October 14, 2018

2018 October14

Financial Stewardship

Proper 23 – Year B
A Sermon Preached by The Rev. Ian M. Delinger


Is it wise or unwise to choose to preach about stewardship and kick-off the Stewardship Drive when the Gospel reading states that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than it will be for a rich man to get into Heaven? Probably not. Allow me to make us even more uncomfortable and quote an article I read called: “How passing the plate becomes the ‘Sunday morning stickup’”


“Churches have devised all sorts of ingenious ways to use guilt and distort scripture to compel people to give, some say. They call it the “Sunday morning stickup.”


In a moment, you will learn a little bit more about that. But I want to say up front that I hope no one feels this way at St Stephen’s. Stewardship is about three resources: Time, Talent and Treasure. We genuinely try to value all three that we receive in whatever quantities. The St. Stephen’s Family is very generous in all three, and in particular, with your money.


For 2018, you gave the exact amount for the ambitious budget that I asked the Budget Committee for. For 2019, I’m asking you for a little bit more in order to greet opportunities that we discovered during 2018 that we want to continue in 2019 – mostly our excellent standard of music, staff cost of living adjustments, and the sponsorships of 3 key fundraisers in the community. Together with a few smaller items, they amount to about a 5-7% increase over last year for our entire budget.


At St. Stephen’s, we are honest about our money, and we actually run on a fairly lean budget – just under $300k. I am perfectly aware that changes in the income tax deductions are going to do weird things to your income and your tax liability. But remember, taxes as a form of redistribution of wealth is no help to St Stephen’s!


This is a sample of what we have been able to accomplish in 2018 as a Christian presence in San Luis Obispo:


  • Host a booth at Children’s Day in the Plaza for the first time, in order to be a welcoming Christian presence to the whole San Luis Obispo community.
  • A presence and a voice in the wider community through membership in the Chamber of Commerce. Our membership is not only about me attending a monthly breakfast. It has helped make connections with other agencies, as well as empowered members of the Chamber who are parishioners to help build the profile of our work around the City.
  • And the double-edged sword of being able to pay almost 1/3 of the cost of our very beautiful-but-expensive steeple out of Operating Reserves. (with the promise to pay back the Reserves in the near future)


These accomplishments are out of the Operating Budget, which comes from your pledges. Things like gas cards for people with urgent needs, scholarships for youth events, and the Easter, St. Stephen’s Day and Christmas instrumentalists come from other special pockets of money, some of which is donated by you, and some of which was donated years ago by parishioners just like you.


Some churches require a degree of commitment found in today’s Gospel: to give everything you have and to abandon your family for your faith. Some of you have personally experienced that.


This handout will give you an idea of the range of attitudes toward giving specifically to the Church. Each one of the 5 paragraphs is from a different online article about Church giving. Read each of the paragraphs, and then share your thoughts on one of them with a neighbor who is not your partner. I will give you 7 min total, and then I will preach for another 7 min…and we’ll have the perfect length of a sermon.


<7min of conversation>


People Give Because They Have a Relationship
People give because they have a relationship with someone. Whether it’s with a pastor, staff member, or volunteer, relationships in the church are very powerful. We’ve seen it over and over again. Once people get connected with a small group or volunteer team, they “buy into the church” on a much deeper level. One of the most helpful things you and your staff can do to increase the generosity levels of your church is get to know people. Don’t manipulate them or invite them to small groups where you ask for money. Just hang out with them. Better yet, connect them with groups and teams in your church and watch relationships develop.


People Don’t Give When They Are Unemployed
When people are in between jobs and in financial crisis it can be difficult for them to give to the church. For this reason, the current economy has had such an impact on churches all across America. It is important to have an emergency fund to carry people through financial setbacks but it can also help the church keep its doors open.


*** had just opened his wallet for two successive offerings at a church one Sunday morning when a pastor walked onto the pulpit to pass on a request. “You all going to think I’m crazy, but God says give again,” the pastor said. The congregation rose from their seats to march to the front as the church organist played a soothing melody. As they dropped off their offerings at the altar, the pastor urged them on with, “God says give everything; don’t hold nothing back.” The organist then picked up the tempo, and the pastor shouted, “God says run!” The offering ended with people surging toward the altar like music fans rushing a concert stage. “It was pandemonium. They weren’t just giving money, but shoes, watches diamond rings,” Lee says. “There were people dropping alligator shoes on the altar.”


Do Not Give Because: Churches do not have strong evidence that they do any good
The way churches spend their money is not the only problem. They also have no strong evidence that they make people better off. This is a big deal. For example, would you donate to Homeopaths Without Borders? No, because they don’t have any rigorous evidence that they cure diseases any better than placebo. Similarly, churches have no science showing that building another room affects people’s happiness long term. A good critical thinker requires evidence that a charity actually makes the world a better place, and churches fail in this category.


