A crucial consideration in issues of faith and money is to know when we have “enough” of the latter. This is especially true since our culture tends to suggest that there is never enough.
Both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament describe “abundance” primarily in relation to food and drink. Having enough of both was a daily challenge for most people in biblical times. The Book of Lamentations contains poignant reference to children who faint from hunger (2:19) and exclaims, “Better those slain by the sword than those slain with hunger” (4:9). The familiar phrase “a land flowing with milk and honey” is virtually a definition of abundance. To be blessed means that God “has filled the hungry with good things” (Luke 1:53).
Few people in our own circumstances worry about having enough to eat. But our quest for “abundance” has crept into every other aspect of our lives. Our society regards abundance in terms of money and purchases: houses, cars, clothing, electronic gadgets, entertainment. Congregations, too, must ask themselves what constitutes abundance for their community. Most often they live with this question unconsciously. But occasionally through one or another—perhaps unexpected—event, congregations may become more aware of the issue. Resulting self-examination may lead to substantial change in understandings of abundance.
Stories of three congregations demonstrate some of the events that may spur a new look at abundance, as well as the directions in which such an examination can lead. The road will not be exactly the same for any two congregations.
One impetus for new thinking on abundance can be a startling change in circumstances—a natural disaster, for example. Members of Granite Falls United Church of Christ (Congregational) in Granite Falls, Minnesota, along with the whole town of 3,000, have suffered three major disasters since 1997: two serious floods and a devastating tornado.
In the 1997 flood, the church basement filled with backed-up sewage, ruining not only furniture, cupboards, and other possessions, but also the floor, sub-floor, and parts of walls. Cleaning up took months of members’ volunteer work. Those who couldn’t do physical labor helped in other ways. Two members served as general contractors for the repairs. Some brought food to the work crews, dealt with the necessary paperwork, or contributed supplies. The experience revealed an abundance of member talent.
At the same time, a church know for generosity to others found itself the recipient of needed funds. Having previously regarded abundance as surplus and the ability to extend help, members redefined it to include receiving help gratefully and graciously. During each disaster, help cam especially from the other congregations in town. The whole religious community worked closely together to set up shelters and soup kitchens, to provide counseling, and to offer support for those in most need.
In 1997 the congregation’s pastor was leaving—a loss that made the flood disaster even more painful. The confluence of circumstances “brought the congregation real close together,” said longtime member Neale Dieter. It helped members realized they could assume leadership roles and “rely on each other”—a form of abundance that emerged out of tragedy.
In the town’s second flood, parishioners had more warning to move basement items upstairs, and the church suffered little damage. However, in the tornado of summer 2000, several of the congregation’s families lost their homes, cars, and other possessions. Their very lives are now their first definition of abundance. “I feel lucky that we’re both here,” said Ruby Hieb. Both she and her husband Leroy were away when the tornado struck. Neale and Lavonne Dieter had approximately four minutes to reach their basement before their house was destroyed. For both couples, possessions have diminished in importance. All those “special things that you wouldn’t dare use” are gone, said Lavonne Dieter. But “it’s what you have inside that will last. Memories can’t be taken away.”
Rethinking abundance can also occur when the unexpected event is a positive one. Bethany Lutheran Church (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) in Crystal Lake, Illinois, was shocked last spring when it learned of the bequest it was to receive from former members who had left the town 25 years earlier. The sum was more than $1 million. To members of this large middle-class congregation (around 1,000 members), which as financially stable though never wealthy, that sum was “unimaginable,” according to the Rev. Hal Hoekstra, Bethany’s pastor.
Hoekstra quickly made a basic decision. He had received news of the gift from Bethany members who were relatives of the deceased donors—and decided that they, not he, should be the ones to inform the congregation. I wanted “to let them tell the story, not take it away from them,” he said. Faced with the question “What do we do with this abundance?” he was determined that the news “remain a stewardship story.” He also wanted to emphasize what he calls the “personal connectedness” of the gift, to help members realize that the bequest was not just one of money but also of membership relationships that transcended time and place.
And that, said Hoekstra, was almost his last act of leadership in relation to the gift. His other initiative was to suggest that the congregation consider establishing an endowment fund. In this way it could count among its blessings the welfare of future members. Lay leaders formed a task force to consider uses for the money, working closely with the church’s ongoing mission task force. After careful research, which included asking questions of other churches, the committee presented the congregation with a proposal to divide the money into five parts. These included establishing an endowment fund. The group also wanted a portion to go to the church’s music program, further personalizing the gift by honoring the donors’ special interest in music. Committee members suggested tithing 10 percent of the gift to outside ministries, “to return it to the glory of God.” Finally, they proposed constructing a church basement, a longtime goal, and reducing the building’s mortgage—another way of sharing the abundance with future generations. The congregation quickly approved the plan.
As in other cases of change, a major benefit was the further development of lay leadership, with new leaders heading task forces to address each of the plan’s five elements. Above all, said Hoekstra, everyone was determined that the large donation not be an occasion for feeling prideful. The initial announcement “created a response of deep humility” in the congregation, he noted—an attitude that is now a key value in its definition of abundance.
