Church Finances for Uncertain Times
Four Lessons in Speaking About Money
I clearly remember two abrupt religious conversions in my life. The first, when I was 20 years old, was a profound and barely explainable encounter with the love of Christ that put me on a course to be baptized in the Episcopal Church. The second, fifteen years later, was in a ballroom in a hotel basement in Indianapolis. Walter Brueggemann, the prolific Old Testament scholar, was speaking to a conference of the Episcopal Network for Stewardship on the third chapter of Malachi and the importance of the tithe.
Never before — and possibly never since — had I heard anyone speak so directly about tithing as a core responsibility of the Christian life. I was accustomed to pledge campaigns where somewhere along the line someone would say, “ten percent,” follow it with an embarrassed cough, and never speak of it again. What I heard that day, though, convinced me that the faith I said I had and the faith testified to by my bank statement had little in common. The Gospel According to My Finances proclaimed hundreds of cable channels and more car than I needed, but all too little of Christ to whom I owe my allegiance. I determined then to start working toward the tithe.
It took seven slow years of big and small adjustments to get there. In the intervening years, I chaired or co-chaired a few pledge campaigns and delivered my share of campaign kickoff sermons. More recently I had the opportunity to join with a few of my colleagues around the church — Ron Byrd, Scott Gunn and Brenda Husson — on an ECF panel convened to discuss the challenges of preaching about faithful financial discipleship.
As I’ve changed my attitude, told my story, collaborated with others and invited members of my congregation to join me, I’ve learned a few important lessons about how we should talk about money in the church.
Lesson 1: Say what you mean
When you’re talking about money, talk about money. Jesus didn’t shy away from it in his ministry, and neither should we. One of the callings of the church is to help its members transform their lives through following Jesus Christ. That transformation touches every aspect of our lives, from how we pray to how we spend our money. In helping to shape our congregations’ prayer lives, we offer practical guidance in the form of the wisdom of the mystics or the rhythm of the Daily Office. But too often, when trying to present a vision for a faithful financial life, we use “stewardship” as an obfuscatory euphemism and leave it to individuals to figure out this aspect of discipleship on their own.
Lesson 2: Focus
It is true that Christian stewardship encompasses the whole of the gifts God has given us — and how we use the various parts of that whole merits instruction from the pulpit. In my experience, the threefold formula of “time, talent, and treasure” usually fails in this task, because it is deployed as a way to avoid talking about money. Imagine instead, a clear, stirring teaching on how we spend our days and hours in the service of God, one that touches both a young person with decades ahead and a terminally ill person measuring her lifespan in days. Ask yourself whether that teaching is coming in a “time, talent, treasure” talk, or something more focused. Our conversations about money deserve the same care and attention.
Lesson 3: Acknowledge the hard stuff
Money touches us in the deepest places of our lives. Beyond paying for the necessities, it can enable many of our joys, change the opportunities available to us and to our children, and affect when and if we will be able to retire. The debt we accumulate reflects our past financial decisions, good and bad — whether acquired to advance our education, respond to emergencies, or pay for consumer purchases that we now regret. Money can be a source of anxiety and shame. Recent research produced by the Lilly Endowment’s Initiative to Address the Economic Challenges Facing Pastoral Leaders demonstrates that the complications of our financial lives are shared by laypeople and clergy alike. Effective communication about the spirituality of financial giving must speak in some way to the circumstances in which people find themselves.
While preachers have to be careful to avoid working out their own issues from the pulpit, some vulnerability can be helpful. For instance, I sometimes share the story of the first year I made a pledge to my parish. One Sunday after church, the treasurer gently approached me to tell me one of my checks had bounced. In the moment I was mortified, but with some distance it’s a reminder to me that making a financial commitment can be risky and failure is part of spiritual growth.
Lesson 4: Trust God’s Promise
While our relationship with God is not transactional, God does reward our faithfulness. God rewards the waiting of Simeon and Anna with the briefest glimpse of the Christ child in the temple (Luke 2:25-38). In Malachi, God promises to “pour down…an overflowing blessing” on those who fulfill the tithe (Mal. 3:10). But notice how God describes that overflowing blessing: “I will rebuke the locust…and your vine in the field shall not be barren…Then all nations shall count you happy.” (Mal. 3:11-12)
The blessing God promises us is sufficiency — the joy of enough. Learning to give God’s gifts away trains our hearts to understand the richness of God’s generosity toward us. It further advances each disciple’s aspiration to imitate Jesus, who gave his whole self away for us, by giving a piece of our selves away for Christ’s church.
 Hadaway, C. Kirk and Penny Long Marler, “Economic Challenges Facing Pastoral Leaders: Report on NEI Planning Grant Research 2015-16” June 30, 2017
Brendan O’Sullivan Hale is Canon to the Ordinary for Administration and Evangelism in the Diocese of Indianapolis. In this role, he oversees the business and finance operations of the diocese, ensuring that the diocese has the controls and reporting necessary to ensure financial strength and operational efficiency. He also supports clergy and lay leaders in developing creative strategies to observe how God is acting in the communities where they serve and respond faithfully with the good news of Jesus Christ.
Brendan is a member of the leadership team of the Acts 8 Movement, a lay and clergy network dedicated to “proclaiming resurrection in the Episcopal Church,” and is co-host of The Collect Call, a podcast about the Book of Common Prayer. Before joining the Diocese of Indianapolis, Brendan was a partner at Oxford Financial Group, an Indianapolis investment consulting firm. Brendan received his BA in Linguistics and East Asian Languages and MBA in Finance from Indiana University and holds the Chartered Financial Analyst designation.
- Preaching About Money, an ECF webinar led by Scott Gunn, September 26, 2017
- Economic Challenges Facing Pastoral Leaders: Report on NEI Planning Grant Research 2015-16 by Kirk C. Hadaway and Penny Long Marler, June 30, 2017
- Creating a Culture of Giving by Angela Emerson, ECF Vital Practices Blog, January 27, 2012
- Year Round Stewardship: Talking About Money an ECF webinar led by Chris Harris, February 11, 2014