A spirituality of fundraising

We’re coming to the tail end of the traditional stewardship season, and it’s highly possible that you are sweating pledge numbers that currently fall short of your ministry dreams for 2019. You might also have a treasurer or bookkeeper whispering anxious nothings in your ear about how much people need to give between today and the New Year’s ball drop to end 2018 without a deficit. It’s ok. After all, you didn’t have anything else to stress about as Advent looms large! [Sarcasm font]

Here’s the thing: we will always struggle with money – and our feelings about it – as long as it is only a means to an end: “We’ve gotta make our budget so that…” It’s not a sentiment that will make people whip out their checkbooks and credit cards and smartphones with money transfer apps. But you know what might? “God is calling us to do this exciting thing, and we don’t want you to miss out on being part of it!”

This is what Henri Nouwen called a spirituality of fundraising. He approached the ask not as an unfortunate necessity to be apologized for (a tack that makes so many stewardship sermons cringe-worthy) but as an invitation to others to join in the work to which God has called us. As such, fundraising is relational and community-building, not transactional. For Nouwen, fundraising was a “call to conversion,” an opportunity to re-orient our focus to the world beyond ourselves – to begin to see things as God sees them – as well as to transform our relationship to our own resources. In the process, we partner with God in bringing the reign of God here on earth. In taking this loftier view of fundraising, we are free to make the request out of our sense that we are ministering not just to the people we might serve but also to the givers themselves. To me, that is a compelling message. It is inclusive. It is formational. And it recognizes that those with resources have needs that can be met by relationship, so all parties involved are both giving and receiving.

So as you come to the end of this year and the brink of the next, I encourage you to view stewardship and fundraising as opportunities to grow disciples of Christ as we move together into the future God is compelling us. See what a difference this approach makes in your willingness to ask for money and in the generosity with which givers respond.

Photo by Michael Longmire on Unsplash.

Balking at binaries

When I was growing up, I thought being a strong woman – since “strong” is a stereotypically masculine virtue – meant that I had to reject anything associated with femininity. I didn’t wear pink. I refused to learn how to cook. I cut my hair short. I played on the boys’ church league basketball team. (In fact, my short hair and blousy basketball jersey combined with a referee’s poor eyesight prompted him to refer to me – game after game – as “little man.”) I sought ordination and a ministry position in the Baptist world, even though I had only seen men in those roles.

So no one was more surprised than me when I bought a sewing machine ten years ago to make kitchen curtains for my new house. I then made placemats, napkins, pillows, and other domestic items in addition to some clergy stoles. I realized that I loved sewing, dangit. And, as it turned out, I was no less strong than I’d been pre-Singer. I began to understand that the feminine-masculine binary was not just hurtful but false. I deeply regretted subconsciously buying into the message that male (again, defined stereotypically) was better and female was lesser. I wondered what other joys I had deprived myself of in the effort not to be too girly.

Masculine-feminine binaries are not the only ones that keep us from living abundantly, however. At Nevertheless She Preached, Jaime Clark-Soles talked about the way traditional interpretations of the Martha-Mary relationship sort their roles into bad and good. In Luke 10 Mary chooses the “better part” by sitting at Jesus’ feet while Martha is “distracted by her many tasks” (NRSV). But the latter descriptor is more accurately translated as “drawn away into much ministry,” with the Greek word for ministry used by and about Paul elsewhere in Acts and the Epistles. We have falsely pitted Mary and Martha against each other for millenia while both were attending to aspects of the life of faith.

In congregational life binaries translate into polarities, either/or pairings that are better viewed as both/and. Should we be a church that cares for those who are already here or that goes into the community to share God’s love? Should we have traditional or contemporary worship? Should we be pastor-led or lay-led? Generally, the answer to all of these questions is “yes.” Too often we think we cannot do or be both and must choose. But polarities cannot – should not – be solved, only managed, in order for us to accept the fullness of the work and the abundance that God wants for us.

These days, I wear pink (and most days, a skirt). I’m a mom who revels in that role. I’ve also cut my hair short again and enjoy crude jokes way more than I should. My strength and joy are enhanced, not diminished, by this complexity. Where do you need to rename binaries as polarities, and what do you and the people you care about require to thrive that in-between space?

[Note: this is the fourth of four posts inspired by the Nevertheless She Preached conference.]

Photo by KT on Unsplash.

Watching The Americans

SPOILER ALERT: this post contains plot points of “The Americans” series finale.

They actively undermined the United States government. They killed dozens of people, some of them just for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. They used sex to manipulate those with power or access. They spat upon faith, calling it “the opiate of the masses.” And yet, I cared about “The Americans” characters Philip and Elizabeth Jennings, longtime Russian spies posing as upwardly-mobile travel agents and parents of two in 1980s DC.

Showrunners Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields made these enemies of the state relatable through masterful storytelling. We saw Philip and Elizabeth’s struggles with ideology and morality. With raising kids born into a culture they were taught to despise. With growing together and apart multiple times, ultimately trusting their partnership despite their diverging outlooks on the state of the world. They were three-dimensional characters. So too was Stan, the FBI counterintelligence agent who moved in across the street in the pilot. Stan was a true patriot and an unfaithful husband, bedding a KGB officer he (thought he) had turned.

So when the series finale aired last month, I was invested. Philip and Elizabeth had been exposed. Would they be able to escape? Stan had realized the truth about the neighbors he regularly shared meals with. How would the inevitable confrontation go? And what about the kids – college student Paige, who had been recruited into the spy business, and high school junior Henry, who had nary a clue about his parents’ true identities?

Stan’s ambush – and ultimate release – of Philip, Elizabeth, and Paige was anxious and heartfelt. For me the real gut punch, though, was the severing of the parent-child bonds. Philip decided Henry’s best shot at a normal life was to abandon him in the only country he’s ever known. In a surprise move, Paige hopped off the train she and her parents are traveling on just before it crosses the U.S.-Canadian border. All of these decisions, so permanent, yet made so quickly out of necessity. I haven’t been able to view the finale again yet. It’s too raw – and this for someone who thinks her feelings.

But maybe my re-watch hesitation has nothing to do with the show. I wonder if it’s actually about the real-time crisis happening on our southern border. Sure, Philip and Elizabeth might never see their kids again. But their children were more or less grown and able to get along on their own. They remained in places familiar to them, where they spoke the same language as most everyone else. They were untethered from their parents’ uncertain destinies by the sacrifice. One of kids was able to choose her own fate. And, of course, they were fictional characters.

None of this is the case for Central American families moving north into the U.S., seeking better, safer lives, many of them engaging the proper channels for asylum. Instead, children – even infants – were being whisked away with no guarantee of when or whether they will see their parents again. (While the executive order means newly-entering families are being detained together, it does nothing to help the children who have already been separated and farmed out to various “welfare” agencies.) Even if you’re not a parent, we were all once small children. Imagine being separated from your mom and dad, held in a cage or an abandoned Wal-mart, put on a plane to another state while no one is really keeping tabs on your location, supervised by people who are forbidden to hold and comfort you in your confusion and distress. It’s traumatizing. It’s inhumane. And if faith doesn’t compel us to action, maybe we are just taking in “the opiate of the masses.”

If I can care about Russian spies on tv, then surely I – we – can have compassion for the flesh-and-blood children of God, coming to our country with hopes of contributing to it, of raising their intact families in it. God help me if I don’t advocate for them exponentially more fervently than I love a tv show that was, at its root, about humanizing the other. May we all be watching – and calling and protesting – the real-life Americans who are causing irreparable harm.

Image courtesy of FX.