Before writing our piece this week, we called a colleague who is a gifted pastor of a mid-sized healthy congregation. “So, what are you thinking about in the midst of this fall’s stewardship emphasis in your church?”
The pastor’s succinct response: “Ugh.”
Among pastors and church leaders, that may be the most eloquent response we can think of, as we contemplate the complexities – and anxieties – of stewardship season this year.
Conducting a stewardship campaign is hard in ‘normal’ times. (Remember last year?) It’s even harder in economically stressed times. (Remember 2008-2009?) But it’s almost impossible in Covid times.
You can’t count on the persuasive power of gathering in person, as a congregation, or meeting individually with donors face to face.
You can’t predict budgetary needs for the coming year. (Will we need a line item for special music at Easter? For summer camp ministries?)
You can’t expect those in your congregation who still have jobs to feel confident about their financial trajectory, given the variables at play. And you can’t expect those who are furloughed or laid off (or supporting family members who have been furloughed or laid off) to meet last year’s goal, much less raise it. What, in turn, does that mean for church staff who are increasingly experiencing painful layoffs in their ranks?
And really, what is the meaning of a pledge, in a moment like ours? How do we even talk about pledging for 2021, when 2021 is wrapped in a fog of unknowns?
The one certain thing, in this time of uncertainty, is that you are not alone in your “ugh.” You. Are. Not. Alone. A recent study by Lake Institute on Faith & Giving found that almost half of all congregations surveyed expect their budgets to decrease in 2021, and more than half expect that their budgets will remain about the same. None of the congregations surveyed expect that their budget will increase in 2021. This is in sharp contrast to Lake’s previous study, released in 2019, in which nearly half of all congregations reported increases in revenue.
So, instead of approaching stewardship with a grit-your-teeth-and-get-through-it attitude, it might actually help to unclench those jaws and find a way to breathe and talk with one another about what is happening.
Another pastor related recently that her church board has spent considerable time and energy disagreeing about whether this is a good time to tap their “rainy day fund.” One exasperated board member finally exclaimed, “The last time we had this much ‘economic rain,’ Noah was measuring cubits for the ark!”
Perhaps even more than a rainy day fund, scripture offers an ark of truth and direction – and if we are not going to turn to scripture in times like these, when exactly are we thinking about dwelling with God’s word?
2 Corinthians 9:8: “God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance, so that by always having enough of everything, you may share abundantly in every good work.”
It does not say that God is able to provide except during a pandemic.
It does not say that God is able to provide only when justice and equity are realized.
It does not say that God is able to provide when we have achieved a balanced budget.
It does not say that God is able to provide when your church is back in-person.
It does not say that God is able to provide if there is a majority vote of members to see it.
It does not say that God is able to provide after the election.
It does not say that God is able to provide if we pretend all is well.
“God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance, so that by always having enough of everything, you may share abundantly in every good work.”
God has enough. God is enough. God is able to work in ways we are not. And, we rely on this “enough-ness” of God not just to rest easy or banish anxiety. We rely on God’s ability to provide everything for us so we can turn outward and share everything we have with those whose needs – material, financial, spiritual, as well as for justice – outstrip our own needs.
This is a profoundly counter-cultural notion that will press most of us and our boards beyond their known limits. In the face of unknowing and anxiety, feeling the lack of so much, we trust God’s promise of enough, turn our back to our own worries and needs, and give.
How can we learn to trust God’s promises this radically? Can we make it through this year of crisis – that looks like it’s about to extend into a second year of crisis – without this radical approach of the claims of the gospel of Jesus Christ?
What is your church board conversation about this like right now?
What do you wish it were like?
Can you share this reflection with one another as a start?