In April, a group of pastors held the first annual “Epic Fail” conference in Pennsylvania. If the reviews are to be believed, they gamely and genuinely questioned an experience many pastors grow painfully accustomed to:
Attend a ministry conference.
Sit through a hyper-successful, charismatic pastor’s high-octane delivery.
Leave the conference with, a) the knowledge their corporate growth model is totally inappropriate for your own context; b) a sense their perfect hair, teeth, and wardrobe would precipitate the money changers’ tables being overturned in the temple all over again; and c) the certainty Jesus would have agreed with both a) and b).
Nevertheless, I admit to having my own high-octane, transformational story of ministry success. The differences are, a) it’s not my idea, and I’m still not sure if it will work; b) I have no hair, polished teeth, or even own a suit; and c) I think Jesus would have loved it.
My small church had no stewardship strategy to speak of during the beginning of the Great Recession. What we did have was the experience of an “epic fail,” although my definition is somewhat different than those who recently met in Pennsylvania.
Some background on me: I’m the pastor of Grace Lutheran Church in south Evanston. It’s my first call. I’ve managed to hold this gig for four years now without getting the boot.
Some background on Grace Lutheran Church in Evanston: We’re a small and spirited congregation made up of social workers, teachers, former librarians, some IT people, a few in business, some in academia. The Lutherans in Evanston were traditionally the “tinkers,” solid middle class folks associated with various trades. South Evanston is a diverse-in-the-true-sense-of-the-word-diverse area in terms of ethnicity, class, housing, and religion. Grace has experienced times of economic siege, contemplating closing at least once during the 1980s. We have no endowment.
Here’s the story:
At our January 2009 council meeting, I was to present an idea for our 75th Anniversary celebration in 2013. Rather than rent the requisite hotel ballroom, dragging out tired clichés of either church survivability, (ie., “Remember how great things used to be?”) or vainglory (“See how great we are!”) why not raise and give away $75,000 to various local, national, and international mission partners, instead? Our anniversary would therefore be a platform for mission, possibly leading us into the next 25 years of ministry: A Missional Anniversary.
This is not the “not my idea” referred to from above. This is a “not my idea” from a man named Paul A. Daniels, the ELCA Archivist for Region Three. Daniels inspired me with his Missional Anniversary concept while I was on internship at Mount Olive Lutheran church in Minneapolis in 2003.
Prior to the January 2009 council meeting, I held several one-on-one interviews with Grace members. I diligently assessed their take on the Missional Anniversary concept. Everyone immediately seized on the idea as the right one for our church. Everyone, that is, except Bob.
Bob is a benevolence guy. He’s always on the look out for how we might reach outside the walls of the church. When I told Bob about the Missional Anniversary, I recall wondering whether it was necessary to check in with him; I was so convinced he’d support it.
Instead, he stonewalled me.
Bob: “Look, if this is what you really want to do, I’ll eventually get on board. But I’m sitting here wondering why we’re raising $75,000 to give away in four years when people really need it, now.”
Ever since I can remember I’ve read about people “spluttering.” I never knew exactly what it would feel like. After Bob tossed this cruciform grenade back at me, I spluttered.
Me: “Bob, you’ve gotta be crazy. There’s no way we can raise that money, now. Where’s $75,000 going to come from these days? The only way we can do this is to make it a goal for after the recession is over.”
Bob: (silence) “I thought we were a church. I thought that’s what churches did — served people where they were at, and lived by faith.”
I made a mental note to keep Bob away from any and all future Missional Anniversary conversations.
Of course, he was right. But come on: here I am, a first call pastor, dealing with a bunch of freaked out people who are losing their jobs and wondering when the other shoe is going to drop. How could I possibly present Bob’s righteous idea to the council?
To make things worse, just before my presentation to the council at that same January meeting, our treasurer, Larry, presented financial news of crippling doom: we didn’t have enough cash to even get through the next week. Great. Now what was I supposed to say? Forget Bob’s Holy Spirited challenge. My “measured” plan to raise $75,000.00 by 2013 would come off as sheer lunacy.
Screw it, I thought. I’m going to go for it, anyway. I dug deep into my first call pastor’s diminishing pile of blue chips and fought for that sucker. The council was darkly digesting the financial news from our treasurer, though. I was losing them.
What the hell — I told them about Bob. I didn’t tell them about Bob’s reaction in order to promote it, though. I was merely indicating I’d sampled a lot of people, and only fielded one negative response. After I told them Bob’s loony statement of faith, (“I thought we were a church. I thought that’s what churches did — served people where they were at, and lived by faith”) I paused.
Before I could start in again, Larry the treasurer spoke up. “Well,” he began deliberately, “why don’t we just reverse the whole campaign?” More silence. Someone asked him for clarification. “This church and the property have to be worth close to two million dollars,” he explained. “Why don’t we take a loan out on the property and just give $75,000 away to people who need it right now?”
I said, tentatively, “Larry. I think that’s a tremendous idea.”
Bedlam ensued. Could we? No, we couldn’t. We can. No, we can’t. We will. Yes, yes, we laughed. If we’re not called to courageous action like this as Christians, then who are we? “We’re going to propose it to the congregation,” we declared. But how?
