A Living Legacy: Grace upon Grace

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Even the most financially ambitious among us hunger for more than just the money standard in our lives. Somewhere along the way, we want the assurance that our lives have been not only successful, but valuable. Most people want to leave something behind that would be not just a money gift to a cause, but the combination of a life of dedication that ripples out, in some way positively impacting others. We hope to leave a positive influence on our family, for example, or our community, or even the world – something that extends the passion or meaning of our living.

This is what we might call our living legacy. It’s the unspoken witness of our actions, how we have “walked the walk” in the process of getting through life. If we do leave a mark behind, we hope it will reflect our vision and values. And for those of us who are Christian, we hope that legacy will leave a footprint for others to follow, for example, to learn about Jesus Christ, or to be able to follow Him better in their living. Some people decide to leave Ethical Wills1 for their family members or congregations to hear about their values in their own words. Others give to a ministry or cause that lies close to their heart through their will or trust, and tell other people about its importance to them now.

Bishop Robert Schnase reminds us of the context for such efforts. “We have been the recipients of grace upon grace,” he says. “We are the heirs, the beneficiaries of those who came before us who were touched by the generosity of Christ enough to give graciously so that we could experience the truth of Christ for ourselves. We owe the same to generations to come.” 2

May you continue to clarify the living legacy you want to share, and find a way to pass it on to others, both now and after this lifetime.

Your partner in ministry,

Betsy Schwarzentraub

1 – An Ethical Will is a personal document meant to communicate your values, experiences and life lessons to the next generation. Rabbis and Jewish laypeople have written Ethical Wills in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In recent years, the practice has been used more widely by the general public. Find out more about Ethical Wills at: https://celebrationsoflife.net/ethicalwills/examples/ or https://www.everplans.com/articles/how-to-write-an-ethical-will.

2 – Robert Schnase, Cultivating Fruitfulness: Five Weeks of Prayer and Practice for Congregations (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2008).

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Plan Now for September 15 Health Day

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In a delightful move, the North Georgia Conference and the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries have come together to sponsor a United Methodist Health Day this September 15. The in-person event will take place from 1 to 5 p.m. at Dunwoody UMC in Atlanta. Breakout sessions will include cooking demonstrations, health information, fitness fun, HIV testing, and Hulapalooza (that’s right: hula hoops!).

That event will bring together area United Methodist churches, health care coordinators, general-agency representatives, global health partners and their affiliates, to show the work of many people engaged in innovative health-related programs for churches and communities. They will offer tools and resources for congregations to implement new health-care programs and ministries.

So why not create a similar opportunity in your neck of the woods? Think about the particular health challenges in your area, and how they might be addressed. Then check out the Board of Global Ministries’ Abundant Health Initiative, at www.umcabundanthealth.org, to see how you might tap into their resources, as well. What other people or materials might be available to you from your county, state, or regional nonprofit and health groups? Last but not least, what would make it fun and inviting to folks of different ages?

Good stewardship of our bodies doesn’t have to be a dreary obligation. This Health Day idea sounds wonderful!

Your partner in ministry,

Betsy Schwarzentraub

Seven Attributes of Generous Churches

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            Patrick Johnson has worked with innovative U.S. churches for almost ten years, seeking to answer the question, “What does it take to create a culture of generosity in a local church?” In “Seven Attributes of a Generous Church,”1 he names seven common characteristics he has discovered. The more generous congregations he has encountered:

  1. Are led by generous staff and key lay leaders who give with accountability and promote trusting relationships, personally demonstrating the joy and impact of generous giving.
  2. Communicate a strong vision of why their church exists. The top three places they connect ministry with money given are: during the offering time, in quarterly giving statements, and at an annual Vision Meeting with the congregation.
  3. Focus strongly on making a difference in the community and the world, trusting in their big view of a generous God. Their commitment to local and global outreach moves them toward giving half of their budget to external projects, “because it’s who we are.”
  4. Teach people a holistic theology of stewardship, generosity, and God’s Reign, exploring the connection between giving and grace.
  5. Provide discipleship environments for people to practice stewardship and generosity, reaching out to everyone, whether they are financially struggling, fiscally solid, or seeking to invest and manage their surplus.
  6. Develop an organizational culture that supports the priesthood of all believers, helping them follow God’s call to use their time, abilities and finances outside current church programming, as well as within it.
  7. Steward the church funds effectively by setting budgets and managing the resources of the church, allocating income and assets among buildings, staff and external giving, and communicating their management through Town Hall Meetings, quarterly giving statements, and annual reports.

