Guest column by Chadron Hazelbaker
As fall hits, our congregation begins its annual stewardship campaign. The leadership sets a theme, there is a weekly ask, and, ideally, at the end of the campaign we have a strong understanding of the budget with which we will continue the mission of the church.
Stewardship and giving to the congregational coffers to me is a complex and not very fun topic. I don’t know why there is often such a hang-up about money and finances when we look at the church. I don’t know if my struggles lie in my own familial financial baggage, along with certain amounts of guilt and shame surrounding how we deal with money. Maybe my struggles come from memories of religious televangelists in the 80s crying for money where the model seemed to be “give to the church – so I can buy an airplane, a prostitute, and a rollercoaster.” Every year I struggle with ideas of what we, as a family, feel like we can give, as well as what we should give. I very easily move into a dysfunctional legalistic place when I look at tithing and the “aught to” part of giving. Why is it that when I look at volunteering time or using my limited musical talents it doesn’t seem to be much of a challenge – and definitely isn’t a sacrifice – yet when it comes to money, things get complicated.
A while back, when I served on the leadership board of our church, a friend came to me with tears in his eyes as he shared his deep pain and frustrations that he felt as the church went through the annual campaign for stewardship. As messages about money and, in his eyes, the pressure to give more, he was faced with his own feelings of inadequacy. In his service to the country, my friend was left disabled and for the past few years had been homeless. “I give my $5 – all I can muster – and yet, it isn’t enough. Don’t these people know that is all I have?” At the time, of course, I was struck by the parallels to the story of the widow’s mite – she gave out of her limited resources, not out of abundance like others. However, I sensed that it wasn’t this simplified biblical story where his frustration lay. I didn’t know what to say then, and not sure I would know what to say today if a similar situation arose. I do know that the jarring complexities of giving struck my friend as well.
We are a congregation that passes the plate. In the past, I’ve thought about joining a more “put the giving box in the back of the church” type congregation. It seems that those with more secretive giving maybe don’t face the congregational confusions and guilt that us plate-passers face. I know intellectually that the passing of the plate is done within the flow of the service, coming at the point at which we have heard the lesson, reflected, and are now asked to respond to God’s call by giving our time and talents. However, the intellect doesn’t always jive with what how my heart reacts.
In Bible study, a dear 96-year-old soul, who has spent his life as a pastor, missionary, and grace-filled model for living, was very open when he told me that he struggled with passing the plate every week and not putting something in the plate. He gives monthly to the church, and has regularly for his whole adult life. However, there is something that causes pangs as he passes the plate down the row without putting something in it every week. While it surprises me that he, a blessed saint, feels odd passing the plate, I understand it at a personal level. I always feel funny as I pass the plate down our row without putting something in. Sometimes I think those around me are judging. Sometimes I think “gosh, I need to be better about giving my kids dollar bills to put in to better model giving to them.” Sometimes, I feel empty wondering how God could possibly use the empty plate.
In some ways, I am glad to have found other kindred spirits in my wondering, shame, and guilt that comes around God’s calling to give. While I have wandered around the giving issue, tithing and making a stewardship pledge, I have a relatively easy time allowing myself to push it to the back of my mind for the vast majority of the year. What I am slowly beginning to realize – slowly learning to embrace – is that ambiguity and the odd feelings. I’m slowly realizing that the pathway to tithing is a part of life growth. From the dysfunction of legalism and a “have to” give perspective is sprouting a more patient, more relational understanding of the role of giving as it affects others (both within and beyond the walls of the congregation) as well as how it affects my own spirituality and relationships with my family.
Our congregation still has two weeks left in our campaign. Additional chances to be uncomfortable. Additional chances to wonder where that discomfort comes from. Additional chances to prayerfully seek wisdom in giving. Chances to see spiritual growth.
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