Our church is in its annual personal financial management sermon series, which I would love if it weren’t always capped by the annual pledge campaign. I’m a big believer in budgeting and holding the line on personal spending. As the late Larry Burkett used to say about the use of credit:
“God has already provided for all your needs. So if God hasn’t provided, you don’t need it.”
My mother, also a good money manager, once convinced my late Uncle Percy that getting a credit card for his farm business would help in tracking his expenses. Since he was in his sixties and had always paid cash for everything, he had no credit history and his application was turned down. His “revenge” was to go to a dealership and buy a new car the next day — paying cash, of course.
Meaning in Life: Freedom from Debt Slavery
I’m very glad that churches have been at the forefront of training people in financial management traditions because it allows some reason to hope that fewer Christians are underwater on oversize mortgages, excess college debt, and maxed out credit cards.
As the Bible says, “the borrower is slave to the lender” (Proverbs 22:7) and Christians are called to live in freedom, slaves only to our Lord.
I wish that churches as a group could find ways to manage themselves that would allow them the same freedom as organizations that they help their members find as individuals. Pledge drives are, for many congregations, essential tools for projecting budgets. Members who fall behind on their pledges or fail to give their tithe are treated, in some congregations, not just as persons suffering devastating financial setbacks but as persons failing in their vows to God. They may be dunned by members of the stewardship committee as mercilessly as any they might be tracked by any collection agency.
Meaning in Life: Compassion for Those in Need
And that brings me to the unfortunate story of that very good financial manager I mentioned before, who stopped going to church more than 50 years ago because of a stewardship drive.
She had made her pledge and, as a young secretary in a large corporation, had every reason to expect she could fulfill it. Then her mother fell ill. Suddenly, her life turned upside down. Instead of a quiet life centered around friends, hobbies, and church in one state, she rushed through her week so she could take a train 140 miles to her hometown, where she nursed her mother and cooked for her father every weekend. Sundays she would take a late train back to the city where she lived and return to work Monday morning tired, but knowing she had fulfilled her duties.
Then one evening, two well-dressed men from the stewardship committee appeared at her apartment.
“You haven’t been paying your pledge,” one of them said. “This is a commitment you made. It is important to live up to your commitments.”
My mother attempted to explain that the money she would have given to the church was being spent on train fares to care for her mother. They would hear nothing of it. If only she had known the Bible well enough to point them to Mark 7, where Jesus reprimands the teachers of his own day:
“You have a fine way of setting aside the commands of God in order to observe your own traditions! For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and mother,’ … But you say that if anyone declares that what might have been used to help their father or mother is Corban (that is, devoted to God)— then you no longer let them do anything for their father or mother.” (Mark 7: 9-12)
She stopped going to church. More than 50 years later, she has yet to return.
Meaning in Life: Managing Well in ‘The New Normal’
These are challenging financial times for many of us. The average middle income household has seen its annual income drop by more than $4,000 during this prolonged recession. Along with that income drop, the household may have gained members as college students have taken time off or graduates unable to find work have returned home. Those without work may be struggling to maintain health insurance at high premiums for individual coverage. Those with older or disabled family members may be taking on increasing portions of their care as government programs are reduced. Families concerned about the quality of schooling may be taking on home-schooling, moving children into charters that require parental involvement, or becoming heavily engaged as PTA members and volunteers in the public schools.
All of which means that what was “Corban” or dedicated to the work of the Lord is increasingly needed to do God’s work of caring for God’s family. And churches are getting concerned about their ability to continue doing their own part of God’s work.
Find Meaning in New Endeavors
For those anxious about the future of God’s work beyond the family, I would offer a few encouragements:
First, while there will be a period of adjustment to what some are resentfully calling “the new normal,” the “new normal” has been normal for most of our life as a nation. Sometime soon, we’ll start to enjoy the idea that more of us are entrepreneurs and fewer of us are “organization men,” even though it means that we live with less certainty and more trust in God.
Second, once we get used to lower incomes and fewer toys, we will not only become generous as we were before: we will become more generous. Statistically it is consistently true that the most generous givers by percentage are people with lower incomes. Expect more tithers, not fewer.
Find Meaning in Outdoing Others’ Generosity
I love the story I heard from my sister’s little church in rural Maine, where the assembled congregation sounded like an auction house as they set their goals for aiding the missions they’d chosen:
“I think we can give $2,500”
“I believe we can put $2,500 to the women’s shelter and $1,500 to the orphanage”
“I urge you to consider $3,000 for the women’s shelter and $2,500 for the orphanage”
I know a church in Boston’s inner city where the membership committed to universal sacrificial giving: a mother on welfare gave up smoking to be able to commit more; a doctor’s family gave up their annual vacations in Vail and the Caribbean. Every household named publicly what they sacrificed to increase their giving.
As we commit to managing our money well, God directs us to the best uses of our time and talents. All we are and have belongs to God. Use God’s stuff well.