These best practices are not cookie-cutter activities for us to copy, but rather habits that develop over time, uniquely suited to the congregation’s local context and DNA. They prompt many of us to rethink our habitual actions – and risk some new behaviors.

Your partner in ministry,

Betsy Schwarzentraub

1 www.GenerousChurch.com

Generous Stewards — Compassionate and Caring

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I listened to a fascinating TED Talk on National Public Radio about compassion a while ago.1 It featured political analyst Sally Cone, and journalist Christa Tippet.

“Compassion [is] the ability to appreciate and respect another person’s viewpoint, even if it isn’t your own,” said Cone. It includes communicating that your feelings are valid, and prompts you to form a connection with someone regardless of his or her viewpoint. “This is the starting point for change,” Cone stated.

Tippet hosts an NPR radio show called, “On Being.” She said that compassion is a core virtue that has within it many others, leading to “what it’s like to lead a worthy life.”

This got me thinking about compassion and caring as attributes of generous stewards. So this is Part Four of that article series. And three churches’ ministries came to mind, in how they encourage and celebrate compassion among their people.

One is a debt annihilation program at Circle of Hope, a Brethren in Christ church in Philadelphia, PA.2 Scott Sorrentino knows about that firsthand. A married father of three, he had accumulated $6,000 in debt by the fall of 2010, with no known way to pay it off. Then he discovered the Circle of Hope’s program. Five debtors made their minimum payments on what they owed, then contributed an additional payment for someone else in the group, so all six of them got out of debt in two years’ time. “I don’t have the discipline to do this on my own,” Scott admitted. “I really feel like this came from the Spirit.” The 500-member Circle of Hope church gathered $8,000 from its members in seed money to start the program, and have been paying off participants’ debts in what they consider “the practice of being generous.”

A second example is Los Altos United Methodist Church in CA, which declared “Compassion Week,” organizing thousands of volunteers to come together to serve the community.3 “Compassion Week is an invitation to serve, care for and support our community,” said Senior Pastor Mariellen Yoshino. She noted that the congregation sets up service projects with partner organizations not only to make an impact that week, but also to inspire participants to keep serving those organizations.

Grace Church, in SW FLA, is a third example. Its members engage in intentional acts of compassion and caring every Wednesday afternoon and third Saturday morning. They give away “thousands of pounds of food; hundreds of pounds of pet food; haircuts by the dozens; hundreds of articles of clothing; referrals to medical, food stamp, insurance providers, and more; plus everyone receives prayer by one of [their] prayer team.” They turned an old grocery store into a community center to house these ministries, including a homeless program and an after-school drop-in center.

Compassion and care are individual values and habits, but they can be celebrated and multiplied by our faith communities. We can prompt one another to be faithful, joyful stewards of God’s Good News, and of everything else God has entrusted to us!

Your partner in ministry,

Betsy Schwarzentraub

1 – Ted Radio Hour on KXPR (88.9) National Public Radio, Dec. 22, 2014.

2 – Jesse James DeConto, “Pay pals: A small group for debtors,” Christian Century Jan. 25, 2012, pp. 10 ff.

3 – “Compassion Week will serve 200,000 people in need,” Oct. 7, 2015, www.cnumc.org/news/wra2344

4 – Rev. Jorge Acevedo, “Staying Focused!” Upper Room Disciplines 2012, p. 222.

Even Better than a Birthday

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            Today we get to celebrate our youngest grandchild’s birthday! It’s amazing to think that he’s ten years old already. And of course we are bringing a small gift for him, which we hope he will enjoy.

But we made a greater financial gift shortly after his birth, when we put some money aside to grow toward a college fund. These days, it takes many years to gather up enough money to actually pay for college, and most parents have their financial arms full just handling current expenses as they raise their children.

When I look at our grandson, I imagine his life further down the road. What about his children and grandchildren? How will they fare, not just financially but spiritually? Who will help them learn about the Good News? What ministries will be there to show them God’s love and teach them about Jesus?

