I am preparing for an online course on money and ministry to be taught in the fall with author Margaret Marcuson. Money, and what it represents is a complex issue in congregations. The course will examine money and ministry from a systems theory frame of reference. From that orientation, some systems concepts that can help in understanding what's going on are:
- Money represents something to people. Usually, it's emotional.
- Money often serves a function. Giving money represents a function of emotions, drives, or values.
- Since money is a complex emotional issue, it's helpful to never question motives, but observe function
- Stewardship is a spiritual-emotional issue and needs to be approached and understood as such.
Some time ago a colleague in ministry called to share good news, and, a concern. He was new to the church, only eight months into his new ministry. A relatively new member to the church (she had joined two years prior) had expressed how much she appreciated his ministry and the excitement he was bringing to the church. She gave him an envelope with a check in the amount of $5,000.00, "to be used any way you want for your ministry." My colleague was elated with the affirmation and the gift, but he felt a bit stuck, also. He was seeking counsel about why he felt conflicted about the gift.
When a new (recent) member to a congregation gives a $5,000.00 gift, red flags go up for me. I won't question motive, but I tend to ask questions about emotional functioning. A very FEW people can give large sums of money to a church with no emotional strings attached--but most people cannot, in my experience. Since a congregation is an emotional system--and since small congregations mimic "family" emotional systems--it is naive to think that money (and what it represents by way of its function) does not matter in terms of the impact on the function of the system.
In the case of a large donation from a new member, we may ask, for example:
- Is this person overfunctioning for the congregation?
- Is this person dealing with some issues in his or her life that has promted the gift? Why now?
- Does this person's (immediate) family know he or she is giving this gift? What is this persons relationship with the church? With the pastor?
- Did the pastor or staff get the gift or was it given to "the church" through usual giving channels?
- How does the giving of the major gift relate to patterns in the donor's life? In the church? In the pastor's family of origin?
- Are there guidelines in place (rules or policies) about "major gifts"? Were they followed?
- Does this action put you in a triangulated relationship?
- Were there "strings" attached to the gift? Overt or implied? Expectations? Subtle messages?
- Is the gift a "designated gift" for a ministry, staff person, pet program, pet issue that by-passes the regular budget? Is this gift given in stead or in lieu of regular offering and pledge giving?
- What are the systemic consequences to the congregation beyond convenience and financial relief?
- Given the donor's life circumstance, is this a "responsible" act? Is it appropriate?
- Given the pattern of giving and practice of stewardship of the congregation as a whole, is receiving the gift a responsible act? Is it appropriate?
- Will accepting this gift change or shift the relationship with the donor?
Events like my friend's experience are great opportunities to do some stewardship education with the church leadership. At least for pastoral leaders who are willing to put the issues on the table and challenge the church about its responsible response to congregational stewardship. Most pastors seem to avoid dealing with it and then wonder why their congregational members are poor stewards. Go figure.
NEXT: Money and What it Represents: Stewardship Education As A Spiritual Issue
Israel Galindo is Associate Dean for Lifelong Learning at the Columbia Theological Seminary. Formerly, he was Dean at the Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond. He is the author of the bestseller, The Hidden Lives of Congregations (Alban), Perspectives on Congregational Ministry (Educational Consultants), and A Family Genogram Workbook (Educational Consultants), with Elaine Boomer and Don Reagan. Galindo contributes to the Wabash Center's blog for theological school deans.