Making the Church Go Around

October 24, 2016

Did you catch it? I didn’t. One of the most significant changes in the Book of Discipline at the 2016 General Conference went unnoticed by many United Methodists, even those who were delegates. Hidden deep in the consent calendar, and as part of the duties of elders and licensed pastors, paragraph 340.2.c(2)(c) was amended to read, “To provide leadership for the funding ministry of the congregation. To ensure membership care including compliance with charitable giving documentation requirements and to provide appropriate pastoral care, the pastor, in cooperation with the financial secretary, shall have access to and responsibility for professional stewardship of congregational giving records.” This change, which did not require a vote on the floor of General Conference because it was passed by a wide majority, becomes effective on January 1, 2017.

Money makes the world go around; The world go around, The world go around
Money makes the world go around; It makes the world go ‘round.


I still remember this song vividly, forty-three years after Liza Minelli and Joel Grey sang it in the movie version of the musical Cabaret. Cabaret was set in Berlin, Germany, the city in which I was living at the time. Money is necessary for human life, and how we ensure that all people have enough money to meet basic human necessities and live a full life continues to be one of the most complex challenges in our world today.

Money not only makes the world go around, but it also makes the church go around. October and November are the months of the year when most United Methodist churches conduct their stewardship campaigns. When discussing stewardship in new member gatherings, someone will occasionally ask, “Where does the church get money? From the government?” I have responded by reminding them of their membership vows, “The existence of the Christian church depends on the generosity of members and friends who support the church by their prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness.”

Jesus continually talked about money and reserved some of his harshest words for those who cling to what they have and refuse to share. Tithing, or offering 10% of one’s income/harvest to the Lord, is the biblical standard of giving.

I have always taught percentage giving and have encouraged church members to strive toward the goal of tithing their income. It is a spiritual discipline that Gary and I have practiced from the very beginning of our ministry. By automatically giving 10% of every paycheck to the church, we have never felt deprived, even when we were young and new to the ministry.

The apostle Paul also reminds us that each one of us has been given gifts that are to be used in the service of Christ. In his letter to the Galatians, Paul describes the gifts of the Spirit as love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

GenerosityGenerosity is a spiritual gift that is given to all Christians, no matter what our income is.  Yet most congregations have individuals with the financial resources to contribute to mission and ministry in a more significant way. The challenge is that until now most clergy have not had access to giving records and are therefore hindered from fulfilling their stewardship responsibilities. I applaud the disciplinary change for three primary reasons.

  1. Clergy work faithfully to help church members discover their unique spiritual gifts and use them to share God’s love and change lives. Access to giving records enables clergy to invite those who have the capacity, to make lead gifts for building and debt reduction programs, missions and new ministry initiatives. The reality is that almost every other non-profit organization has detailed profiles on their givers and is constantly making asks. I am convinced that many potential large givers in the church are eager to share their financial resources and are just waiting to be invited to give. However, clergy cannot ask if we do not know.
  2. Access to giving records enhances pastoral care. If an individual’s giving suddenly decreases, it could be an indicator of illness, unemployment, retirement changes or other personal issues. A sensitive and concerned pastoral call to someone whose faithful giving patterns have changed could provide significant care.
  3. Leaders of key positions in United Methodist churches are called to model faithfulness in their financial giving as well as in their spiritual lives. It is important that committee chairpersons and members of the Finance Committee be generous givers in proportion to their income. If our leaders do not model faithful giving, how can they inspire and encourage others to give?

I also offer three caveats for clergy.

  1. If you believe that knowing what church members give will compromise your ability to minister effectively to all people in your congregation, then follow your heart and do not access that information. We are called to treat each person with grace, compassion and fairness, no matter how much they are able to give.
  2. You will be unable to effectively lead in stewardship if you do not practice what you preach. If you urge congregation members to move toward percentage giving but are not moving in that direction yourself, people will sense that and be reluctant to trust you in other matters. Your personal financial contributions must align with what you expect from others in order for your ministry to have integrity.
  3. The professional ministry is not a well-paid profession, and many clergy struggle with their personal finances, including the repayment of student loans for college and seminary. If your family is in financial distress in a way that seriously affects your ministry, please seek help. My hope is that all seminaries will requires classes that include personal finances and stewardship.

