Personal Connection

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His white-whiskered face lit up. “I’ve been a Volunteer-in-Mission for years,” he said, citing how many times he had gone to Louisiana to help after the hurricanes. Hands-on ministry isn’t just for folks in their twenties. People of all ages engage with both head and heart when they get their own two hands involved.

Personal connection is a huge factor in encouraging the giving of money, time, abilities, and presence. People don’t have to have lots of technical skills to visit a senior or help a child with school work. Hands-on mission can have an incredible impact on the givers as well as the recipients. But you don’t have to travel on a mission trip to feel a sense of personal connection to mission and ministry.

Okay, so how can we help people feel an authentic connection? We can go online and get film clips to show in worship and put links on our church website. We can ask someone involved in the ministry who is part of our local community to come share his or her experiences and the difference it makes. We can take people on a local Mystery Trip and end up exploring the ministry site. We can send some people to experience it firsthand, visually record events, and interview people. We can find graduates of that university or recipients of that scholarship among us and recount the cumulative impact on others they have helped over the years.

How else can we make the ministry come alive to our church family? We can tell stories of one person or one community, get that person to “Skype” in to our worship service or other large event, or read and post the individual’s letters or emails. We can become a Covenant Partner congregation to a particular missionary family, receive the family’s e-newsletters and host them when they return to our area. We can look for common ground between our two or more cultures, begin a relationship after surviving a common disaster, or find an unofficial partner congregation in a town named the same as our own in a different conference or continent. We can find another United Methodist congregation of the same name, send banners, film clips, and have our Sunday school youth, children, and adults exchange letters or connect through social media.

In January 2009, Lovett Weems wrote about “What Motivates Giving?” in the Lewis Center’s Leading Ideas. In that article, Weems stated that whatever increases member participation helps giving and encourages church leaders to involve as many people as possible in the church’ ministries.

It’s wonderful when people can do hands-on mission as my Volunteers-in-Mission friend does, But we all can have a sense of personal connection through a variety of creative ways. The more that we realize there are real people who are both receiving and giving, the more we want to be part of God’s action in the world.
Your partner in ministry,
Betsy Schwarzentraub
Written 1/31/2011 for the General Board of Discipleship
of the United Methodist Church

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Offerings

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This Sunday in worship, we received a special offering for Human Relations Day as well as our ongoing offerings for God’s work through the local and connectional (worldwide) church. This act reminded me of a conversation I had this week with a worship staff colleague about the role of the offering in our lives.

The words that we use about our offerings are important because they imply different worlds of understanding.

First, we “receive” offerings; we don’t “collect” them. “Collect” implies a billing approach and a contractual agreement for services rendered. It focuses on taking in money, not on receiving it in order to use it for others.

Second, we “give” our offerings; we don’t “present” them. The verb “to present” is part of the Old Testament language for sacrifices. That’s the whole point of Jesus’ gift of himself for us in his life, death, and Resurrection: thanks to Jesus Christ, no more sacrifices are needed or wanted by God. Jesus’ sacrifice was done once for all people and for all time. (See the Book of Hebrews about this.)

And third, we give “to God through the church,” not “to the church” as an end in itself. By being mindful about our language, we help shape our deeper understandings.

So our offerings are not three things: They are not our sacrifices for God. They are not a way to earn our place with God. (God already loves us as children of God.) And offerings are not just symbolic. Our offerings are meant to be substantial and to come from the substance of our lives: our time and energies, money from our work, our lived-out values, priorities and commitments, all given in gratitude for God’s love already given to us. Our offerings are substantial in another way, as well: they can make a substantial difference in the lives of human beings in this world.

Language is important, but ultimately it is what we do that counts. So when we give back to God some of the resources God has entrusted to us, we come with grateful hearts to participate in God’s substantial work all around us, by giving from the substance of our lives. May your offerings this week of your prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness embody the substance of God’s love!

Your partner in ministry,
Betsy Schwarzentraub

Written 1/18/2011 for the General Board of Discipleship
of the United Methodist Church

A Spirituality of Fundraising, by Henri Nouwen

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Okay, I admit it: I’ve been using the term “fundraising” for everything I don’t like about many secular financial appeal campaigns: lack of theological grounding, emotional manipulation, focus on the money, disregard for the donor as a person, and mechanistic gimmicks. But Henri Nouwen, author, Catholic priest, spiritual mentor, and model for so many Christians, uses the word “fundraising” for actually funding God’s work through authentic ministries in line with God’s vision for the world.

So I just read the new version of Henri Nouwen’s powerful little book, A Spirituality of Fundraising. What a dynamic witness it is to a whole different reality!

Nouwen says that when a person faithfully seeks to raise funds for ministry, he or she is telling the potential donor, “We are inviting you to invest yourself through the resources that God has given you — your energy, your prayers, and your money — in this work to which God has called us.” So he concludes, “fundraising is as spiritual as giving a sermon, entering a time of prayer, visiting the sick, or feeding the hungry.”

What a healthy way to view our invitation to others to undergird God’s work! Nouwen speaks from his own experience of being asked to donate money as well as of having asked others to support his various ministries. Funding the church’s work becomes a partnership in ministry between the donor and the one who asks for support. In the process, both are called to greater faithfulness as they create a community of love. Nouwen says, “We must minister to the rich from our own place of wealth — the spiritual wealth we have inherited as brothers and sisters of Jesus Christ. . . .”

