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Money off the shelf

Early in her ministry, Lillian Daniel finds that she has intense anger about money, but no place, in her vocational life, to express it. She writes about her experience in the book, “This Odd and Wondrous Calling: The Public and Private Lives of Two Ministers.”

August 4, 2009

Editor’s note: Lillian Daniel will be the convocation pastor for Drawn into Scripture: Arts and the Life of the Church , Duke Divinity School's 2011 Convocation & Pastors' School, Oct. 10-11.

Pastors have money issues, marriage issues and identity issues. They also experience joy, grace and mystery as they live out their call.

In “This Odd and Wondrous Calling: The Public and Private Lives of Two Ministers,” the Revs. Lillian Daniel and Martin B. Copenhaver explore all these aspects of the pastoral life in a series of essays that offer an honest look at their lives as working pastors.

Daniel, a blogger for Faith & Leadership, has served since 2004 as senior minister of the First Congregational Church of Glen Ellyn, Ill., in suburban Chicago.

Copenhaver is senior pastor of Wellesley Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, in Wellesley, Mass.

In “Money Off the Shelf,” the first of two chapters of the book excerpted in Faith & Leadership, Daniel explores how she wrestled with money issues, both as a person and as a pastor. “What Shall I Call You?” by Copenhaver is available here.

Money Off the Shelf

By Lillian Daniel

I remember the day I decided that I would never be a tither. I was sitting in the pew as an associate minister, listening to the senior minister preach. The senior minister, who was a tither, was telling us about it. He was explaining that being a tither meant that he had always given the biblically commended tithe, ten percent of his income, to the church, then still more to other causes, and that God had blessed him for it. This wasn’t hypocrisy. He really did it, and he believed that financial peace had come to him as a result.

But I couldn’t stand to hear it. I was paying off massive student loans, paying for full-time day care for my first baby, and to be honest, even though I lived in a lovely parsonage, I was seriously underpaid by the church. Newly married, my husband and I had discovered that we were no different from most couples in that the major stress in our nascent marriage was money. In fact, we had just had an argument about our spending the night before that had ended without answers, but with no shortage of hurt feelings. I was in no mood to hear about tithing.

I felt that my colleague, a widower whose children were grown and whose house was paid off, had absolutely no understanding of my situation. It seemed unimaginable to me that I could be a tither when I had so little to begin with, and the idea of giving such a large sum to an institution that wasn’t paying me enough seemed absurd.

My anger was intense around these issues, but there was no place, in my vocational life, that I could express it. In fact, I was called to project to the congregation an entirely opposite affect and I attempted to do it. I preached generosity and grace while inside I felt worry and resentment.

In some ways, I came to this bipolar ministry of money naturally, for I was behaving as I had been taught as a child. When it came to money, you did not tell the truth. I remember my parents fighting late into the night, always about money, and in particular, my mother’s spending. Now, what fell into the category of “her” spending was just about everything, from groceries, to car payments, to my school supplies and clothes. And because of this, my father was basically unaware of what anything cost. Yet every now and then he would see a bill or a receipt and become irate.

So to avoid such scenes, I was taught never to tell my father what anything cost. If I had a new coat, I learned in my early childhood to say, “I’ve had it for years.” When I needed movie money, he would give me enough for a ticket ten years ago, and my mother would surreptitiously slip the difference into my pocket on the way out. “Why can’t we tell Daddy what the movie really costs?” I asked. “Why can’t we tell him I needed a new outfit for the dance?”

“Shhh…it will only upset him.”

I remember as a little girl delighting in my brand-new blue coat, but being afraid to wear it out the door past my father. From an early age, material things elicited in me both inordinate delight and misplaced shame.

But we don’t have to carry every bad habit from one generation into the next. As a young adult starting out in both marriage and parenting, I longed to break that pattern. And when I saw myself carrying it into my new ministry, it gave me pause. I decided it was time to start telling the truth about money. There was no way I was going to be a tither, but I could at least be honest.

So when it came to stewardship sermons, I confessed to the congregation that I loved cars, clothes, and restaurants; that I wanted to travel everywhere in the world and not worry about what I spent; that when I gave money away, it actually was a sacrifice, because I really wanted the things I saw advertised on television. I learned of course that I didn’t need to tell them. Congregations can read our lives pretty well. But in telling the truth, I got a strong response. We started talking together about money. I did not need to be a perfect, altruistic role model for God to use me in a ministry of money. We were all there to work on each other, and telling the truth, being authentic, was just the beginning. I even got a raise.

