Prince Raney Rivers: Spending for shalom

It’s tempting to scale back and do less in mission and ministry during a struggling economy like ours. But that would be a mistake.

It’s tempting to scale back and do less in mission and ministry during a struggling economy like ours. But that would be a mistake.

Two recent occasions caused me to reconsider this. A little over three years ago our church launched a capital stewardship campaign. We wanted to retire the debt on a relatively new sanctuary and education building. A consultant warned us ahead of time that debt reduction is the hardest money to raise. People prefer mission projects, gymnasiums and family-life centers. Isn’t it more fun to see blueprints transformed into brick and mortar before your eyes? Asking for money once you already have the building is anti-climactic, to say the least.

The more we thought about what we were doing, the more we realized the obvious. Our goal really was not retiring the debt. Our goal was extending the mission and ministry of the church. Retiring the debt was a strategy to help us accomplish the goal.We are now just a few months away from completing the debt retirement. This inspired me to write recently about rethinking the way we spend mission dollars.

Since then I had a great conversation with Karen McNeil-Miller, president of Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust. She challenged me to ask a new set of questions about mission giving in the new economy, and led me to see ways the church can learn valuable lessons from the world of philanthropy.

Philanthropy has historically focused on four goals: relief efforts, improvement initiatives, systems change and building social capital. Relief efforts are ongoing programs like food banks and acute issues like disaster relief. Scholarships or classes on healthy eating are examples of improvement initiatives. Anti-racism work is a systems change issue. Convening people to help them solve their own problems is one way to build social capital.

I am impressed by how much these four goals point to the biblical view of shalom. Shalom is God’s vision for humanity and the world. Shalom includes the relief of the poor. “Do not go over your vineyard a second time or pick up the grapes that have fallen. Leave them for the poor and the alien. I am the Lord your God” (Lev 19:10). And prophets like Isaiah announced God’s systems change using the language of justice and righteousness.

Churches need a vision for mission giving that is expansive enough to embrace the fullness of shalom. The God of the Bible is a God of provision and God’s provision is intentional. God is at work in the world moving toward the consummation of all creation. God calls us to discern where in the world we can spend our time, talent and treasure to bear witness to the reign of God.

McNeil-Miller also emphasized how important it is to be clear about goals. Sometimes we express a desire for systems change, but only focus on relief -- and then we wonder why conditions never improve.

Being clear about our goals helps us to know when our efforts are bearing fruit. An important question to ask, says McNeil-Miller, is “When will you know it is time to celebrate and throw a party?” Start by defining the target area. Do the work of deciding where you want to make an impact. Evaluate whether your dollars will make a significant difference to a particular project or program. Providing $20,000 to a $50,000 project is far more significant than providing $20,000 to a $2 million dollar project. Determine the change you want to see. What will be different as a result of the contribution you make? McNeil-Miller believes that if you start with a vision for change and make choices, you can make a deeper impact.

If you’re a courageous pastoral or lay leader, what’s God’s vision for shalom in your community? What are the choices God calls you to make? When will you throw a party to celebrate the great things God has done?

Prince Raney Rivers is pastor of United Metropolitan Missionary Baptist Church in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.