(I wrote the following blog a couple years ago, but since the topic fits today’s headlines, I’ve decided to repeat it. I’m sure we could easily fill our time sharing ideas about who is to blame for our current crisis—Congress, the President, Republicans, Democrats, banks, corporations, our international trade partners, etc, etc. And who voted these people into office anyway, and who expects ever increasing public services, security, schools, and infrastructure at increasingly lower costs? Oh, that would be most of us! Blaming, scape-goating, denying, and ignoring are seldom useful exercises in the teeth of the storm. Here are a few words for church leaders who are anxious about finances.)
When serving as a pastor, I learned that I usually make my biggest mistakes when I’m tired. When I don’t attend to patterns of rest, sleep, exercise, and time away, and just keep grinding away at work day after day, I become more likely to say things I wish I could take back, make decisions that aren’t constructive, and foster an atmosphere that isn’t conducive to anyone’s best attitude and fruitfulness.
In a similar fashion, organizations make their biggest mistakes when they make decisions based on fear. Leaders gripped by fear lose focus and forget purpose. Community becomes brittle, tempers intensify, and we move into a reactive mode rather than a thoughtful and intentional form of deliberation. When people of faith react in fear, the decisions focus on short-term outcomes. Fear stifles creativity, and when people of prayer and spiritual depth respond in reactive ways, they limit alternatives and possibilities that they might ordinarily consider in less stressful times. Fear closes the door to the Spirit’s wisdom.
Perhaps that is why so many scriptural passages repeat a common refrain, “Do not be afraid.” The angel said this to Mary at the annunciation; the heralds proclaimed this to the shepherds in the fields; Jesus reminded his disciples of this on the stormy sea, and the risen Christ whispered this to the women at the tomb. The disciples, huddled together in fear after the death of Jesus, had trouble hearing this message. “Have no fear,” to me, does not mean we avoid legitimate concern and engagement. It means, Don’t let worry win. When worry wins, we lose. When worry wins, the purpose and ministry of Christ gets hijacked, derailed, ignored, and avoided. Don’t let worry win.
Like everyone, I’ve cringed each time I’ve listened to the news to hear of the downward spiral of the financial markets. I think of people losing jobs, closing businesses, anxious about their houses, fearful for the retirements, wondering about their college savings funds. I think of the churches we serve and their fall pledge campaigns, their budgeting for next year, the missions they support, the ministries they offer, the building projects that are underway. I think of the funds and ministries we oversee at the conference level—insurance issues; pension funds; new church starts; the recruitment, education and training of pastors; youth and camping ministries. I think of my own family—our own pension fund, our college expenses, investments that will one day help purchase a home at retirement. It’s hard to keep all these in our hearts without feeling a little jittery. It takes work not to let worry win. It’s hard to feed faith, but it’s easy to succumb to fear’s power and seduction.
As you lead in your church as pastor or layperson, this season requires of you a special steadiness of hand. How you respond shapes your congregation’s response. If a congregation makes its biggest mistakes when it’s driven by fear rather than faith, then it falls to us to keep the focus where it belongs—on the ministry of Jesus Christ.
First, don’t rush to make permanent decisions based on temporary setbacks. We don’t know how long and how deep this troubling time may last. We will know much more in the next couple months. Make prudent decisions rather than panicked ones. When gripped by fear, sometimes we feel we must act, that we must do something. Doing something gives us a sense of control. This has caused countless people to sell stocks at incredible losses, abandoning investments that will eventually rebound. This same fear causes churches impulsively to reduce budgets, eliminate fruitful ministries, and cut staff. These might be prudent steps in some cases. But check the motivation…fear or faith? Reactive, or purpose-driven? Impulsive, or deliberately and prayerfully considered?
Second, organizations take their cue from the attitudes and responses of their leaders. If the pastor and lay leadership push the panic button, everyone else will respond accordingly. Letters and communications that report conscientious concern, report honest trends, and invite continued prayerful support generate a far more positive response from our members than notices that imply that the church is facing catastrophe, calamity, and crisis. Who will prayerfully support a church that is described by its leaders as dead, dying, busted, broke, or sunk? Appeal to peoples’ highest motives, not their fears. Foster generosity without feeding anxiety. We’re followers of the Christ who calmed the seas and walked forward amidst the tempests of the time. He invites us into his way, promising to be with us at every step.
A radio story reminded parents to be careful about the language they use to describe their own family finances because children take things literally. If Mom and Dad say in exaggerated exasperation, “we’re going broke, we’re losing everything,” then children stay awake all night thinking about the homeless life to come! Picture a congregation as concentric circles moving out from the center. If the leaders at the center use language carelessly and with unrestrained hyperbole, those further out from the center take it literally since they don’t know the details the way the leaders do. Use a steady hand. Practice faith rather than fear.
Finally, focus on the purpose of the church, even and especially during stressful times. Challenging times do not relieve us of the joyful obligation of worshipping God with glad and generous hearts; of serving others with compassion, mercy, and justice; of studying God’s word and teaching the children; and of inviting others into Christ. Challenging times do not relieve congregations, or the individuals who comprise them, of the calling to be generous. The ministries that our congregations support—relief and assistance ministries, women’s shelters, feeding and homebuilding ministries, ministries that help children and the poor, scholarships—are seeing their expenses increase even as the need for their services intensifies. They need us more now than ever. Generosity is not seasonal, temporary, or only for smooth and easy times. Rather, generosity is our way of being as followers of Christ because it’s the way God works in the world. As Paul writes of the church of Macedonia, “for during a severe ordeal of affliction, their abundant joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part. For, as I can testify, they voluntarily gave according to their means, and even beyond their means, begging us earnestly for the privileges of sharing in this ministry.” (II Corinthians 8: 2-5)
These early Christians did not let worry win. May we learn from them in our following of Christ.
Grace and peace,