But when I moved to be the solo minister at my second church, in New Haven, I backslid into silence and avoidance. I hadn’t been there long before I saw that each Sunday we collected the offering with awkwardness. This was a congregation that had not heard anyone talk about tithing in decades, maybe ever, or even really about money. There was an embarrassed fanfare around the offertory that seemed to suggest that while we needed money to exist we found the enterprise of asking for it somewhat distasteful.

The fanfare came from the outstanding choir, who saved their biggest anthem for the offertory moment. Yet I came to suspect that the anthem was not there to draw attention to the offering, but rather to distract us from it. The plates were passed apologetically, as people tried not to see what others had put there. Then those plates were shuffled forward, along with the weekly canned-goods offering which was held up much less self-consciously. It cost less.

Our offertory prayers of thanksgiving praised God for many things metaphorically but seldom for the actual dollars and cents in the plate. These plates were then scurried away during the doxology, but not to an altar or a communion table. In that church the plates ended up on a tiny, specially constructed shelf behind the organ, around a doorjamb, completely out of sight.

Congregational lore had it that this little shelf was the invention of an atheist church treasurer. The story was that he had so little taste for worship that the shelf was placed out of view in order to enable him to sneak the offering through the door into a tiny room and count the money during the sermon.

Later I discovered that the architectural plans of the church actually included this little shelf from the very beginning. The congregation had at that time prided itself on the theological reflection behind the shelf: the communion table was so “highly” regarded that they decided it should never be “soiled or sullied” with something as crass as money.

At the time I served there, this congregation, which once boasted a large membership of wealthy business and civic leaders, had declined over the decades to paltry pledging levels and low attendance, supported by an endowment that allowed the church to exist longer than it would have otherwise. The message within the congregation was that financial matters were taboo in the church, and the effect was low giving and unspoken anxiety around money.

Yet when I arrived, the knowledge of their two church splits and the ousting of my two ministerial predecessors made me wary of speaking about money. I was afraid to look like I was singing for my own supper to a crowd that might not be interested in cooking.

It was the classic ministerial dilemma around stewardship.

We are called to preach generosity, particularly toward the church, but we, through our salaries, will be among the beneficiaries. Add to this a history of conflict between pastors and congregations, and it is no wonder that I felt nervous to broach the topic. As a new pastor, ordained just four years, I was being pulled into a church culture that began long before I was even born, and it was a culture of keeping the money out of sight and on the shelf.

In my early days of ministry at that congregation, my own financial pressures had not gone away. (Do they ever?) Now, I was the parent of a toddler and a newborn baby, both of whom were in full-time day care that cost as much as community college tuition. My husband was a labor organizer in a local union that had a policy that when the workers were on strike, the organizers also gave up their pay. And the workers were on strike. I wasn’t underpaid, at least not for clergy, but I wasn’t making enough to support our family. There were tense conversations late at night about which bills to pay first, and whether or not our three-year-old son would get a tricycle for his birthday. Sometimes, in a moment of stress, I would find myself doing the very thing I ought to hate: shopping. A new pair of shoes I did not need would be discovered in my closet, (“What? I’ve had these for years…”) and my husband would look at me dumbfounded, (“But they were on sale…”) as we wondered how to pay the day care bill. It was no wonder I was not particularly emboldened to challenge my new church on their money issues.

Wise mentors have told me that in many churches, the congregation’s issues with money can be traced to those of the pastor. But sometimes we clergy can also be shaped by the congregation. Most often, I suspect, we find each other in the night, like two star-crossed lovers who shouldn’t get together but are oddly drawn to one another’s neuroses.

When it comes to anxiety around money, the church and the pastor share something in common: our sin. We are all shaped by a world of greed and materialism, and, from deep within, the worst part of us participates. So together, sometimes, we may make a silent pact not to talk about money, and spend time in church thinking about more pleasant things. As a church, we weren’t ignoring money. We couldn’t, because we needed it to survive. But we collected it and put it quickly on its own little shelf.

But then I learned that not everybody in church wanted to put money on the shelf. I remember in those years, there were times when people in my church would come to me and recommend the best-selling book, “The Prayer of Jabez.” Or they might tell me about preachers they watched on television who promised financial wealth as a result of prayer. These proponents of the “prosperity gospel” certainly had taken money off the shelf, but what were they doing with it? I took the time to read “The Prayer of Jabez.” While encouraging prayer, it mostly encouraged “enlarging one’s territory,” something the little-known biblical figure Jabez prayed for and got. While “enlarging one’s territory” may have been important to Jabez, I remain convinced it was not very important to Jesus. But clearly, in reading these books and watching these preachers on television, my parishioners were looking for something they were not getting at the church that put money on the shelf. And I needed to step up. Not so much because they needed it, but because I did.

