Adventures in Generosity

The occasionally coherent ramblings of a Stewardship Advisor in the Church of England

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Entering the debate.

I was asked two questions this week at PCC’s that stuck out for me:

The first; “but there’s only a few of us, even if we give much more we can’t keep this place going – what we really need is bums on seats – so how do we get that ?”

The second; “how can we possibly talk about giving money away in a recession ?”

The two might not seem all that closely related, but actually I think they might be – and I think, watching current developments in and around St Paul’s Cathedral this week – it’s time we put two and two together.

You see, I think that now is the perfect time to be talking about giving.  The current recession/depression/economic meltdown – whatever you call it, is final, concrete, proof of what happens when we place our faith in the material.  Easy credit, pensions, life savings, stuff – it promises so very very much security – and can deliver none of it.  So, isn’t now the time to declare our independence – to put money back in it’s place and say – thanks, but no thanks.  And a good place to start is by taking some of that cold, unfeeling cash – and giving it away – to those who need it more than we do.

This week, with the eyes of the worlds media focused upon it, the Church establishment had an opportunity to widen the debate and offer another possibility.  That we might have got it horribly wrong.  That the answer is neither anti-capitalism, anarchy, free sandals for all (as the protesters might have it) nor is it more quantitative easing, austerity measures and the IMF as the politicians want us to believe, nor is it more capitalism, freedom from regulation and bigger better hedge funds, as the City claims – the answer is, in fact, in where we place our trust – in the fickle hands of Mammon or in the loving embrace of God ?

Perhaps, if we were less timid, and less willing to hang on to our own establishment credentials, we might actually have something positive to bring to this debate – and perhaps then we might see a few more bums on seats; not in our churches, but in the Kingdom we so badly need to bring to our world.

Help ! send money now !

I read a letter today that made me angry and sad in equal measure.

The letter was from a vicar, writing to a Parish in another Diocese  as a plea for financial support.

The problem was, the first page of the letter outlined all the heartfelt frustrations of the parochial share system.  This system was in turn characterised as unjust, cumbersome, un democratic and impossibly demanding.  It then went on to outline the ever rising costs of the staff team and the endless need to pay the bills of the church and set these in opposition to the paying of the dreaded ‘Diocesan Tax’. The letter finally invited congregation members to contribute to the church on the basis that this was a distasteful reality that nevertheless had to be faced.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I understand frustrations around the share system, I am no wholehearted apologist and I do believe that too many Diocese communicate the share principle appalingly badly and provide an inadequate vision of what being a Diocese is.  But at the same time I passionatly believe that the underlying message of mutual support  is a positive one that we should spend serious time and concerted effort reviewing and improving.

To publicly air essentially political frustrations to church members, some of whom may be new to the church, or blissfully unaware of the administrative arrangements of the Church  is in my view deeply damaging for the church concerned and can only lead to disillusionment with the Church as an institution.

But this wasn’t really what upset me, or even surprised me.  What I found so tragic was that here was a letter from a member of the clergy that equated giving to the church wholly and entirely with paying the bills.

It reduced the offeratory to an exercise in taxation.

Lets be clear.  Christian Stewardship has nothing whatsoever to do with ‘keeping the show on the road’.  If Bill Gates turned up tomorrow and agreed carte blanch to pay the entire running costs of every parish church in the country forever more, not one member of the church would be absolved of the responsibility to give, and give sacrificially.

Stewardship is about partnership.  It isn’t just about an occasional donation of cash, it’s about offering all that we are into a relationship with God.

In Genesis 12  Abraham is told by God ‘I will bless you’  that ‘all peoples on earth will be blessed through you’.  Our gifts, be they financial, spiritual or practical are given to us for a purpose.  That purpose is to live out the life that God has called us to and to use our gifts to bring about the transformation in our world that we receive for free through Grace.

When a letter goes out to a congregation that leaves them with the idea that giving is an exercise in paying the bills or is brought about by external demands for tax, it diminishes the discipleship of everyone who reads it.  It is a call, not just to financial disaster, but also to missional mediocrity – in ‘giving to need, rather than needing to give’ we refuse the offer of partnership in the Kingdom that is offered us.

So I have a plea – to any clergy currently pondering an ‘ask’ letter.  Please,  share your frustrations, air them at the deanery, shout at the Archdeacon, bring your concerns to Synod and fight for change, even call your friendly Stewardship Advisor for a good moan and a bit of support.

But please, when you communicate the call to generous living to your congregation, make it about life, make it about love and make it about bringing Gods Kingdom to every corner of His creation.

Trouble brewing ?

Ever had one of those conversations where you thought you were talking about one thing but it turned out that what you were actually talking about was something else entirely ?

Twitter went a bit manic today when a seemingly inoccuous discussion about Coffee and its general quality in church uncovered a seemingly bottomless well of discontent and frustration – which it turns out isn’t really about coffee at all !

The collective conversation which ensued is too lengthy to repeat here – suffice to say that the potential for a book exploring the subject in-depth was mooted as a possibility. But in a nutshell the flow of the conversation went something like this:

A Rev. twitter buddy of mine was in trouble with member or members of her church because the coffee being served at lent groups had been switched from instant to ‘proper coffee’ !!!

Trivial, yes ? we thought so and had a brief titter – but then, someone else asked – why the concern over such trivial matters and why do they seem to blow out of all proportion so very often ? And why, while we are on the subject is the coffee generally served up by churches so woefully awful ?

Tweep after Tweep seemed to join the throng, observing that not only was the coffee generally awful, but the tea and biccies were usually fairly low rent too, and while we’re at it – why do churches insist on sticking up badly designed posters all wonky on scruffy looking noticeboards, what’s with all those old piles of dusty parish mags at the back and why, in short was the church so generally determined that ‘that’ll do’ would do ?

