Ironicschmoozer’s Weblog

The Fire of Commitment: Stewardship Sunday

The Warmth of Community and the Fire of Commitment
Stewardship Sunday, February 8, 2009, the UU Society of Sacramento

Homily I: Doug Kraft (see church web site)

Homily II: Roger Jones:
From 1997 until 2007, the first decade of my life as a UU minister, I served a congregation with about one third the membership of this one. In those 10 years, the part of parish life that would spike my anxiety without fail, year after year, was the annual stewardship campaign. Also known as the pledge drive, this is when members and friends of a congregation ask one another to make a financial commitment to the congregation. It happens in the winter—now, in fact—and the pledge commitments you and I make now will cover the budget year that begins in the summer.

Five years ago I was talking with an older colleague as we were both planning our sermons for pledge-drive kick-off Sunday. After 40 years of ministry, this elder told me, the pledge season continued to be a source of stress. Really? I asked, with dread. Yes, he said, but at least he no longer has diarrhea every year on the morning before he gives the kick-off sermon. At least I’ve not had that problem. Night sweats and insomnia? Yes. Dread and the urge to flee—yes, but that’s all.

Every pledge season, I’d consider other career options: a barista at Peet’s Coffee? I’d still be serving people, after all, and they do have a health insurance plan. Once I spied a listing of job openings in San Jose. One that stood out was for a part-time puppeteer. But it had no health plan. And, of course, I’m not a puppeteer. I’m a minister, I told myself. The anxiety of the pledge drive is just part of the package.

Why is there anxiety for a minister? Sometimes it might be the hope of a raise, but this time it could be just hoping to have a job next year. More often, however, it’s the longing to fund program improvements, add a staff position, or pay more competitive wages to current staff. Then there is a minister’s feeling of ultimate responsibility for the success of the campaign, even when most of the leadership and leg-work is done by devoted volunteers–and these folks have their own hopes and worries.

But for me, there was something else at the heart of my anxiety. It was the hope that the congregation would care as much as I cared about what we did and what we were. Would they believe deeply in supporting what we stand for? Would they put their faith in the future? Would they believe that a better, stronger congregation is within our reach? If I dared to care so much, would I be alone, left out on a limb?
And one more ministerial worry of mine: Would church members allow personal discomfort about money to become an obstacle to self-examination? Would it cloud thoughtful decision-making about what they could really do in support of the congregation?
People in our congregations, of course, represent a range of circumstances and attitudes about money. We have different comfort levels about money. Feelings vary from person to person, family to family. Indeed, there are even differences within families about the meaning and use of our financial resources.
How much is enough? How much is enough to earn and keep? How much is enough to save for the future? How much to give away and share in order to support the people, places and causes that we care about? We face these questions, or we avoid them, as family members or as single people, whether we belong to a congregation or not. These are major questions, and they have a spiritual dimension.

Attitudes about money are shaped by the culture in which we live. In prosperous times: What do I need to do to feel successful and secure, to keep ahead of the pack? In times of rising unemployment and declining asset values: What have I done to deserve this? Will I survive this, and what does survival look like? What plans can I keep, and which goals must be deferred?

Attitudes about money are shaped also by powerful experiences in our upbringing and messages given by our families of origin. Growing up, I received mixed messages about money, frugality, and generosity. My family lived comfortably. My father was a physician, and Mom didn’t need to work outside the home, yet there was a sense of insecurity about money.

My late father used to voice his resentments about taxes and government intrusion into his professional life. He would complain about not having enough money to pay for upcoming expenses. I now think that he was exaggerating, but as a child I didn’t know. When I was in first or second grade, my school handed out application forms for subsidized, free lunches, and I took one home. My mother had to explain to me that this was for low-income families, and we were not one.

If money was tight, it certainly didn’t keep him from indulging himself in a series of new cameras or a boat, or a nice new car every few years. I suspect that his problem was an attitude of scarcity and a lack of money management, not a lack of income. Though my mother was generous in giving to our church and local charities, she was a coupon-clipper, a frugal shopper. She studied the prices for things at the various grocery stores in town and bought only certain things from each one. Thanks to her, I’ve been known to stand in grocery store aisles agonizing to figure out the better deal on this or that product. My childhood messages of insecurity persisted into adulthood.
I didn’t learn how to face my finances, in a thoughtful and honest way, for a long time. What helped me learn how…was my UU church, when I was a new Unitarian Universalist, starting in my 20s. Thanks to ministers and lay leaders in my life, I learned a practice of generosity. I was able to stretch myself beyond my initial doubts and fears.

My invitation for you, and my request—is this: whether you are a member, friend, regular guest, or just a visitor on your way through the area—when it comes to feelings about money, don’t feel you need to hide from yourself.

Notice your feelings, urges, worries, and longings. Treat your reactions about money as only that—reactions, and treat yourself with acceptance and kindness. What we are about, I think—what we are about in these UU churches of ours—is to ask one another to explore our hearts and our minds with an attitude of compassion.

Every year, after the stewardship drive is over and the new budget is put in place, I ask myself: “Now, that wasn’t so painful, was it? Was it really that hard and stressful?” Well, yes it was. But it was worth it.
It was worth it because it invited me to look deeply inside myself and notice my reactions and emotional obstacles. It inspired me to give more generously than I had imagined I could.

Pledging to a congregation is an act of trust.

When it comes to the needs and goals of this congregation, you and I put our trust in one another’s spirit of participation and generosity.
We trust that our giving makes a difference.

We count on one another to follow through on our commitments to the best of our ability. This means that we trust that if we are having trouble, we can let the church know. If we need help, we will ask for it.
We put our faith in the leadership and staff of the church to manage our gifts with conscience, faithfulness, and gratitude.

We put our faith even in people we have not yet met, those who will set out on a quest for meaning, purpose, and spiritual nourishment in an inclusive religious community, those who will find us and join us in the years to come.

We trust that those yet to come will find this community to be the same precious gift that we know it to be, and will join with us to carry it forward into the future—in the words of a familiar phrase, to pay it forward.
To me, the pledge drive is an opportunity to learn more about myself, to dare and to grow, and above all, to trust in others. It is a lesson in commitment—the fire of commitment, which has motivated so many Unitarians and Universalists for so many generations.

So may it continue—our faith in one another, our community, ourselves, and our future. So may it be. Blessed be. Amen.


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