People Don’t Give Because They Don’t See Why
Administrative costs are essential for running a local church. There’s no way around it. But giving toward the day-to-day needs is not a compelling reason to give. God is at work in your church. People are coming to faith. Marriages are being restored. People are sharing the gospel in their community and around the world. You’re hosting children during the summer vacation Bible school. Share with your church how God is at work. Let them see the lives redeemed and changed. Invite them to be a part of what God is doing. They need to know that their gifts are what makes the ministry of your local church possible.


<share your favorite – hands up for each one>


What is Mark telling us about giving to the Church? He’s telling us that we need to give up all our worldly possessions to get into Heaven. So, like that 3rd paragraph on the handout, let’s have a second, third or even fourth collection. You can give all your money to the church. And like the Pastor in Atlanta, St Stephen’s can buy me a private jet. Don’t spend $65M on it. I found a 2017 Bombardier Challenger for just a little over $17M. See – I’m a good steward of your money!


Wouldn’t that be a contradiction in interpretation: I tell you that Jesus is telling you to give up everything you have in order to follow Him and to obtain Eternal Life…but then I live an extravagant lifestyle. There are ministers who do that. We know because they have been in the news.


But that is NOT what Jesus is telling us through Mark’s Gospel. Jesus is telling the Rich Man that his possessions are a barrier to his commitment to Jesus. Jesus says, “You lack one thing.” Jesus doesn’t then state what that one thing is; He challenges the Rich Man, who then runs away. The response to the challenge was to commit himself to Jesus despite his personal wealth – the commitment to Jesus was what the Rich Man lacked. The illustration to the reader is to examine what is getting in the way of your following Jesus and then to get rid of it. It’s an early form of therapeutic counseling!


Jesus continues to describe the difficulty for rich people in responding to Jesus’ call because they are too attached to their wealth. It is actually a message for all of us to not let our personal hang-ups, whatever they are, get in the way of our relationship with Jesus.


For those for whom it is their wealth, there can be positive ways to use that wealth for the good of God’s Children. Trinity Episcopal Church on Wall Street is probably the wealthiest single parish in the world, at an estimated annual revenue of about $160M. It’s a grant-making organization whose objectives include advocating for children, reforming the justice system, cultivating leaders, and strengthening churches worldwide in their efforts to become financially sustainable.


Locally, the generosity of this parish allows us to support the Out Of Darkness Walk for Suicide Prevention, the Women’s Legacy Fund, providing for those living with food insecurity, and many more activities.


With regard to the charitable funds at St Stephen’s, they are not part of our Operating Budget. But this coming January, we will all have a better idea of the amount of money given by this parish above and beyond our Operating Budget that goes to Social Outreach. We have been consolidating our accounting so various streams of Social Outreach donations are shown in one place: the Parish Council Report.


Our Operating Budget is transparent. You can see the short form as part of the Vestry Minutes posted in Ramsden Hall. You can ask the Treasurer for the long form. We have a budget that reflects what happens mostly on this campus of buildings. Staffing takes up the bulk of our budget; day-to-day operation of the non-profit business requires funds; and believe it or not a good share goes to making Sunday morning worship an authentic-yet-beautiful engagement with Jesus Christ. We do that through the supplies, the maintenance of the fabric and of course the high-quality music – music that does not come cheap – because it’s not cheap music – in quality, in quantity or in theology.


At St Stephen’s, we try to ensure that you have a relationship: with me, with the leadership, with one another as the St Stephen’s Family, and most importantly with God through Jesus Christ. That has nothing to do with money, and never should. We will ask you to support the opportunities and challenges that we face as a Christian community – through your volunteer time, your God-given talents, and yes, your money. But hopefully we never guilt you into sharing, we never manipulate the Gospel to get you to share, or we never misuse your offerings of time, talent and treasure.


There may not be a one-to-one relation between kicking off the Stewardship Campaign and today’s readings. Yet, the strongest message in today’s Gospel is that Jesus is stressing that it is impossible for anyone with their own resources – emotional, psychological, physical or financial – to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. In the end, it is all a matter of divine grace. Jesus stresses the reliance upon Him that is required, and He alludes to the coming together of the community around a common faith in Christ. Whatever sacrifices we make now, we will receive both now and in the age to come: a new family, a new community, which is the Church.


So, these 4 snippets about giving money to the Church offer us the range of attitudes that exist in American society. I’m not a natural fundraiser, and probably don’t like the Stewardship Campaign any more than any of you do. My vocation as a priest is to help you foster relationships with one another and with God through Jesus Christ, and to do that through the weekly celebration of the Eucharist – our Great Thanksgiving for Christ’s sacrifices of Incarnation, Death and Resurrection. But, I also have this job as Executive Director of this non-profit call St Stephen’s Episcopal Church Employer Identification Number 95-2263864.


Mark’s Gospel includes that focus on relationships with Jesus and with one another in his story about the Rich Man. We should take comfort in this because in Matthew and Luke, becoming a Follower of Jesus does not come with a similar relational component. In those Gospels, Jesus demands that Christians give up all previous relationships and live an itinerant lifestyle without a defined community. In Mark, Christians are assured of a place in a new social community.


At Stephen’s, this new Christian
social community is what I call
the St. Stephen’s Family.



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