If you haven’t any coal in the stove And you freeze in the winter
And you curse on the wind At your fate; When you haven’t any shoes On your feet
And your coat’s thin as paper And you look thirty pounds Underweight.
When you go to get a word of advice From the fat little pastor
He will tell you to love evermore.
But when hunger comes a rap, Rat-a-tat, rat-a-tat at the window…

At the window…  Who’s there? …  Hunger! … Ooh, hunger!

See how love flies out the door… For Money makes the world… Go around.

In the end, it’s not money itself that will make the world or the church go around. Nor is it glib words of advice to “love evermore” without acting. That kind of love will fly right out the door. No, it is people of deep faith and gratitude who bring in God’s reign by offering their gifts to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the prisoner, and love the very least of God’s children.  Thanks be to God for the countless women, men, and children who make the church go around by their generosity and willingness to offer all that they have and are to God.







It’s Just Words … Or Is It?

October 17, 2016

“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” I grew up on the school playgrounds of small town Pennsylvania, where this childhood adage was often spoken in response to bullying or crude behavior. The truth, however, is that words did hurt. Because I loved to compete in sports with the boys rather than play dolls with the girls, I was called a “tomboy” as a child. I shrugged it off, but “tomboy” was a pejorative word that, as an adult, I can hardly believe people felt comfortable calling me.

We’ve been hearing words, words, words during this election year: millions of words from many local and state candidates as well as our two presidential nominees. I confess that I have been dismayed by the nastiness of this election year and often wonder, “Whatever happened to respectful public discourse? What collective responsibility do we all bear for holding each other accountable for the words we speak? What kind of example are we setting for our children and for the rest of the world?”

I lament whenever I hear anyone claim his or her right to verbally trash people they don’t like. It pains me to hear people criticize each other, believing that in order to promote themselves they have to bring someone else down. I would never make a good politician because I just don’t have it in me to engage in verbal warfare. I am deeply grateful that in the episcopal elections this past summer, all of the candidates honored and respected one another.

“It’s just words,” we say, excusing harsh words from others. But it’s never “just words.” Words can hurt others. Words can demean others. Words can treat others as objects. “Tomboy” hurt me many years ago.

usa-voting-paper-ballot-booths-640x353Furthermore, hurtful words are far more likely to lead to hurtful actions than are kind words. When we hear candidates swear, use hateful language, or threaten others, it stretches our ability to trust them with important decisions that affect the lives of millions of people. Not to mention our collective fear of leaders who might be prone to poor judgment, retaliatory actions and inappropriate behavior. It’s never “just words.”


My parents modeled how to be a good citizen in the polling booth. My mother and father were life-long Christians who did not always agree on politics and probably canceled out each other’s votes at times. They urged me to vote in a way that best expresses my faith and practice, seeks the common good and demonstrates grace to all people.

When I am in the voting booth, I imagine Jesus standing next to me. I remember that Jesus loves all people, no matter the color of their skin, the country in which they live, how much money they earn, or the religion they practice. Jesus especially cares for those that society devalues or even rejects. He loved children and healed the sick.

Jesus said that those who inherit the kingdom are compelled give food to the hungry and water to the thirsty. They welcome strangers, give clothing to the naked, and care for the earth. They tend the sick and visit those in prison. They reject racism, seek peace, and advocate for education and jobs for all. Jesus proclaims that every single life is precious and important.

The challenge many of us have in engaging the political process is that we don’t really know who the candidates are in their heart of hearts. And we’re not sure whether their words accurately reflect their values and beliefs. Last week I read an article by Timothy Cahill about a lecture Parker Palmer gave at Yale Divinity School, the seminary from which I graduated.[i] Palmer, a spiritual author and lecturer who co-founded the Center for Courage and Renewal, has played an important role in my own spiritual development with his 2004 book, A Hidden Wholeness; The Journey toward an Undivided Life.

