In many congregations, talking about money is taboo. That we don’t talk about money doesn’t mean we don’t worry about it, though. In fact, most Americans worry about it constantly. Are we saving enough? Will Social Security be there for us when we are old? Will the nursing home costs for our aging parents clean us out just in time to prevent us from sending our children to college? And now, how will the mortgage lending crisis and the sharp declines in stock values affect me and my family?
Many people keep such worries to themselves or share them only with their spouses. Sometimes we turn to a coworker for understanding, but rarely to a pastor or to the church and its members.
One of the best ways people can be the church together in a money-dominated age is to break the taboo against discussing money and money worries. If we are concerned with having enough money to care for others or ourselves, or with meeting payments, let’s confess those concerns to our brothers and sisters in a supportive setting. A burden confessed is a burden shared.
If we are going to talk about money in the context of our congregations, we owe something to each other—the discipline of going to the next level in listening. One is tempted, when someone relates a financial problem, to try to help that person find a quick fix. What most of us need is not a quick fix or even a good coping strategy. For most of us, a money-related problem is the tip of the iceberg. Underneath the worry about Social Security is worry about growing old. Will I keep my independence, my friends, my mental capacities? Will I be able to buy the help, if I need it, of people I can trust? Below the issue of how to pay for college is concern for the welfare of one’s children. Will they be happy? Will they choose important and satisfying work? Will they be able to get by without parental protection? What Christians need to do for each other is to engage their brothers and sisters at below-the-surface levels.
The place to begin is with leading people to say what’s in their hearts and then following up the Social Security comment (to cite but one example) with a question related to hopes and fears about aging. The prime American value of autonomy will make us want to deflect such questions. “No,” we will want to say, “I know exactly what to do as long as I’ve got enough money.” The tragedy of this presumption of autonomy is that we cut ourselves off from the very conversations about our hopes and fears and insecurities in the world and before God with which our faith communities are in a position to help us.
Congregations of Christians can do other things to counter the power of money in our lives. The church’s ministry to its members is not merely problem-centered. We also can tell the stories of our lives in less materialistic ways. If we truly believe that life is more than bread and water (and clothing, houses, and cars), then the church must be the institution that validates our nonmaterial values. How? By telling the stories of the generous saints in our midst.
An example: A man’s child is dying of cancer. He takes family leave without pay to tend to the child. The cancer abates for a while, then returns. The man’s employer replaces him at the end of the statutory leave period. The child dies at home one evening. Now, what does the congregation say in public? What do members say in private to the man who lost a job for the child he loved? Too often we just say, “Sorry for your loss.” Privately we may even say to each other, “It’s too bad that cost him his job.”
These weak responses are not adequate to the followers of Jesus Christ. Someone needs to stand up and say in the presence of the congregation: “Henry, we grieve with you, but we are also proud of you, for you gave of yourself to your daughter in her time of greatest need without reserve. You are a witness to us all that people come first. We say that nothing can separate us from the love of God; you showed us all the love of God made real through your steadfast commitment to Sarah. Now, Henry, in the name of Jesus Christ, we promise to stand by you in love as you grieve and as you begin to put your life back together. We’ll help you find a job, and for my part, I’m going to pay your electric bill until you’re back on your feet.”
If this fictional speech seems too personal for your church, it suggests how far we have to go in most congregations to reconcile ourselves to gospel values. The way to encourage generosity is to recognize it publicly and to support those who display its virtues.
The people of God know something that others don’t. They know that their worth comes from God and not from money—not from money earned, hoarded, spent to purchase things, or used to exercise power. Once people see this truth, they can see that they have things going for them, for they are gifted with an abundance of skills and stories, with opportunities for love and service, and with one another. The people of God know that they have things money cannot buy; they know they are rich in things of the soul. The job of the contemporary congregation is, as always, to increase love and understanding of God and love toward the neighbor. Lest money stand in the way of love, congregations must become places where the abundant gifts of God to the people of God become known and celebrated.
Adapted from Generous Saints: Congregations Rethinking Ethics and Money, copyright © 1999 by the Alban Institute. All rights reserved.
Copyright © 2008, the Alban Institute. All rights reserved. We encourage you to share Alban Weekly articles with your congregation. We gladly allow permission to reprint articles from the Alban Weekly for one-time use by congregations and their leaders when the material is offered free of charge. All we ask is that you write to us at email@example.com and let us know how Alban Weekly is making an impact in your congregation. If you would like to use any other Alban material, or if your intended use of Alban Weekly does not fall within this scope, please submit our reprint permission request form.
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Generous Saints: Congregations Rethinking Ethics and Money by James Hudnut-Beumler
Author James Hudnut-Beumler explores the economic and theological assumptions that are at the root of congregations’ difficulty in talking about and dealing with issues of money, and presents an inspiring challenge to consider what it would mean to craft lives of generosity, as individuals and as congregations.
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