Those who see stewardship as just a way to fund the church’s mission might do well to skip this post. It assumes stewardship is a life-changing interaction with God, a discovery of gratitude, a triumph of faith over fear, a step away from having into being. Those who don’t get that stewardship is a spiritual thing that benefits the giver more than the church might do better to read this instead: http://bdsermons.blogspot.com/2014/06/ishmael-and-willy-loman.html But the reason they may not already get that “stewardship is a spiritual thing” (Bishop Robert Wright, Diocese of Atlanta) is probably not their fault. It is in no small part because our church hasn’t conveyed the message through its language of ritual. Most of the churches I know say some really confusing stuff about stewardship via their ritual, and only a few actually send a strong, coherent message.
I was recently blessed to attend The Episcopal Network for Stewardship 2014 Conference. There were a lot of great workshops led by big name presenters. But for my money the most helpful workshop was given by J. R. Lander, a well-respected stewardship teacher, formerly from the Diocese of Olympia, now serving in the Diocese of Los Angeles, but I strongly suspect him of being a Texan. J. R.’s workshop was on Teaching Stewardship in the Liturgy. My goal here is to simply recap what J. R. said, or more accurately, what I heard. Anything true and helpful here is from J. R. Lander. Anything wrong is my misunderstanding.
Prayers Of The People
Write your own. The BCP provides a checklist of what we have to cover and provides some canned sets to use. But for the prayers of the people to really be “of the people,” get the people to write them.
Pray specifically for the current needs of your local community. Connect the life of the church to the life of the local community. Stewardship is about relationship, not abstraction. Root the life of the church in the human context.
Pray for your community partners – other churches, synagogues, mosques, and non-profit service and advocacy agencies. Stewardship is connection. So is prayer. If your congregation does not have any partners in service to the community, get some.
Seed the thanksgivings. You know the murmur of hopes and wishes that waft up when we invite petitions and intercessions. Then we invite thanksgivings and there is a dead silence. It’s like a taboo against gratitude. Give a few folks in the congregation the job of being the first ones to say something grateful. If they can’t think of anything to be personally grateful for, tell them something the church is grateful for. Stewardship happens when we start with the attitude of gratitude. Take affirmative action to help the liturgy say “thank you.”
The offering of alms, bread, and wine – together, with the people standing, as the rubric prescribes but hardly anyone does – has been a critical moment in the liturgy since the days of St. irenaeus of Lyons in the 2nd Century (this history wonk digression is me, not J. R.). To combat the gnostic idea of spirituality as something for the few, Irenaeus had the alms, bread, and wine processed from the back of the nave through the congregation to the altar to show that it is our ordinary lives and labors we give to God to be sanctified. The ritual presentation of our lives and labors is essential to our worship. Without this element of the liturgy – this element is eliminated when the bread and wine are already in the sanctuary, and it is obscured when the bread and wine are unceremonially brought up to the altar while the people remain seated, then all leap to their feet for no apparent reason for the presentation of the money – without this element properly done the rest of what happens in the Eucharist does not make sense. I actually participated in a Eucharist yesterday in which the alms basins were being passed during the last third of the Eucharistic prayer and then taken God knows where – not the altar. What does that mean? Is it any wonder most people don’t get the spirituality of a “sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving”?
The common reason people defy the rubric is to avoid an awkward silence while setting the table after the gifts are bought to the altar. But that is why we have Presentation Hymns. “The Doxology” is for the presentation of alms at Morning Prayer when there is no table setting to be done. For the Eucharist, we need a full Presentation Hymn. If the people are attached to “The Doxology,” don’t worry. It’s the last verse of a real hymn that makes a great Presentation Hymn, though there are countless other gems that usually don’t make it into our worship if we don’t have a Presentation Hymn, for example Adore Devote (“Humbly I adore thee Verity Unseen”). That’s my historical and liturgical background to J. R.s point: If there is a Eucharist, there is an offering. You can’t have a Eucharist without an offering.
One more Dan insertion: in a service with music, the offering of alms is collected while the musicians (choir, ensemble, soloist, or instrumentalist) make an offering of music. Three points here: 1. The people are not standing and singing a hymn during the collection. For one thing, that makes it very challenging to transfer anything from pocket to plate while holding a hymnal and passing the alms basin. 2. The offering of money and music is all one movement. The music, like the money, is an offering to God, not a performance to applaud. 3. The people sit for the collection so that when they stand for the offering it signifies something. Now back to J. R.:
The alms, bread, and wine should be processed up the aisle together, while the people stand. Then they should all be elevated together at the altar. Leave the alms on the altar through the consecration. The traditional prayer of oblation (though not a favorite of contemporary liturgists) makes the point that is the core of stewardship: “All things come of thee or Lord, and of thine own have we given thee.” It is a good thing to say while elevating the gifts. It is appropriate for the deacon to receive the gifts, but the priest should participate in the elevation and saying the prayer of oblation. It’s central to the priestly role in liturgy. A brief elevation by the deacon obscures the point.