In his September 23 lecture, Palmer said these words, “The soul won’t bear the inauthentic life.” In an undivided life, our inner and outer lives are the same. When we pretend to be someone we are not, the burden of inauthenticity divides our soul. But more than that, there is a deep connection between what is happening in our world today and the inner life of individuals.

1280px-mobius_stripCahill wrote, “Palmer stressed the importance of an ‘inner and outer exchange’ of self-knowledge and action, using the image of a Möbius strip, a mathematical model constructed by twisting a length of paper and joining the edge. The resulting surface has only one side – the strip merges from inside to outside and back again in continual, seamless transition.

“‘That’s exactly how life works,’ Palmer said. ‘Every moment of every day, you and I are making choices of what we bring forward from ourselves.’ Whether anger or compassion, greed or generosity, fear or faith, ‘those choices shape the outer world,’ he said.” Like the Möbius strip, individuals who are self-integrated and transparent are seamless in their inner and outer lives. Their words and actions are congruent with their hearts.

According to Cahill, Palmer described the first stage of his social change model as “that moment of spark where an individual makes the absolutely critical decision to no longer behave on the outside in a way that contravenes some profound truth about themselves that they hold on the inside. It’s the decision to show up in the world as you really are.”

161010110016-trump-clinton-handshake-large-169A great spark of hope ended the October 9 presidential debate when town-hall participant Karl Becker asked the last question, “Regardless of the current rhetoric, would either of you name one positive thing that you respect in one another?” With good-natured encouragement from the audience, Hillary Clinton answered, “I respect his children. They are incredible and able and devoted, and that says a lot about Donald. I do respect that.” Donald Trump then responded that he respects that Clinton as a “fighter” who “doesn’t give up.” He said that Clinton’s comment about his children was a “very nice compliment.” Then they shook hands.

Maybe these were “just words” as well, but I still have hope, for it’s never just words with an undivided life. When our words reveal the authenticity of our true self, words affirm and heal rather than hurt. I sensed it at the end of the debate. Maybe we’ll see it again this week. But, more important, how will you show up in the world as you really are?  How will your words heal rather than hurt?  “Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer everyone.” (Colossians 4:6)


[i] Timothy Cahill, “At YDS, Parker Palmer Urges Soul Work to Animate Social Change” (

A Five-Gallon Pail of Patience

Who would have thought that after the “once every five hundred years” flood in 2008, the flooding in northeast Iowa would be even worse in some places in 2016? We started at Shell Rock United Methodist Church.

30090015401_c7491116a1_z“To God be the Glory” is the mantra of Pastor Dan Fernandez, who is appointed to Shell Rock and Clarksville UMC’s. Dan and his wife Dorothy are originally from the Philippines, where they were accustomed to major typhoons. Up to ten inches of rain fell on the night of September 21. With no place to go, water came up through the floor of the church before the Shell Rock River overflowed its banks just a block away, adding to the damage.

Six feet of water filled the basement, a foot higher than in 2008. The water just about made it to the door of the main floor when it stopped. The congregation chose not to replace partitions in the basement in 2008, but the new furnace, boiler, water heater, breaker box and east side air conditioner were all destroyed again.

“To God be the glory,” Dan proclaims as congregation members share their story. After church members used an industrial pump for two days, volunteers came from all over to shovel out the mud. A friendly insurance adjustor was able to help in 2008, but not this time. Flood insurance was too expensive. Estimates are between $30,000 and $48,000 to restore the basement. Everyone is optimistic, and we pray together for all those affected by the recent flooding, including from Hurricane Matthew.

img_0176Pastor Ann Donot of Greene United Methodist Church lost all of the items she had in the parsonage basement but says, “It’s minor. I really didn’t need it anyway.” Greene UMC, which is part of a two-point-charge, consists of both United Methodist and Church of the Brethren parishioners who have chosen to worship and serve together.

This flood wasn’t as bad as 2008, when the water in the church basement reached the top of the stairs. The congregation spent $20,000 to remodel, only to lose everything again except for one set of cupboards.

