A Frank Conversation About the Real Relationship between Preachers & Stewardship Sermons

Photo by  Simon Maage  on  Unsplash

Photo by Simon Maage on Unsplash

During stewardship season we preach to our parishioners about the need to offer their time, talent, and treasure.

But we preachers need a different conversation.

We need a frank, "backstory" conversation about our personal dependence on parishioners' donations—and the ways money affects our relationships with parishioners and colleagues and our capacity to preach with our whole selves.

We preach stewardship, as we should, to benefit the health of the souls who hear us. We want to help them grow in generosity, and to spread the Gospel through worship and mission.

However, the uncomfortable and messy truth is this: we have a vested interest in the outcome.

Our livelihoods depend on:

  • whether and how much our parishioners pledge
  • the size and vitality of our congregations
  • the age(ing) of our parishioners and life-cycle of our congregations
  • the resources to assist and positions available to us within our judicatories
  • and the health of our church pensions, if we have one at all.

Between time, talent, and treasure, we need to admit that it's the amount of treasure pledged that most affects us personally.

We don't like to admit that we cannot untangle ourselves from having a vested interest in the outcome of our stewardship seasons.

Moreover, there is much evidence to suggest we, as leaders in the church, have purchased the idol of the American myth that the size and wealth of our congregations equates to the power and worth of their pastoral leaders.

If we're not careful to acknowledge our complex relationship with donated income, it can unwittingly affect our relationships with parishioners and fellow clergy as well as our ability to assess how our preaching about "treasure" might sound to a parishioner.

The Uncomfortable Relationship Between Preacher, Money, & Congregation: 4 Revealing Conversations 

Let me offer three examples of faithful clergy who love their vocations but let it slip that money was more of an issue to them than they realized—plus a fourth conversation with a parishioner.

I doubt these feelings will come as surprises, except perhaps for naming them. All four reveal something about the underlying beliefs and tensions shaping our relationships in church.

First Conversation: 

One pastor had recently finished his Doctor of Ministry degree. To me and a couple of his parishioners, he made an unguarded remark along the lines of this: 

"Seminary and a doctoral degree. That's seven years of post-graduate school and I still don't know how I'm going to put my kids through college."

As his words hung in the air his face showed he was taken aback, surprised and embarrassed to hear the bitterness in his voice, especially in front of parishioners. He tried to save face.

"Actually, I'm paid the same as the average teacher. The congregation is very generous."

I don't believe he believed what he said. I don't think the parishioners did either.

Second Conversation:

A cardinal rector once said to me that small and rural congregations were unworthy to receive gifted clergy. Gifted clergy would be "wasted" on them and should be reserved for the large and urban churches that "mattered" in size and resources.

Though this may seem shockingly and bluntly stated, my observation is that we likely agree with this statement based on how we clergy treat each other at conventions and conferences. Some of these "star" clergy are are becoming known by this term: "celebrity preachers."

Third Conversation:

When I was head of a congregation, I remember waiting in my office for the outcome of the budget conversation that was taking place in another room about my stipend for the next year. While I waited, my head argued with my gut.

My head argued that my pay didn't reflect the value of my ministry. But my gut insisted that, if I didn't receive at least a cost-of-living raise, even during a lean budgetary year, I would feel unappreciated—and resentful.

I was relieved to receive the raise, less because of the money than because I had just received a "pass." I had a pass to ignore the gremlins of resentment (which I hadn't realized I carried) about my dependence on my parishioners, and my embarrassment that I had bought into the American myth of money and success.

Fourth Conversation:

The parishioner was a dedicated member of the parish council who, unbeknownst to the rest of the council, had recently been laid off from his job. The prospects for a new one looked bleak, and he had a family to feed.

During a regular council meeting the debate went on: Should the head pastor receive a 5% or 6% raise? The parishioner was in anguish. He felt mortified knowing he would have to discontinue his pledge altogether, and the treasurer (at the very least, depending on the whisper campaign) would know.

Worse, his fear and anger for his own situation manifested in resentment and jealousy. Another man his own age was not only secure in his position, he was about to receive a significant raise made possible by parishioners' labors. It was too much.

Without explanation (until he disclosed it to me decades later), the parishioner not only quit the council, he left the Church.

Telling the Truth

The path to release from the tyranny of money begins with truth-telling.

Our relationship with money begins in childhood and is deeply influenced by modeling, theology, culture, and circumstance.

That relationship in turn influences our capacity to preach sincere, authentic, and lived experience of the Good News of God's infinite generosity.

We cannot express God's freely given, no-holds-barred generosity if we keep ourselves in the darkness of our beliefs about money, nor can we bring the fullness of Christ-light to our parishioners and colleagues.

First, we need to be released, and the path towards freedom begins with an examen of conscience, a laying bare of our souls before God. The truth will set us free.

In order to preach as purely and truthfully as we can, we start by bringing what we hold in the dark out to the light—naming what is.

This process will only happen with intention.

Questions to Uncover the Truth:

To better understand your underlying feelings, consider these questions.

Bring them with you into prayer, journaling, spiritual direction, counseling, confession and—dare I suggest—conversation with colleagues until you have discovered the unvarnished truth about your feelings and beliefs. 

  • What is your comfort level talking about money?
  • Do you feel you are paid what you're "worth?"
  • Would your answer to the above change if you broke down your stipend into an hourly wage based on the actual number of hours you work?
  • Really and truly, what do you feel towards wealthy congregations who pay their clergy staff exceedingly well? How do you feel knowing they receive gifts of gratitude (from Christmas gifts, to parish bonuses, to vacation spots) that you'll never receive? How do you treat them when in the same room together?
  • Really and truly, if you're one of the clergy who are well taken care of financially, how do you feel towards the clergy who won't "amount" to your level of income, power, or renown?
  • How do you feel about your financial dependence on the generosity of others?
  • What are your feelings about spoken church culture that, because we are engaged in ministry, we "shouldn't" be paid what our equivalent level of education is paid in corporate culture?
  • How do you wrestle with Jesus' words to the rich young man to give away his wealth if we are to follow him?

Truth-telling also increases our capacity for empathy for our parishioners, helping us "hear" our stewardship sermons as those in the pews do. 

Once you better understand the feelings and beliefs shaping your own attitude toward money, can you apply these questions to your parishioners?

Put yourself in their shoes and circumstances. How might they hear your sermon on stewardship? As invitation or demand? As liberating or burdening? As moving them closer to your congregation if they contribute, or setting them outside of it if they can't?

Examining our relationship with money requires tremendous courage, so I pray for it—mine as much as yours. I pray we allow Christ to shine light wherever money incites fear and divides us from each other.

Backstory Preaching is the place for frank conversations that increase our capacity to preach with our whole minds, hearts, and souls.

If this approach resonates with you, consider joining us for Fall Sermon Camp.

Meets virtually for one hour per week:

October 12th to November 30th, 2017 (except Thanksgiving)

Fall Sermon Camp is a 7-week, online course to help you reboot your sermon prep process so it feeds you spiritually and is done on your schedule.

Based on our popular bootcamps and eCourse Craft an Effective Sermon by Friday, Sermon Camp integrates spirituality and craft to help you become a more effective preacher.