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.
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.