As the conversation continued it seemed the original problem arose because ‘proper’ coffee was all too expensive and that whilst ‘young folk’ could fritter their money on such frivolity as ‘posh coffee’ the church ought to be above such pointless frippery and stand up for… what exactly? bland, second rate beverages?

So now we see – this isn’t about coffee at all ! this is about piety ! self denial ! we are shonky and a bit amateurish because it is what God wants! Away with your warm hospitality, we don’t want to offer the best we can afford to our brothers and sisters, even less to occasional visitors – what God really wants is for us to offer a grudging mug of luke warm sludge and a broken digestive to our guests – right ?

Erm, well, not exactly.

The Bible is fairly clear on the subject of hospitality – my current bible study plan covers passage after passage in the OT commanding Israel to offer the best of their hospitality, to welcome all comers with the very best they have to offer.

Jesus didn’t turn water into any old cheap plonk – He saved the best for last. The prodigal son does not return to a warmed over pot noodle.

The bible exhorts us again and again to treat others with the generosity, love and welcome that we would wish to receive – why ? Because when we honour each other we honour our Creator – because “when you do this to the least of these, you do it to me” .

So what are we saying when we offer less than the best of ourselves ? Whose money, exactly, are we saving ? And what message does our welcome give about the Gospel we proclaim ? Are we guilty of perpetuating an image of the church as cheap, scruffy and deteriorating ?

There is much more to be said following todays discussion – about how this ‘second best is good enough’ attitude spills into our financial stewardship, about attitudes to change and attitudes to the young, about Fair Trade, about our image of ourselves and of God – but for now I would like to exhort each of us with the words of a fellow twitterer @crimperman:

Lets give up bad coffee for Lent !

In our time of preparation lets prepare our churches for Easter morning by throwing open our doors, welcoming all comers with warm and open arms, tidying up a bit and putting on a decent cuppa.

Given the cost of Good Friday I’d say a couple of quid on a packet of Fair Trade Costa Rican was a small price to pay.

All things come from you …

I was wondering what would move me to blog – having got well and truly out of the habit I was resigned to the fact that this little corner would sit forever collecting cyberdust and cobwebs, a neglected relic of more inspired times.  But at last ! a glimmer of inspiration.

The Church of England has revamped its website.  Hurrah ! in fact, bugs and teething problems last week aside, it’s a good looking site. Integrated well with a church near you , like the prayer stuff, think ‘being a Christian’ could be a bit more inspiring but maybe that will come.  On first pass the site is, if not awe inspiring, at least navigable, intelligible and pleasing on the eye (and browser).

But then I begin to look a little closer, with the eye of a professional employed by the CofE to ‘Support, encourage and inspire a spirit of giving and generosity’ in the members of this church.

Let me set you a challenge – whether you are an old hand or a new broom – spend 5 minutes perusing the site and then come back and tell me everything you have learned about Stewardship.

Have you, perhaps, learned that as Christians we are called to give of our ‘First Fruits’ to further the Kingdom of God, that what we do with our time, our talents and our treasures are as much an act of worship as Prayer or Praise ?  That Stewardship is fundamental to our Discipleship, that sacrificially serving others with all that we have is what being a Christian is all about ?

Should you be lucky enough to stumble across the single page which deals with such issues you would find this paragraph:

with regard to Christian Stewardship. Too many still regard it as a means of extricating a parish from its financial problems, as a “crash diet” for a week or two, and not as a way of life in response to God, a steady programme of growth in Christian discipleship.

I cannot argue with one syllable, absolutely 100% agree that Stewardship is catagorically not about funding the church, it is first and foremost about an individuals committment to and trust in God.  Our Journey deeper into faith must be accompanied by a journey away from reliance on our own wits and skills to maintain us.  If we cling to our material wealth as a life raft, if we squander our talents on accumulating endless shiny trinkets like over grown magpies, if we hang on to donations for dear life and spend every penny on maintaining the roof when outside people cry out in despair we can never lay claim to be living Life in Abundance.

So, if this paragraph is correct, if all of that is true and Stewardship is “a way of life in response to God, a steady programme of growth in Christian Discipleship” WHY is the single page dealing with the issue buried deep, under About Us, Under Facts and Stats (yawn), Under Research and Statistics (won’t be reading that) and, finally, under FUNDING THE CHURCH OF ENGLAND ????????

Clergy Pensions headed for a ‘Clergy Crunch’ ?

Must admit my brain tends to go a little fuzzy when I read ‘finance speak’  but an interesting piece  and comments from The Church Mouse.

News Rant

oooooo twitters gone all frantic.  Looks like it’s all kicking off in the CofE – Archbishop Williams’ Pentecost letter will no doubt be much discussed, debated, celebrated and derided over the coming days and the great British media will relish this little gem  as yet another opportunity to frame the Anglican Communion as sex obsessed mysogynists / the last bastion of moral Chrisitan decency / politically correct loony liberal lefties (pick your POV). 

But hang on a minute – what’s this tweet from the cabinet office ?  Poverty you say ? In Britain ? Today ? In the year 2010 ?

Set against international comparisons, income inequality in the UK is now at its highest level since comparable statistics began in 1961, and the proportion of the population living in relative poverty is higher than in many European countries. For young people the findings are particularly alarming. In the UK, the proportion of children growing up in workless households, and the proportion of young people not in work, education or training, is higher than in almost any other European country

Nice that my church is focusing on what really matters and addressing the pressing moral questions of our time.

It sure makes my job persuading people that they ought to part with their hard earned to support the relevant and compassionate mission of the church a whole lot easier.

Thanks.