Greene UMC has an average attendance of twenty people, and most are in their 70’s and 80’s. Flood insurance was too costly for them as well. Everyone worked together to clean up the basement the first day, but on Friday they were too exhausted to continue. Just then Jesus showed up in the form of eight young Mennonite men from Christian Aid Ministries in Berlin, Ohio. They took down the ceiling and cleaned out the entire lower level. A Lutheran group helped as well.

The Clarksville UMC building escaped damage, but its members did not. Leann hands me a handwritten note when we arrive, explaining her situation and asking for prayers as well as hope. The dike intended to protect the area from flooding broke in two places, inundating her home. Leann and her husband lost a car, refrigerator and stove as well as many other possessions. They have no electricity and cook out-of-doors.  Leann sleeps outside on the porch. Only the dryer was saved because her husband hauled it onto the bed of their truck before the house flooded. They had ninety loads of wood ready for the winter, but eighty-eight of the loads floated away. The front door won’t shut. Leann is afraid of looters.

Jessie talks about how her parents lost their entire house in 2008 and rebuilt two feet higher. Unfortunately, the water was also higher this time and entered the main level of both her family’s house and her parents’ house.

The Clarks relate how the homes of their children’s families were flooded. Dave Clark has been around Clarksville for a very long time. The town is named for his family.

Kim recalls how eerily silent it was the night of September 21, as their home became completely surrounded by water, including five and a half feet in the basement. Two weeks later, they are still pumping out water, even after forty high school students came over and carried everything out of their basement. In the midst of intense loss, Kim’s husband Ken remains relentlessly positive, saying, “This has been total chaos, but we just had stuff in the basement. The things we lost cannot be replaced by money, but what we can all do is pray for and help each other. And a five-gallon pail of patience would help as well!”

30090016891_e22dddf11a_kIowa Annual Conference Disaster Response Coordinator Pastor Catie Newman said that the congregations of Nashua, Clarksville, Shell Rock and Greene have been sent $2000 emergency grant checks to help them with expenses incurred as they and their communities begin the clean-up. She also has five-gallon UMCOR flood buckets in her car. “Everyone in town says that the Methodist flood buckets are far superior to the Red Cross flood buckets!” they exclaim with pride.

“What would make a difference today?” Catie asks the families. As everyone shares their hearts, ideas start to multiply, and they begin to help each other.

  • Clean out and dry up. Then accept the help of volunteer work crews to rebuild.
  • Since the Governor has declared these counties to be disaster areas, register immediately with the county in order to be eligible for assistance.
  • Don’t wait for the parts to come for your broken generator. Use the extra one we have!
  • Put a dehumidifier in your basement. Get ahead of the mold.
  • The cardinal rule for equipment is: when you need it, use it. When you are done, bring it back.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask for what you need.
  • Ken says again, “We need prayer – and a five-gallon pail of patience.”

29545697424_e58449258e_kAs we share a prayer circle at the end of our conversation, I discover that Leann is an artist who knits heart-shaped bookmarks for the Bibles at Clarksville. I am given a bookmark, thank Leann and wear it around my neck. Dave says, “I’ve never held the hand of a bishop before.” By the time we are done, I could have used a five-gallon flood bucket for my tears.

The tears have multiplied over the weekend as reports of hundreds of deaths in Haiti come in.  Lacking the infrastructure, medical care, clothing, shelter and food and water to respond immediately, the people of Haiti also need our prayers and assistance. Haiti donations may be directed to UMCOR’s international relief fund (Advance #982450) or the U.S. Disaster (Advance #901670). Donations for the Iowa flooding may be made on the Iowa Conference website. (please Indicate Advance #223 in the designation line)

At a prayer service attended by twenty-five clergy from the Northeast District last Thursday, we respond together, “Water can lift a house off its foundation and sweep away memories. Its power can carve a canyon and provide light for a community. Water can destroy life and wash away everything we worked for. Its soothing streams can offer healing and hope to our weary lives. Water is God’s gift to us, and by water we are baptized and welcomed into the family of God.”

May God grant all those who are recovering a five-gallon pail of patience. And for the rest of us, may God give us a five-gallon pail of generosity, prayer and willing hands. To God be the glory!