every-member-response program. However, the pastor is responsible for the congregation’s stewardship understanding and performance.
Ashley Hale claims the pastor should accept two restrictions that might not, at first, come comfortably.
First, the pastor must never plead the financial needs of the church. The church’s needs – in fact, the needs of any receiver — have nothing to do with stewardship (a little overstated, but let me continue with his quote.) The pastor should not, unwittingly, train the members to give to needs. Giving to needs, praiseworthy though it may be, is not stewardship.
The whole subject of stewardship is limited to the needs of the giver, not the needs of the receiver. The truth is that it really is better to give than to receive – better for the giver’s own spiritual development. This is biblical. This is the gospel of good giving. Pastors should not become a pleader of needs – endorse the proclaimed financial goals of the church, but do not plead!
Second, the pastor should focus on teaching the lay leaders. Giving is a highly personal matter, and giving money is an especially personal matter. The message should be broadcast widely, yes. But, that process is necessarily more impersonal. Person-to-person or small group communication and witness are the prime movers here.
A church in which the pastor is the only passionate, articulate interpreter of good stewardship – a church without its lay leaders being breathing, walking examples of the gospel, including good giving – must struggle upstream all the way. But when lay leaders experience the joy and spiritual dynamics of stewardship in their own lives, then they may grow into the kind of leaders to whom the pastor can entrust the financial workings of the congregation.
So, what do I, as the professor, say to the student in my class going to a congregation where the pastor’s salary and benefits package accounts for 62 percent of the total budget?
Simply this: “Distinguish always between stewardship and fund raising and know that your primary task is to teach and model stewardship as a way of life, including the place of money in living as a steward. Work with the laity in the preparation and presentation of the program proposal and the need for resources to support the mission and ministry of the congregation and the church beyond the parish, boundaries.”
© Copyright 1996, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. This essay first appeared in the Summer 1996 issue of Faith in Action. Articles in Faith in Action may be reproduced for use in ELCA and ELCIC congregations provided each copy carries the note:
© Copyright 1996, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Reprinted with permission.