Sometime just before or after Thanksgiving – or if your congregation is on top of things in September – letters go out to church members and friends asking for their next year’s financial pledge. The letters might be accompanied by pie charts and wish lists. Perhaps there are “lead gifts” pledged by the church officers or the “big givers.” Perhaps there is a large donor who expects a special visit from the pastor or financial chairperson for the “ask.”
In this economy, there is usually not enough pledged to pay for next year’s budget. And maybe the congregation will be entering 2012 with a shortfall from 2011. Budgetary shortfalls are the norm for our congregations.
There’s an old story about a roomful of elders wringing their hands about their church’s financial problems when one elder says, “If only someone would die and leave us everything we need” to which the pastor says, “Actually, don’t we believe that Somebody already did that?” (Get it?)
I believe that Stewardship Campaigns are part of the problem. They are dated, often faithless exercises in administration. God calls us to something different.
I’m a big fan of The Relational Tithe although this is a totally foreign concept for most institutional church congregations. The church at its best exemplifies this kind of care. I’ve known churches that covered someone’s mortgage for a year during a family crisis – and by “churches” I’m not talking about church budgets; I’m talking about individuals who happen to be part of the same spiritual congregation. I’ve known church people who’ve covered medical bills, car repair bills, utilities for church friends in need. These are the same kind of churches that generously volunteer to divide up a week and take turns staying overnight with a sick member or offering free childcare for families in need.
Yes, institutional churches usually have utility bills, personnel costs, and other administrative commitments to keep things going. I know one congregation whose members commit a large percentage of their income to cover these costs and then make relational tithes of time and money for personal needs within the congregation. No “stewardship campaign” is needed. Instead, there is an honest conversation about the needs and hopes of the congregation.
I believe we prefer those standard letters going out, rather than frank conversations about our own personal finances – what we can give, what we need. In a culture where many of us will openly discuss our sex lives, our addictions, our family histories, we are mortified for people to know how much money we make, how much money we spend, how much money we owe. I am personally not so comfortable with this either, but – with people I trust in my faith community – I have been known to share.
We who have grown up in the institutional church know that we church people don’t generally share our sins and failings easily, if we share them at all. Church is still – for many – a place where appearances are everything. We pass the peace and tell people that things are “fine.” What would happen if we could truly share with at least one person in the congregation that we can’t pay our water bill this month, or we are depressed, or we are about to lose our jobs, or we had a fight with our spouse – and we need their prayers and support.
Sometimes that support involves financial help. This kind of personal connection is what Jesus was talking about when he faced the rich young ruler about his willingness to give up everything. But we are much more comfortable receiving a standardized letter.