In the preaching moment each week, clergy are given the privilege and the challenge of engaging money through the eyes of the One who provides for us in more ultimate ways. I believe our work as clergy actually shapes us, and makes it impossible for us to believe the simple theories and easy answers. We cannot help but wrestle with money in complex ways, given a typical workweek.

One Sunday we preach about Jesus saying, “Woe to you Pharisees! For you tithe mint and rue and herbs of all kinds, and neglect justice and the love of God.” (Luke 11:42) Then that night, we go home to unpaid bills, and prepare the next Monday morning for the upcoming pledge drive. Any pastor who delivers the easy prosperity answers can’t really believe them. Paying attention to our lives does not permit it.

Yet there is no denying that as clergy we often find ourselves living in economic disconnect with our neighbors and parishioners. Sometimes the clergy are the poorest members in a wealthy community, allowed to live there geographically by virtue of their position, but not really able to live like others. Our children may associate with the wealthy but they cannot afford to go on the same ski trips, drive the same cars, or attend the same colleges that some of their friends do. In places where Christendom is still hanging on by a golden thread, some clergy have free memberships to clubs that they could never afford to join. But everyone knows how and why they got there. They may be taken as guests to restaurants they could never afford, or perhaps loaned the vacation homes of parishioners. In other words, they are in the community of wealth and privilege but not of it. This is a tricky place from which to proclaim good news to the poor.

In other communities the minister may be one of the wealthiest members of a financially strapped congregation, able to have a nice car when others do not. In some faith communities, the people insist that the pastor live well as a mark of pride for the church. They make sacrifices so that the pastor can live as they might want to. There are churches where the pastor may call for one offering for the church, and for a “love offering” for himself, and all this is accepted practice in the congregation. But once again, the pastor sits in an economic community but is not entirely of it.

The reality that runs through these seemingly opposite situations is that pastors are often called to serve in communities that do not represent their own economic or educational status. We live not where we deserve to be but where we are called.

My sense is that God uses this complexity and this distance to prepare pastors to do the very job they feel unprepared for: getting money off the shelf that is hidden from view. The fundraising aspects of our work, the issues around clergy compensation, the disconnect with our communities all force us to look at money in ways that others might be able to avoid. And then most weeks in church, even on our highest attendance Sundays, we have something like this to work with, a few choice words from a teenage mother who will change the world: “He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.” (Luke 1:52) For Jesus, the money issue was taken off the shelf in utero, and every new year in the church we get that Advent wake-up call.

The clergy whom I admire most deal with money honestly, and they acknowledge the complexity, as well as their own brokenness. They read their economic landscapes through the lens of the gospel and then attempt to tell their congregations the truth. These clergy are not always popular for doing so, but rather, through years of pastoral care and integrity, they have earned the right to ask questions:

While the adult education course on “affluenza” might compel the wealthy to live more simply, how much do the poor actually benefit when the wealthy clean out their closets?

While a home built in Honduras is certainly a blessing to those who will live in it, and an even greater blessing to those who get to go there and build it, do these blessings distract us, or absolve us, from a clear analysis of injustice in our back yards?

The Apostle Paul, who never shrank from asking the hard questions about money, offered his donors in Philippi, “thankless thanks.” Paul refused to see himself as a supplicant or a debtor to the rich. Rather he saw himself as a participant in God’s own redistribution of the wealth, for the purposes of a kingdom greater than our imaginings.

To make a claim like Paul’s requires a rock solid sense of vocation. Perhaps some clerical discomfort with money is related to a greater discomfort with call. A minister who is uneasy in the proclamation of the good news in general is certainly not going to proclaim the good news for the poor. Put another way, Where your heart is, there shall your treasure be also.

In my own life, my heart was transformed around economic justice issues long before it was transformed around personal giving. I was quicker to point out a materialistic society’s evils than to look at my own habits. If it had been left up to me, I doubt I ever would have gotten around to it.

But a few years into my ministry at the New Haven church, I was sitting in a traffic jam on the highway, on my way back from a meeting in Hartford, late to pick up my children from day care, a mistake that would result in a fine. It was a small fine, but a bigger reminder that I had tried to pack too much into a day that had no margins. It was a good metaphor for my financial life. I tried to put far too much into a budget that had no margins, and the overflow had ended up in serious credit card debt. There is nothing like being late, broke, stressed out and in a traffic jam to turn a person to prayer. I prayed for a way out of the cycle.

Suddenly, the view from my stuck car changed. Hartford, not usually beautiful from the highway, appeared to be gleaming, as if bathed in gold light. The ordinary buildings were shining, and the sky seemed to drip into them in an embrace. And then suddenly, the heavenly veneer disappeared and it looked just like Hartford again.

