Giving in a difficult economy

October is here, and local church stewardship campaigns are hitting their stride.  Pastors and church leaders are a bit anxious at this time of year.  Giving is often behind after the summer, and we wonder, “Will we be able to catch up before the end of the year?”  At the same time we are called to prepare a responsible budget for 2009, so we wonder further, “How are folks going to pledge this fall?  Will we be able to sustain our ministries next year and perhaps even increase our budget a bit, should we simply hold the line, or do we need to make cuts?”  We don’t always know for sure, do we?  Especially this year.

Who would have ever thought a year ago that …

  • Gas would hover around $4.00 a gallon.
  • One giant financial institution after another would fall like dominos.
  • Congress would approve a $700 billion rescue plan to restore liquidity to financial systems.
  • Mortgage foreclosures would become an epidemic.
  • The average family income in Michigan would decrease by $7,000 in one year.
  • Michigan would rank dead last in states people are moving to.

The current buzzwords are Main Street and Wall Street.  Over the past month I’ve been carefully listening to people on our America main streets, from supermarket checkout lines, to the health club, to security lines at the airport, to our district churches, to clergy gatherings.  I hear fear, anger, anxiety, distrust, and uncertainty.  At the very least, it’s safe to say that we are all receiving an education.

  • As our stock portfolios and/or retirement earnings plummet, we are learning that what happens on Wall Street can profoundly affect ordinary Americans.
  • Even though we are angry at the greed and corruption which contributed to the excesses of many of our largest financial institutions, we are learning that the $700 billion bailout may be in everyone’s best interest. 
  • We are learning that the money our country is borrowing from other countries to wage the war on terrorism and rescue our financial institutions will come out of our pockets as well as the future pockets of our children and grandchildren.
  • Most of all, we are learning that our country is living beyond its means.

At the same time, I think we are beginning to recognize that we are living beyond our means as individuals as well.  Many of us are overextended financially.  We carry tremendous credit card debt.  We don’t live within a budget.  We take out mortgages on homes that are bigger and more expensive than we can afford.  We still buy gas guzzler cars.  Many of us live from paycheck to paycheck and are one crisis away from bankruptcy.  We must learn to live with less.

There may be anger on Main Street and greed on Wall Street, but there is also hope on Church Street.  As we wonder about the wisdom of asking for yet one more special offering, making one more plea for ministry shares, or emphasizing the pledge campaign too much in light of widespread financial hardship, here’s what I’ve been hearing around the district.

  • I’m hearing that people still want to give, even when what they have to give may not be as much.  Last week a volunteer for the employment program at First UMC, Grand Rapids, handed a street person $15 for working 2 hours at a local non-profit agency.  When he asked her for change because he wanted to give 10% of his money back to the church, the woman said that wasn’t necessary.  He responded. “Don’t you know that 10% of what you earn should go to the Lord?”  Amazed, she took the $1.50. 
  • I’m hearing that United Methodists understand that giving is not an obligation.  It’s a free and grateful response to what God has done for us.  After I decided to receive an offering for Haiti at each of our church conferences (for hurricane relief and the Baudin Agricultural School and church), I began to have second thoughts.  Will people really want to give when they are bombarded with so many other requests?  Our first cluster conference of 4 churches gave $580.  The second cluster of 2 churches gave $425!  All I could do was shake my head in wonder and shout, “Hallelujah!”
  • I’m hearing that the need for education around personal finances is critical.  Many district churches are offering Dave Ramsey’s Financial Peace University or the Good Sense program to help individuals be responsible stewards of their financial resources from a Christian perspective. 
  • I’m hearing that churches are beginning to examine their own stewardship practices.  Church Trustees are finding ways to make buildings more energy efficient.  Paper Gators for recycling are becoming common.  Attempts are being made to consolidate meetings on certain evenings to save gas and time.  Church councils are carefully evaluating programs to determine what is and isn’t working so that we can focus on reaching out to a hurting world with the good news of Jesus Christ.  
  • Most of all, I am hearing that people give because they believe in the mission.  It’s that simple.  When we reach out to the very least of God’s children in concrete and effective ways, people want to be a part of it. 

At the same time as we have the highest unemployment rate in the country, United Methodists in West Michigan have had the highest per capita second mile mission giving in the denomination for years.  The good news Jesus taught is a gospel which urges us to live simply so that others may simply live.  That gospel is truly countercultural in a country which values me, more and acquiring rather than us, less and giving.

So don’t be afraid to ask for hurricane relief, scholarships for a mission trip, support for a youth auction as well as funds for ministry shares and mortgage retirement.  Let people choose which appeals they feel led to support.  And don’t hesitate to ask people to make generous pledges to your stewardship campaign.  Trust congregation members to decide whether they can give $1.50 or $1,500 or $15,000.   

Our country and world need the church more than ever before.  It’s time to be the lighthouse, the saving station, and the sanctuary that offers grace, mercy, and peace. 

Blessings, Laurie

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