Before the procession of the gifts, there is the offertory sentence, the invitation to offer gifts. The stock sentences in the BCP are just options. By and large they don’t say anything to anyone. They have become rather blah, blah. So it is better to choose a Scripture that really says something. Following the example of Timothy Dombeck, I use: Jesus said, do not store up for yourselves treasure on earth where the moth corrupts and the thief breaks in to steal. Rather store up for yourselves treasure in heaven where the moth does not corrupt and the thief does not break in to steal. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”
If a church wants people under 35 to contribute, that church must – not should, must -- provide a way to give electronically. It is that simple. No electronic option, no gift. The church and the young adult are both the poorer for it. But swiping a card is not a ritual act – at least not a very good one. It is important to provide cards to the electronic givers, which they put symbolically in the offering plate to be presented at the altar.
The vested clergy put money in the plate. Bishop Greg Rickel (Diocese of Olympia – our best stewardship bishop) insists that he be the first one to put money in the plate to set an example. It is axiomatic that the clergy should pledge. If they are poor, then the pledge may be a token. But the clergy must pledge. Some clergy may have the idea that they have done their part by giving time. But clergy are leaders. It is crucial that by their example, they lead into truth, not error. I say this in all gentleness for those who have not yet learned this vital part of what it means to be ordained. A priest or deacon who serves a church but does not pledge is doing more harm than good.
The clergy do two things for stewardship: they pledge and they reach under their albs and put money in the plate. Absent that symbolic gesture, it looks as if the offering is being presented to the clergy as a kind of quid pro quo for the sacrament. Obviously, that is not true, especially when clergy are non-stipendiary. But the symbolism of the offering is twisted when the clergy do not make a visible offering. If the clergy are not visibly making an offering, how can they credibly preach about the spirituality of gratitude and generosity? Recently I celebrated the Eucharist at a small 8 o’clock service in one of our congregations, just a dozen people. But it was the first time in all my years of ordained ministry that the usher has ever processed an empty alms basin up to the altar. Never saw that one. That would have been a ritual blasphemy. But it was so easily fixed. I reached in my pocket, put some money in the plate, blessed it, offered it, and the service went on.
Weddings & Funerals
Back to the point: if there is a Eucharist, there is an offering. No offering, no Eucharist. Does it feel funny to have an offering at a wedding or a funeral? J. R. suggests: in a wedding, let the couple designate the charitable cause to which the offering will go; in a funeral, let the family designate the offering to a charitable cause the deceased cared about. In both cases, announce where the offering is going and why. An offering is not a distraction from a wedding or a funeral. It shifts the meaning of those pastoral offices in a way that is edifying for all.
It is a helpful stewardship practice to take up special seasonal offerings for special purposes. An example would be collecting school supplies for poor children at the start of the school year. Another example comes from Nevada. Last Epiphany (the season of light) we collected money from throughout the diocese to buy solar lanterns for rural villages in our companion diocese in Kenya.
J. R.’s point: do something with those offerings liturgically. Bless them, celebrate them, pray for the people who will receive the benefit of the offering. Find a ritual way to bring the whole congregation into the gift, whether they have contributed or not. Put their prayerful fingerprints on the gift. Whatever a congregation does, it does it as a whole, not as individuals. So make the gift a congregational event in the liturgy (the work of the people).
This post is about how – not why. But just a word on that larger subject: spiritual consumers are doomed to frustration. They live in what Buddhists call “the Hungry Ghost realm” – symbolized by a Caspar shaped ghost with a huge belly and a tiny mouth, so he can never get enough. As long as we come to church to “get something out of it,” as long as we are looking for what God can do for us to support our own life agendas, we will be frustrated, anxious, and disconnected. Transformation happens when we learn the joy of giving ourselves away. The Eucharist is a ritual intended to demonstrate that central point. Yet, we often obscure the meaning of our ritual and thereby distort the gospel we proclaim. I am enormously grateful to J. R. Lander and to The Episcopal Network For Stewardship for helping us speak out plain and honest about surrendering and God and trusting his grace for our well-being.