Let me take a moment to clarify that I am not a person who regularly has visions. And that the last place I expected to have one was on the highway outside of Hartford, Connecticut. Furthermore, in the circles I run in, when you speak to God in prayer you are considered religious, but when you say God speaks to you people suspect that you are psychotic. Particularly if God speaks to you about money. But this is what I saw, and I was amazedly baffled.

So I closed my eyes tight, and then opened them again. Gleaming, and then gone. Heavenly city, and then Hartford again. I did this several times, until the traffic abated and I had to pull forward. I could not recapture the vision.

Stunned, I prayed again. The car was once again stopped and I closed my eyes, and saw in my mind’s eye three things, none of which were very difficult to interpret. The first was a credit card, being cut up into pieces by a giant pair of scissors. The second image was a present, gift wrapped with a flamboyant bow, the sort of package one would delight in seeing under a Christmas tree. And the last image was the figure 10 percent. Then the traffic moved, my eyes were opened and I was on my way.

I got home and told my husband the news. “I’ve just had a vision from God. We’re meant to cut up our credit cards and start tithing.”

“I’ve been waiting years for you to walk through the door and say that,” he said. And here I think he was referring less to my vision, and more to the financial plan. After all, he wasn’t the one who liked to go shopping. “But just how are we going to pay off the credit cards?”

I told him about the three-part vision, with a special focus on part two. “We’re going to get a present,” I said. “A big gift, a financial windfall. Now, is there anyone in your family who might be planning to send us a check?” He shook his head, and I knew that no one in my family was planning such a thing. But I was sure at the time that I had the correct interpretation of the vision. I was going to win some kind of lottery. We cut up the credit cards, sent in our church pledge form and started giving ten percent. I waited for the gift.

The windfall check never arrived. I would check the mail daily, and there was nothing. Do you actually have to buy a lottery ticket to win? Apparently so.

I felt both disillusioned and foolish for even imagining that such a thing would happen. I felt naïve and wondered if the vision was nothing but my latest self-help scheme destined to last as long as the average diet.

But God had made the city of Hartford look heavenly on a hot day in a traffic jam, and that was a scene I would never forget. We kept tithing, and somehow, in time and in ways that I cannot fully account for, we started getting rid of the debt. And since the gift, the big financial windfall, never came, we decided to meet with a financial planner.

He arrived at our house with a folder full of plans about what a young family should be thinking about: saving for college, retirement, and life insurance. He looked at our pay stubs, our credit card bills and then asked about our charitable giving. I worried as I was telling him about our tithing plans, because once he had seen our situation, he might point out that it made no sense at this time.

Instead he responded, “Is that ten percent before or after taxes?”

“After taxes, of course. We’re religious, but we’re not crazy.”

“Well, that’s fine,” he said, “If all you want is an after-tax blessing.”

If it had come to me from a minister, I would have found it preachy, but coming from a financial planner, it struck me as miraculous. He went on to testify about his church, his own pre-tax tithing and how it all fit together with his current line of work. We promised him we’d work toward a pre-tax tithe, and after a few years we got there, and got rid of the debt as well.

I have come to love the stewardship work of the ministry. Sometimes I think it is the most important work clergy do. We talk about money not because it shouldn’t mean anything to us, but because it obviously means so much. So I preach about money all year round, not in order to raise funds for the church, but because I need to hear God’s word on the subject.

To this day, I still tithe, but I’m also still materialistic. I still find ways to justify that new pair of shoes I don’t need, and believe me, my feet stopped growing long ago. Yet I also know the ways in which a longing for things can corrupt my life. I preach to remind myself, and others like me, of a better way.

I later came to understand that the second part of my three-part vision had actually come true. The big gift had arrived after all. It was in the wise words of one Christian to another, amidst spreadsheets, insurance forms and tax returns. It was in the generosity of my parents and in-laws, who had stepped in over the years to cover camp fees and instrument lessons. It was in the health of our children, the kindness of friends who covered for one another in lean times, the countless little gifts that come our way all the time.

But most importantly, the gift was Christ, in whom my debt had long since been paid.

Because I have known the joy of giving, I am at ease sharing the good news with others. I now stand in a long line of followers of Jesus who say things about money that make no sense -- at least, as the world calculates such things.

I know there may be people who listen to me the way I listened to my first senior minister, with a sense that this stuff simply does not apply. I stand in the pulpit to preach on giving and I consider my old self, sitting in the pews. It is humbling. Today may be the day that as a result of my preaching, someone decides she will never be a tither.

And fortunately, God can work with that.

Lillian Daniel and Martin B. Copenhaver, “This Odd and Wondrous Calling: The Public and Private Lives of Two Ministers” © 2009 Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, Michigan. Reprinted by permission of the publisher, all rights reserved.