We did our best to keep it confidential. We wanted to get more data on whether we could secure a loan, design a proposal for a possible campaign, etc. But it was no use: the idea was too damn crazy and Jesus Freaky. It got out. People started talking about it. After we formally announced it, the congregation was ready to go along for the ride.
This, dear sisters and brothers, was the epic fail. At our Sunday unveiling the council and I appealed to the depth of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. “If the Christian church wants to truly live,” said my former seminary professor Pat Keifert, “it must be willing to die.” We were willing to give it all away, to put the property and the church at risk. By this time, many of us felt if we didn’t act with visceral courage and faith during such dark economic times we were little more than a glorified Elks Club (no disrespect to the Elks. Love the antlers!).
Therefore, I did what any one of us would have done: I formed a committee. I called it the “Advanced Planning Committee” which, now that I think of it, sounds akin to the Communist Central Committee. Hopefully, we’ll make out a lot better.
While this committee met one Sunday after church someone brought up a report they’d heard on NPR. A large congregation in Michigan was in big financial trouble. The pastor took $5,000 of its dwindling resources, held it up in front of his congregation on a Sunday morning, and asked people to come and take it. “Take this money and use it to help those in need,” he said. “Don’t bring any money back, bring the stories back.” Congregants came forward to take $200 and $300 increments, and then used it to raise more funds to help those around them. Many of the reports were riveting and truly inspiring.
Why not try the same thing at Grace? There’s no copyright on Christian insanity. We were still researching how to secure the $75,000.00 loan, (and the truth is, no bank we’d talked to was interested in such a crazy proposition anyway) so we rolled out our own version of the Miracle in Michigan.
The Advanced Planning Committee challenged itself to anonymously raise $1,000.00 by Easter. Then, at the Annual Meeting in May, we’d hand out portions of it to any members who felt called to multiply it by serving those outside the church.
Easter Sunday arrived. Our merry band of apparatchiks anonymously raised over $6,000.00, and the Courage Fund was born.
Since then, we’ve raised and given away over $30,000.00 in the form of local, national, and international assistance. Congregation members sold their homemade salsa, they formed a cooking crew that hosted receptions, and they sponsored plays and concerts in the sanctuary. The Courage Fund helps people with everything from local mortgage and utilities assistance to sending out international relief checks: $4,000.00 to Haiti relief; $3,000.00 to Japan during relief efforts after the tsunami. We’re gearing up for yet another matching fund campaign to address the tornado damage down south.
We also send out “Seeds for the Harvest” checks: dozens of $100.00 increments travel all over the country to struggling churches, non-profits, radio stations, schools, and theaters. We don’t ask for any money in return, we just ask for a story. For what or whom did you use this seed, we ask? What’s your community’s story of courage and hope? As you might imagine, we receive wonderful tales of thankfulness and new life.
In the midst of this we decided our fellowship hall and kitchen were long overdue for renovation. We host an after-school and summer program year-round and recently began housing homeless families as part of the national Family Promise (familypromise.org) initiative. Our space was woefully out of code and in need of care. There was a lot of uncertainty at first, but while continuing with and adding to the Courage Fund, Grace pledged $386,000.00 for the appeal. Construction began in June.
We went from a church of frightened individuals contemplating serious hardship and belt-tightening one moment to a joyful, courageous assembly the next. In three years we’ve traveled from death to new life. In January of 2009 our operating budget was insolvent. Today, Grace administers three funding wings (The Capital Appeal, the Courage Fund and the operating budget). We are heartily upgrading our financial team, software and systems of accountability. Our average worship attendance grew from 81 in 2009 to 104 during the first four months of 2011.
Obviously, I’m not a finance person — but who can ignore the intangibles of faith being underlined again and again while navigating mountains of “expert” economic analysis? Apparently, everything economic runs on gossamer things such as “confidence,” “ratings,” and “trust.” It’s the reason no one can systematize the stock market, or quantify the state of our nation’s finances: our economy, the laws of our household, run entirely on faith — or nothing runs.
It’s said there’s a thin line between courage and folly. What we’re attempting may indeed be folly, but is it ever folly, really, for people who call themselves followers of Jesus? The cross itself is utter folly. The hope of the resurrection is the sweetest foolishness you’ve ever heard. There’s no line for us between courage and folly. That line widens into a super highway, delivering courageous folly into our Christian lives. Do I have to say it? It’s the highway of God’s abundant, offensive grace.
Our “fail” is epic not because we failed. It is epic because we opened our hearts to the message of Christ, and followed it. If we had failed, or if we still do, we will continue forward knowing courage and folly are the fundaments of our identity. They are what grew the church in the first place. They can revitalize our ministries today.
So: there’s my stewardship program for you, dear pastor or church leader. The Epic Fail.
There’s no system to it. No binders. No pamphlets. No PowerPoint presentations. I could not and would not presume to apply it to any of your contexts. It’s an anti-stewardship program, if there ever was one.
What it is, is a powerful story of faith. If it moved you, if it excited you, if it inspired you: share it. That’s the only stewardship program we’ve ever really needed. Since Jesus was crucified and raised we’ve lived stories of courageous folly. Life and all its challenges will invariably present themselves, so if our story lives within us, we will respond in kind.
If you’d like more information about the Courage Fund go to graceevanston.org and click on the ‘courage’ tab.