June 2001
Money, God and Vestries

Money, God and Vestries

“The church is meant to be that place in history where God’s interests for the world meet the interests of the world in the presence of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit seeks to transform a portion of the world into the church so that, as transformed world, the Church may live for the future of the world.” M. Douglas Meeks, God the Economist, (p. 23).

Money is a great invention. Aren’t we better off not having to lug potatoes or chickens (dead or alive) to barter with when we go shopping? Across state and even national borders, we hardly experience any problems because of the confidence people have in money. We give money mythic power, thinking it makes the world go ‘round. I personally fear, crave, rail against, and ignore it multiple times each day.

Jesus spoke about money more than any other topic — not counting His overarching message concerning God’s reign. And as a priest and citizen, I feel qualified to speak to how we label money — an essentially neutral medium — as the cause of the corruption of individuals and organizations.

So why do we so often hear the complaint, “This parish is always talking about money!” And vestries and clergy worry whether the church isn’t becoming “too institutional and no longer religious.” Would we be more countercultural if we owned no property and simply focused on spirituality and mission?

Reclaiming Stewardship
To struggle with the issues that surround money is a way to reclaim the meaning of being stewards. (How else can we remember that everything belongs to God?) And the danger is that we may fail to continue the dialogue on which Jesus spent so much time on — talking openly about money.

The truth is that “Movements” come and go unless they institutionalize. For Christ to be “bread for the life of the world,” we have to be more than a transient movement; we must institutionalize what we care about for it to survive. How we do our business can be a significant way to broadcast our integrity regarding faith and the practice of carrying out business in ordinary, commonplace transactions.

The church cannot afford the risk of not doing business well, not only because of possible abuses and malfeasance, but also because we must set an example of how business and values can be integrated in
everyday life.

In worship, lifelong learning and outreach we can set countercultural examples that meet business-like standards: Are we maximizing our resources? Customer-friendly and astute in our marketing strategies? We have a wonderful product to offer — for the life of the world.

The Hard Choices
Of course there is the wonderful news that money is also portable. Once gathered, we can send it to a neighborhood, or around the world, as we reach out in the name of Christ. And we can transport it across generations and time to amortize costs, and build the kind of shared legacies that make us inheritors of the manifested love of God.

As vestries endeavor publicly to connect faith and the everyday business of the church, we must expect the questions, “Isn’t this parish becoming too materialistic? Spending too much on itself?”

I am tempted to think that I was ordained to focus on things other than the business of the church. Yet what credibility would I have, if I were not tested by the difficulties of connecting faith to the hard choices of everyday, business decisions?

One of my greatest joys, in fact, and a praxis for my transformation as a priest, has been in working with other Christians who happen also to be some of the smartest, most creative entrepreneurs and business leaders I have known.

David Bollier, writing Aiming Higher for the Business Enterprise Trust in 1996, told the stories of 25 companies. Each prospered by integrating sound management and social vision. Bollier discovered that by “going beyond legal requirements and market place norms, these men and women are determined to bring their personal values and professional lives into closer alignment.”

Jesus tells us that He will be present in the bread and wine. Let us open our eyes and ears when He says, “Now, let’s see what I can do with the money!”

The Rev. Dr. James A. Kowalski is the Rector of St. Luke’s Parish in Darien, Connecticut.

This article is part of the June 2001 Vestry Papers issue on Money, God and Vestries