So much for begging, or selling, or appealing to loyalty. This volume could be the perfect antidote for church finance leaders who fear bringing up the need for money. Nouwen gives some discussion questions for would-be fundraisers about the power of money in our relationships and how money affects our sense of security, value, and personal worth. This spring is a terrific time to engage our church leaders in talk about the themes in this book. It could bring about a refreshing change in attitude as they approach the church’s fall funding effort.

Your partner in ministry,
Betsy Schwarzentraub
Written 2/15/2011

Basic Training

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After an extended time off, my spunky horse needed to go back to basic training. For horses, this instructional time includes ground work, safety issues, and fundamental cues for mutual respect and attentiveness. It emphasizes communication and affirms our core relationship (including who leads whom). Such basic training is not once-for-all-time. It needs to be reinforced throughout our years together.

This exercise with my equine partner got me thinking, “So what is basic training for Christian stewards?” I believe it involves one key theological understanding and one essential practice.
The key theological understanding is this: “Generous God; Generous Lives.” That’s the way church consultant Mark Vincent summarizes it, and I agree. So here is how I unpack the statement: All generosity begins with God, the ultimately generous giver of life, love, and the entire good news. As John 3:16 puts it, “For God so loved the world that God gave. . . .” And, of course, the Person whom God gave makes all the difference in the world!

God gave first. God always gives first. Always, everywhere, it is God who first loves us (see 1 John 4:10). So because of God’s incredible self-giving and unconditional love, we seek to live generous lives with everything God has entrusted to us as people, as congregations, as creatures, as children of God. Gratitude is where we begin and where we end. No matter where we go theologically from there as different denominations or as different individuals, this is the basic lesson for Christian stewards.

And here is the one essential practice: first fruits living. Because of the reality of this cosmic, kindred, gracious God, we try to give back to God the first and the best of everything God has entrusted to us, and we try to manage all the rest — everything — according to God’s generosity. This audacious exercise has two parts: First, we give the best percentage we can of our time and money (working up to and beyond a tithe) and skills and relationships to God, off the top. This shows up in our income, daily devotions, weekly worship, and core Christian relationships. And second, we keep practicing the fundamental cues for all the fruits of the Spirit in how we manage and use all the rest: the families we love, the money we earn, the neighbors and strangers we encounter, the communities in which we live, our possessions and passions, and everything else God has entrusted to us in this life. Between the giving half and the managing half of this practice, I am not sure which is more audacious. But it’s a process, learning with mind and heart and muscle: a lifelong endeavor.

This brings us back to my wonderful horse and two personal learnings from his basic training. First, whatever your discipline, partnership is all built upon a personal relationship from both sides. And second, “more advanced” simply means going deeper into the basics. So it is with Christian stewardship. The more we grow as joyful, generous stewards, the deeper we go into a personal relationship with our generous God, and the more fully our lives reveal first fruits living.
Your partner in ministry,
Betsy Schwarzentraub

Written 1/11/2011 for the General Board of Discipleship
of the United Methodist Church

Basic Training

Standard

After an extended time off, my spunky horse needed to go back to basic training. For horses, this instructional time includes ground work, safety issues, and fundamental cues for mutual respect and attentiveness. It emphasizes communication and affirms our core relationship (including who leads whom). Such basic training is not once-for-all-time. It needs to be reinforced throughout our years together.

This exercise with my equine partner got me thinking, “So what is basic training for Christian stewards?” I believe it involves one key theological understanding and one essential practice.
The key theological understanding is this: “Generous God; Generous Lives.” That’s the way church consultant Mark Vincent summarizes it, and I agree. So here is how I unpack the statement: All generosity begins with God, the ultimately generous giver of life, love, and the entire good news. As John 3:16 puts it, “For God so loved the world that God gave. . . .” And, of course, the Person whom God gave makes all the difference in the world!

God gave first. God always gives first. Always, everywhere, it is God who first loves us (see 1 John 4:10). So because of God’s incredible self-giving and unconditional love, we seek to live generous lives with everything God has entrusted to us as people, as congregations, as creatures, as children of God. Gratitude is where we begin and where we end. No matter where we go theologically from there as different denominations or as different individuals, this is the basic lesson for Christian stewards.

And here is the one essential practice: first fruits living. Because of the reality of this cosmic, kindred, gracious God, we try to give back to God the first and the best of everything God has entrusted to us, and we try to manage all the rest — everything — according to God’s generosity. This audacious exercise has two parts: First, we give the best percentage we can of our time and money (working up to and beyond a tithe) and skills and relationships to God, off the top. This shows up in our income, daily devotions, weekly worship, and core Christian relationships. And second, we keep practicing the fundamental cues for all the fruits of the Spirit in how we manage and use all the rest: the families we love, the money we earn, the neighbors and strangers we encounter, the communities in which we live, our possessions and passions, and everything else God has entrusted to us in this life. Between the giving half and the managing half of this practice, I am not sure which is more audacious. But it’s a process, learning with mind and heart and muscle: a lifelong endeavor.

This brings us back to my wonderful horse and two personal learnings from his basic training. First, whatever your discipline, partnership is all built upon a personal relationship from both sides. And second, “more advanced” simply means going deeper into the basics. So it is with Christian stewardship. The more we grow as joyful, generous stewards, the deeper we go into a personal relationship with our generous God, and the more fully our lives reveal first fruits living.

Your partner in ministry,
Betsy Schwarzentraub

Written 1/11/2011 for the General Board of Discipleship
of the United Methodist Church