This is where planned giving comes in for those who are parents, grandparents, and forbears of future generations. With our own children we can write out Ethical Wills to express our values, but it’s the church’s ministries that will demonstrate those qualities and make them real in their lives. We don’t know the form of the future ministries that will be needed for their children, grandchildren, and on down the line. So my husband and I have directed part of our living trust to be given to our church for its future ministries. That’s what church endowments are for, and current donors can be as unrestricted or as specific as they choose to be in designating their gifts.

Knowing we’ve done this helps me feel freer today to celebrate with our grandson. By making a planned gift we haven’t put a lock on the future or controlled others in any way. But we’ve helped our grandchild and others encourage their grandchildren in their love of God and walk with Jesus Christ. — Now that’s even better than a birthday!

Your partner in ministry,

Betsy Schwarzentraub

The Joy of My Heart

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Your Word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path. . . . Your decrees are my heritage forever; they are the joy of my heart.                                                     (Psalm 119:105,111)

 

I stand within a tradition that understands God’s Word – God’s Living Word – as active at the intersection of reading the Scriptures and guidance by the Holy Spirit. Just reading the Bible and applying our own human interpretation doesn’t make it God’s Word. That’s often where we go terribly wrong, with horrendous, even global, consequences. But when the Spirit shows up and works within our minds and hearts as we read, it becomes the Living Word of God, meant uniquely for us in each time and place. The Bible itself is not to be worshiped; it’s only a vehicle, when we let God’s presence come through.

When I was in my early teens, a preacher once referred to “the amazing coincidence of the Bible” – how it speaks afresh every time, when we read it while opening ourselves to the work of the Spirit.

I know, easier to say than to recognize in real life! I’ve never forgotten that, however, and it has held true all my life. As one minister colleague said years ago, “It’s not the parts of the Bible that I don’t understand that bother me so much – it’s the parts that I do understand!”

For me, reading the Bible isn’t a matter of looking for answers to life’s questions (as if I had the right questions to ask, anyway!) or of pulling out inspiring stories to live by. There’s a lot of blood and guts in the Bible, and loads of times in it when people blurred the focus of what God had in mind. Back then just as now, people struggled mightily to figure out what God was doing in their midst, and to get their lives on the right side of things. The deeper I allow myself to dive into Scripture texts, the more I feel God’s Word is getting through. . . .

I love how the psalmist says God’s Word “is my heritage forever.” It is a present reality, whenever I dare to sit with some Bible passage and ask the Spirit to strengthen me through the Scripture. Such open-to-God moments are not always comfortable, but they are truly “the joy of my heart!”

Your partner in ministry,

Betsy Schwarzentraub

Generous Stewards — Collaborative and Collegial

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            Generous stewards often seem to interact and engage in ministry through networks of diverse folks – more like being part of a movement than a single organization. For example:

  • Cooking Up English, in Austin, TX, is a local church ministry that uses cooking to help non-English speakers learn more about the language, while building community between longtime church members and those new to the area.
  • Presbyterian Peace Fellowship in Stony Point, NY, brings together seven communities in different nearby towns that focus on various aspects of peacemaking, from urban gardening and immigrant support to young adult programs and storefront prayer gatherings.
  • Healthy Vines, in Corona, CA, is collaboration between local and public-school gardens, to help children learn about farming and enjoy locally-grown produce.

These ministries are examples of what I see as a third set of core attributes of generous stewards – they are collaborative and collegial.

When we try to live intentionally as stewards – enjoying, sharing and managing what God has entrusted to us – we often develop collegial relationships that cross over old-time boundaries for the sake of a larger purpose. An article about attracting Millennials in ministry (those born roughly between 1980 and 1995) says the bottom line is that they want to be part of a collaborative community that empowers and releases them to create new ways of doing church and connecting to others.1 But Millennials are not the only age group looking for this approach. Many congregations are popping up these days, which Phyllis Tickle refers to loosely as the “Emergent Church.”

Emergent or otherwise, whenever two or more of us gather in Christ’s name, stewards of the Good News and all God has entrusted to us tend to work with one another in a mutual, flexible way that strengthens the whole. May you find yourself in increasingly collaborative and collegial ministry relationships!

Your partner in ministry,

Betsy Schwarzentraub

1 – Chris Folmsbee and Brad Hanna, “What Millennials Crave and How the Church Can Relate,” Circuit Rider, May/June/July 2015, pp. 24-25.