Monday Brief: The Bottom Line

The Monday Brief is a weekly blog series in which I reflect on my experience of the liturgy and pastoral ministry over the weekend. While it is primarily oriented toward pastors and lay congregational leaders, there will likely be something for everyone in it. I do draw on my past experience and occasionally reference my current pastoral assignment for case studies and examples; however, no names are used for the sake of confidentiality and respect.

I have served in some form of a pastoral capacity since 2003, though I was not officially licensed into ministry until August 2004. I have served in congregations ranging in size from 10 to 1,000 members, with a variety of theological and denominational backgrounds – Baptist, non-denominational evangelical, Church of the Brethren, and now progressive Mennonite. There are many good and fruitful similarities in practice between each of the parishes I’ve served that have shaped me into the pastoral leader I am today. One of the ugly things about nearly every congregation I’ve served, however, is the focus on “the bottom line.”

Most churches in the United States function in an organizational capacity, incorporated in their state as a non-profit entity. This affords the congregation a certain legal and financial standing, such as the ability to receive donations that are tax-deductible for the giver and not taxed as profit by the church. There are some real benefits to this type of organizational function for the church, but there are also some very damaging drawbacks, the most significant of which is the focus by some on whether the church is growing. Growth, here, is not identified by the number of people who are being reached by the good news of God’s shalom, who then participate in worship and common life because of the transformation and love they are experiencing. Growth in this context is the ability to grow the baseline of the church’s profit margin. If we bring in more than we spend, it’s a good year. If we bring in less than we spend, it’s a bad year. The bottom line, and by extension the most important message conveyed, is that the church is about money.

I have served only one congregation that didn’t operate this way. My very first work in pastoral ministry was as the pastor’s associate focusing on college students and youth with a congregation of 30-40 persons in rural Arkansas. I was paid $50 a week for the 10-12 hours of work I invested. It was hard work, but very rewarding. As one of the church’s leaders, I participated in the monthly leadership meetings where pastoral care, worship, and other items were addressed. As part of the meeting we also went over the financial state of the church. I will never forget an older gentleman, a stalwart in the congregation for decades, who always said the same thing to us each meeting in his thick southern accent as he went over the church’s bills he had paid that month: “Since God gave us this money, we should spend it. It ain’t ours to keep.” That congregation never kept a reserve for savings; they gave what needed to be given and spent whatever was given on the ministry of the church. Each month they started fresh with virtually nothing in their bank account. At the time I thought it foolish; now, 14 years later, I’m realizing it to be remarkable in its adherence to faith in God’s provision. I never witnessed that church fight about money. They talked about worship, the bible, and spent so much of their business meetings in prayer and song that you wouldn’t have thought it was a business meeting at all. They taught me more about the true nature of church than perhaps any other congregation.

I thought about them this weekend as I presided over Holy Eucharist in my progressive Mennonite congregation, chuckling on the inside of how my life has changed and how these two congregations could not be more different. For some reason, as I raised the bread and broke it, then looked down at the cup, the flickering candles, and the baptismal font, I was drawn back to that congregation for a brief moment. They would sing an old setting of Psalm 23, “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life. And I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” They acted as though they genuinely believed God would provide for every need, because in that poor rural congregation, God did. They didn’t really have the money to pay me, but every week enough came in to the offering plate to make it all work out. They invested in me because it was important to them. And I am forever grateful for all they taught me.

While I am not the same person I was 14 years ago when I served them, I will always be reminded of their understanding of the bottom line: faith. And as I celebrated the Holy Eucharist, and we sang our hymns so different from their southern gospel hymns, and I preached to a group of urbanites far from the dusty roads of rural Arkansas, I was carried into a place of hope. The bottom line for a congregation should always be faith, a hope of remembrance that God has provided and that God will continue to provide. That, after all, is the message of the Eucharist. We get our daily bread, enough for the day, and like the ancient Israelites, perhaps we are best off if we don’t keep the leftover manna out of fear of what will happen tomorrow. God has provided, and God will continue to provide.

Maybe, then, the Eucharist and the story of manna and the faith of rural Arkansas baptists could shape the church’s approach to all areas of ministry. God gives; will we trust God to give again? For whether it’s money or love or compassion or presence, it is a gift. And, dear friends, it ain’t ours to keep.

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