It doesn’t take a dramatic event like a disaster or an unexpected gift for a congregation to reexamine its values and priorities. A case in point is Eighth Street Mennonite Church in Goshen, Indiana. Its 85-year-old building had not been upgraded since the mid-1950s. Its heating system, especially in the sanctuary, was old and unreliable. The restrooms were not heated at all. The kitchen had ancient appliances.
Eighth Street Church was experiencing problems that many congregations face. Unlike some, the church was in a good position to address them. Goshen, a town of 26,000 in northeastern Indiana, has a relatively healthy economy, based primarily on light industry. It is also the home of Goshen College, a Mennonite school where a number of Eighth Street members work. Close by in Elkhart is a Mennonite seminary, several of whose staff attend Eighth Street. The congregation is basically white-collar, with a fair number of professio
nals, though none receives an unusually high salary. According to 30-year member Rich Gerig, “There is no one in the congregation who has deep pockets.” But it is certainly not a poor congregation, and members have always been generous in their church giving.
The congregation had talked informally for years about the needed building upgrades. Once serious conversations and planning got underway in 1996, enthusiasm flourished, along with a parallel level of confidence about raising the required funds. The congregation elected Gerig to chair the project’s steering committee. As an administrator at Goshen College, he had professional expertise to contribute, as well as his long and deep commitment to Eighth Street Church. Gerig knew how to plan carefully and proceed by steps. The congregation went through a detailed process of prioritizing needed changes. The church even brought in a consultant to help develop a master plan. “We had done a lot of homework,” said Gerig; then the consultant “helped us pull the pieces together.”
People began to make pledges and take on fundraising responsibilities. Architects were consulted on specific plans. Then something happened that brought the whole carefully planned project to a screeching halt. Some members began “throwing us a curveball,” Gerig recalled, looking back with some bemusement on his own surprise at the time.
Breaking Stride. The steering committee had initiated home visits with members for personal conversation about the new plan and people’s giving potential. In those relaxed circumstances, “A few people started asking if we should be spending all the money on ourselves,” Gerig said. As it turned out, at least 10 to 15 members “had strong feelings about this. To our credit, we stopped,” he said. “We just totally stopped” the fundraising and restoration planning. Gering is convinced that this decision was the most important one in the entire project.
One member who raised questions was Char Sprunger, a high school teacher. In the process of improving its church building, she said, the congregation forgot “how to be church.” It’s not that the latter reality had never been present; it just got lost in the excitement of the new possibilities. When the minority concerns came to the attention of the whole congregation, it backed up to look more deeply at its mission and identity: “Who are we, and what is our reason for being here? What do we want to do in the world, and how do we do it?” In this way, Eighth Street “put things on a much more spiritual level,” Sprunger noted. Once it had dealt with underlying theological issues, it decided that a percentage of all money raised should go to ministry outside the congregation. It eventually gave away $20,000—before any of the renovation work began.
Involved and Informed. The congregation also redefined abundance in terms of choosing gift recipients. We decided we didn’t want just “to write a check,” said Rich Gerig; the congregation wanted to establish ongoing relationships with other groups. That is, it began to regard abundance as strong relationships as well as resources. The congregation thus ensured ongoing contacts, including volunteer work and participation in the recipients’ activities.
Committees also arranged to write regular reports on the results of their gifts so that the entire congregation would remain informed. The church’s new view of abundance transcends financial resources in other ways as well. Eighth Street’s senior pastor, the Rev. Myron Schrog, emphasizes that the projects were led largely by laity. Although pointing to the pastors’ involvement as well, Rich Gerig (echoing members of the Granite Falls congregation) commented, “We became more self-confident and aware of our abundance in people resources.”
Whatever the reason for a reexamination of values, the key seems to be more in the way people think than in what they undertake. Our culture has “a scarcity mentality,” according to the Rev. Mark Vincent, a Mennonite pastor and the consultant who helped Eighth Street with its plan. Even within a “cash culture,” we need to think about how much cash is “enough.” Overall, said Vincent, “we need to reorient our thinking and our whole relationship with money.”
Establishing the Trend
Eighth Street’s experience applies to all congregations. Char Sprunger said she thinks they shouldn’t wait for an unusual event—positive or negative—to put the matter of abundance on their discussion agendas. First, they need to recognized abundance in resources other than money. But they need also to talk about money, she said. “We tend to shy away from talking about [it]. We need more education, especially for younger people,” to establish a congregation’s understanding of needs and abundance. She sees such regular conversations as important for congregations if they are to avoid finding that their values are shaped primarily by those of the larger society. Rather than reacting to and mirroring the society, she said, religious communities “need to set the example” for defining values.
Clearly, each of these congregations has dealt with abundance differently, under different circumstances, and with different results. No doubt a great variety of other stories could be told. There are, however, some similarities. In these three examples, a major component of abundance is a recognition of diversity in member talent and a notable increase in lay leadership. Another element is learning how to create a careful and thorough process for decision-making, though it’s important to note that in a case like that of Granite Falls UCC, a disaster doesn’t leave time for prolonged deliberation. Planning ahead of time could prove invaluable in a crisis.
Another related and extremely important aspect of these three churches’ experiences is the realization that only one part of abundance has to do with financial resources. Perhaps the most crucial development of all is these congregations’ new resolve to take the initiative, to avoid basing their values on those of the surrounding culture. In itself, the strength that grows from such resolve constitutes an abundance for which most congregations yearn.