She was not wrong.
I hate math. And numbers. And chores and errands and paperwork and details, and anything that requires my right brain to wake up and pay attention. As strongly as I felt the call to pastoral ministry, I’m not gonna lie—if Algebra had been required for an MDiv, I’d probably be a copy editor right now.
The senior pastor at my first church out of seminary used to call me out for “glazing over” whenever there was budget talk going on. “I don’t want to be visiting you in jail someday,” he would say, only half-kidding. “This stuff is important.” Not kidding at all.
I was surrounded, in seminary and in my student churches, by people who had a lifetime of experience with church finance. My dad is a financial adviser for heavens’ sake! You can’t say nobody tried. Still, I filed stewardship, budgeting and the annual campaign bit under the mental category of “ministry minutiae” – stuff that you do to keep a church ticking, like leasing a copy machine and buying property insurance.
As it turns out, some of us just cannot learn about crunching the numbers until we have to. As a kid in the youth group of a healthy church, I didn’t have to. As a seminary student, I didn’t have to. As a Pastoral Resident on a large staff, I didn’t have to.
Then I moved to the desert.
The story of this church, in the north Phoenix suburbs, is the story of so many of our mainline churches: Membership and giving in slow decline for years. Rising operating costs set against falling attendance, thrown in with a couple of ill-fated pastoral calls and some major unexpected property concerns. Located in what became one of the worst housing markets in the country. Well, you don’t have to be a math major to know that’s a bad equation.
I was beginning to wonder if this church could afford me, or any full-time minister for that matter. I was starting to think that perhaps “good stewardship” of this church’s resources might mean calling a part-time pastor and selling off part of the property, or maybe even moving to a newer, smaller facility. Or—and it hurt my heart to even think it—maybe my call was to help the church die with dignity.
I was not quite ready to say that out loud, so I sat with it awhile. I prayed with it awhile. And then—let me tell you—I got serious about the numbers.
It’s a long story, really, how that scary place became a place of abundance and hope. It’s a story involving some intentional discernment about our call in this neighborhood, a congregation with a brave and creative soul, and the power of letting go of stuff that no longer gives life to a place. But in so many ways, the transformation really began with some healthy anxiety around the budget sheet. Somewhere in those wilderness years, I stopped seeing facts and figures, and I started wondering at faithful, generous people who kept us afloat in lean times. I started viewing ministry as a constant litany of invitation and thanksgiving, from the membership dance to the equipping of leaders to the filling out of the pledge cards.
In learning that language of invitation, I found that my role in stewardship was not just to surround myself with the “math” people (though Lord knows, I still give thanks for those folks every day). My role was to invite people to participate not in a line item process, but in a larger and on-going story. Finding the concept of narrative budget in Dr. Christopher’s “Not Your Parents’ Offering Plate” was one of the most liberating moments of my ministry. The budget as a bit of prose? This guy was speaking my language! Let the number guys do their thing…I could tell a story.
And so I did. I started telling the story in terms of how far we’d come since the wandering years, and where the Spirit was leading us. I started telling the story as a sacred call to serve, to share, to invest in the gospel of which we are stewards. I started telling the story as something to be believed and cherished. I started pointing to simple acts of generosity and hospitality as the powerful ministry moments that they are, and not the footnotes that a larger church might make them out to be.
Somehow, from a place of anxiety—in a wilderness of numbers that lay far beyond my comfort zone—I learned that the Spirit moving every other area of transformation must also be present in the bank account. And in the shaping of the budget sheet. And in every moment in between, celebrating the gifts that people bring in faith, and telling the story of how those gifts give shape to the gospel.
Now I actually look forward to the budgeting process and the capital campaign. I get inspired working up a sermon series about giving as spiritual discipline. I feel stretched and molded as I meet with our leaders and discern the needs and hopes for the year ahead. I find composing several “ask” letters, geared toward different demographics of people, to be a rewarding challenge. And I am overcome with gratitude every January, as I hand-write individual thank-you notes to every person who makes a gift to this ministry. Used to be, I would write about 40 of them. This week, I wrote to nearly 70 pledging households.
And then I got the list of people who do not pledge, but give anyway. Another 30+ people on that list. My writing arm is tired…but my heart is full – and so is our bank account. From 40 to 100, in 4 years’ time… Simple math cannot make sense of that equation. But God can. And even an English major knows how to count that kind of blessing.