Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Thinking About Radical Generosity


Like many churches, the one we are members of receives a large portion of its annual income in the month of December. Some years those entrusted with financial responsibility for the church are more stressed than others in that last month of the year. It all depends on how short of the budget the revenue is at that time.

This year was very stressful. The shortfall in December was well over $2 million (bear in mind this is a large congregation of over 4000 members). Hand-wringing, prayers and development of worse case scenarios were the order of the day in the year-end committee meetings.

But then.

In the last two weeks of the year the congregation gave generously--generously enough that a surplus of $400,000 over the budgeted revenues were received. Amazing. Just amazing.

We were given this news at the session retreat this past weekend. I'm still processing it. I mean, its a tough economy out there. Our congregation is not immune from job loss and financial difficulties common to the rest of the nation.

The treasurer told us that the year-end giving represented lots of small gifts--not a few very large gifts from wealthy, generous individuals. In fact, the "big givers" had made their contributions earlier in the year.

Why this significant outpouring from so many people?

I think it is because the church from its founding (in 1954) set a goal of matching the money spent in the operation of the church and its programs with giving to those in need in the community and the world. It's called the Dollar for Dollar benevolence program and it is taken very seriously every year. Since the congregation is committed to this kind of radical generosity, our faith-based budget works.

This dollar-for-dollar commitment also forces the staff, session and committees to be excellent stewards since for every dollar that is spent on the church's internal operations and programming, another dollar must be found to give away. Members know that their giving to the church does not stop at the church campus but goes to those in need in the local area, the state, the nation and around the world. This principle also forces the congregation away from being internally-focused towards being externally (or missionally, if you will) focused.

People say, "of course MDPC can do this--it is a wealthy, large congregation with lots of resources." But really, there is no "of course" about it. MDPC followed this guiding principle from its first days as a new struggling congregation in the far western suburbs of Houston more than 50 years ago. From time to time the church had difficulty adhering to this goal, but always found a way to do so and re-affirmed the commitment to radical generosity.

The fact that the founders had that kind of faith in God's provision for their congregation and sustained their faithfulness to the gospel still awes me today.

Understand that I am NOT saying that dollar-for-d0llar is some kind of magic formula -- it is NOT some kind of prosperity gospel for congregations. No, I think that it is an important spiritual discipline because it requires us to be constantly mindful of the needs of the world outside our doors instead of focusing on ourselves.

So what happened to that surplus? The session gratefully decided to allocate all of it to the Outreach Committee so it will be distributed among our mission partners in 2010 in addition to the dollar-for-dollar benevolence already allocated to Outreach in the budget. Because it's not about us, it's about bringing the love of Christ to a world in need.

9 comments:

Rev Kim said...

Wow!

I'd like teo share this this at Session tonight, as long as it's okay with you.

Presbyterian Gal said...

What a wonderful church! An uplifting example in a time of downers. Thanks.

Quotidian Grace said...

Please share it Kim!

Rev Kim said...

QG, I read this in its entirety. The Session was awed into silence and reflection. It especially witnessed to those one or two who, with a tight budget fear using mission funds to reach out because "what if we have to close the doors to the church". I've been working with them alot on focusing externally instead of internally, and on having faith in God providing for us. This showed how it can be done when it's incorporated as a spiritual practice. One elder said, "Wow, wouldn't it be great if we could do that!", and we are going to continue talking about ways that we *can* do it. Thanks for providing last night's devotional!

Quotidian Grace said...

That is just wonderful, Kim! I hesitated publishing this post lest someone think it boastful, but decided in the end that our experience was worth sharing with others .

You reallly made my day !!

Lucy F said...

Could you hear me sigh when I read this post?!

I'm a member of a church that started off with such good intentions. Not dollar for dollar, but with a resolution that we would tithe. 10% of our income would go to mission/needs outside of our congregation.

We kept to it very well as long we were in the mode of being a new church. But once we built a building, we had property maintenance to worry about. And then we had a pastor we wanted to keep, so we had to raise his compensation to the levels of much larger churches in neighboring communities - so he wouldn't be tempted to leave us. (That was bad for him in the long run - when he believed he was probably called to another congregation, he could not afford the pay cut. The result is lack of satisfaction for both him and the congregation.) And of course we wanted more members, uh, I mean, we sought to follow God's will and make disciples. So we needed to establish a pre-school (I never quite grasped the connection there, especially since there were already 14 Christian schools within a three-mile radius of our building) and buy an organ (we're all familiar with the biblical admonitions that music makes disciples, of course).

Well, we are in a d-e-e-p hole now. We can barely keep up with our own expenses, much less tithe. Every downward blip in the economy sets off anxiety.

The biggest dissatisfaction expressed by members of the congregation is the lack of mission and outreach!

It takes real determination and commitment to stick to a giving program as ambitious as MDPC's - or even one much less ambitious. But it does, in the long run, lead to a healthier community, IMHO.

Thanks for the good news, QG. And for providing me the space to whine about the bad!

Quotidian Grace said...

Thanks, Lucy for that witness.

The church we previously went to had a very similar story.

Fergus Carrick said...

I identify with with Lucy. QG, since you mention you've participated on both sides, would you care to hazard a guess what brings success to one congregation and failure to another? I assume it is something to do with leadership - but at what level?

Quotidian Grace said...

Fergus,

You’ve asked a question I’ve been asking myself for several years.

For what it’s worth, here are my thoughts.

MDPC was founded on two principles: radical generosity (Dollar for Dollar Benevolence) and that every member would be prayed for every day. This second principle is as important as the first and taken just as seriously in the Partners in Prayer program.

It was the lay leadership that organized the church originally and that agreed on these founding principles. They made sure that the pastors who were subsequently called to the church understood and supported those principles.

As time passed, new members were always educated about these founding principles before joining so that they would also embrace them.

My conclusion is that the quality, focus and dedication of the lay leadership--elders, deacons and members-- is the most important factor in the success or failure of a congregation. The best pastor in the world can only do so much to lead a spiritually depleted congregation. The worst pastor in the world will have some success when the congregation is spiritually alive.