September 2012
Practicing Generosity

Cosi, Cosi, Iyaphela

My favorite thing about African storytelling is how the story ends.

In the European tradition, we say, “the end” as if the story has no life outside of that moment. Cinderella and Prince Charming live happily ever after. The end. There’s nothing more to say.

But in African storytelling, we say, “Cosi, Cosi Iyaphela—Here I rest my story.” It is the story that has life. The speaker merely picks it up for a while, holds it, and shapes it for a time.

In this season of financial stewardship, many of us will be telling the story of our congregation’s mission and ministry. Which story will we choose to tell?

This one?

Once upon a time a church needed money. The leaders wrote a budget and held a congregational meeting to explain how they would pay the staff, fulfill diocesan obligations, support overhead and operations and fund the current program. They handed out pledge cards, made visits and phone calls, and held an ingathering. No one was particularly excited, but most people gave at least what they had given last year. After deferring some maintenance and holding a special appeal, it all worked out. The End.


Once, not so long ago, a church stood on the village green. The other buildings wondered, “Why do you work so hard? You are old! You’ve earned your place.”

“Ah,” said the church, “but then I would become an idol. I would take the people’s offerings into myself and they would focus on caring for me.

“I would rather be a vessel. When people bring glad gifts, my systems are maintained to offer warmth and cool respite in season. My foundation is sure and my roof is tight, so that worship and meetings and suppers can nurture. My beautiful doors are accessible. My walls know laughter, and weeping, and the depths of the human heart.

“My story rests in this generation of faithful stewards. Yes, I have lived a great deal. I will live a great deal more in the care of others.”

There is no right answer: The story you tell will be the story that’s right for your congregation. Will it be a maintenance story or a mission story? A story of fundraising or a story of stewardship? A story that worries about making ends meet or that delights in God’s creative abundance?

Some of the parish leaders I work with in the Diocese of Maine are experimenting with a budget narrative that tells a mission story by inviting clergy and lay staff to estimate the percentage of their time that is committed to each ministry area. They study building usage in a similar way. Taking the dollar amounts from the compensation and operations sections of the traditional budget draft, they pro rate the costs so that the narrative is organized around total resources committed to various ministry threads. (Click here for a sample template.)

To organize such a narrative, many simply use the existing program categories from their traditional budgets. Some find it helpful to use the SWEEPS acronym—Service and Outreach, Worship, Education, Evangelism, Pastoral Care, and Stewardship—to be sure they’ve captured everything. One very creative priest organized her time according to the ordination vows found in the Book of Common Prayer! Again, there’s no right answer; the right answer is the one that speaks most deeply to your congregation.

In addition to shifting the conversation from maintenance to mission, this approach to the narrative budget has three distinct “side effects” that feed a broader approach to holistic stewardship in the congregation.

First, it is both humbling and affirming to see a full list of parish ministries. Whenever I ask a vestry to list all the church’s committees, ministries, and programs, there is always that moment when they step back, speechless, at how the Holy Spirit works in their midst. Imagine how striking this would be for those who are not as in tune with the life of the church!

Second, some costs do not fit in obvious categories of ministry, creating moments of conversation and education. The most common example is the congregation’s support of the diocese. In Maine, many of our new members are received from the Roman Catholic tradition. In their experience, the diocese supports the parish, while in our tradition the opposite applies. And for all communicants, there is value in exploring how our common life is enriched through the diocese—visitations, confirmations, ordinations, aid to mission congregations, outreach to our companion diocese, youth ministry, insurance and legal support, etc.

Finally, a focus on mission and ministry invites the congregation into whole and healthy stewardship in all seasons. By showing people how the Holy Spirit is using their financial offerings through mission and ministry, we invite them into further discernment of their gifts and inspire them to explore how they are called to make glad gifts in their non-financial offerings as well—prayer, presence, effort, dedication, time, talent, love, compassion, and service. This can be an energizing and life-giving moment for the congregation.

And now I say with an open and joyful heart: cosi, cosi, iyaphela—here I rest my story, knowing that you will take sparks of ideas and make them your own. You will shape your own story, for your own congregation. It will be a story that has life, a story that lives in the world without end. Amen, and amen.

Lisa Meeder Turnbull is a member of the Diocese of Maine’s Congregational Consultants Network and former missioner for stewardship for the diocese. Her blog mainestewards offers reflections on all aspects of stewardship and baptismal ministry. These reflections will draw upon the weekly lectionary readings, the diocesan cycle of prayer, and issues in our common life as they relate to financial, non-financial, and legacy stewardship. 


This article is part of the September 2012 Vestry Papers issue on Practicing Generosity