Dear Friends in Christ,
Last month, while we were celebrating Christmas at Sudbury UMC, I was also reading a book to prepare for this month’s 2017 Stewardship Emphasis. Dr. Tom Melzoni gave me The Genius of Generosity by Chip Ingram last year. Remember Tom? He’s the consultant who coached Sudbury UMC’s leaders while we were working on our amazingly successful capital campaign, “Pave the Way.” Tom was probably hoping I would read Rev. Ingram’s book last fall but I’m really grateful I procrastinated because The Genius of Generosity is changing the way I think about stewardship.
For one thing, Rev. Ingram doesn’t even mention the word stewardship until he’s more than one-third of the way into his book. And what he says is not especially flattering: “Stewardship has a heavier, more serious tone for many people,” he writes, “one of obligation and strict limits on spending” (page 34). That’s why he prefers the word generosity when he’s preaching, teaching, and writing about money and what Christians are intended to do with it. If Rev. Ingram were your pastor, I’m guessing he would call this month’s “fun and done” pledge drive our annual Generosity Emphasis.
Chip Ingram learned the “genius of generosity” from a lay person who chaired the church council of the first congregation he served as pastor. John Saville was already in his seventies by the time Rev. Ingram moved into the parsonage at the age of 28. “To be honest,” he writes, “I thought he was a little kooky. I was both surprised and intrigued when he took me aside one day and said he wanted to ‘cut a deal.’ He handed me a checkbook for a pastor’s discretionary account with a balance of $5,000.
“Here’s the deal,” Mr. Saville said. “God has given me the desire and resources to help people, but I need you to be my eyes, my ears, and my heart. Whenever you see a need that you think I would be excited about and could meet, I want you to use this money. Don’t tell anyone where it came from. Just tell them that God paid it.
“I was shocked and sort of overwhelmed. At first I felt a lot of pressure about it – what if I chose to spend the money on the wrong things? After a while, though, it got to be fun. All of a sudden, I felt like Santa Claus 365 days a year. I had hidden resources at my discretion and was constantly asking God how to use them” (page 10).
After a month or two had gone by, Mr. Saville asked Rev. Ingram to join him for a celebratory lunch. He asked his pastor to bring the checkbook and its ledger along with the stories he was most interested to hear. “How did you use my money to help people in the world?” he asked. From the day he became John Saville’s steward, Rev. Ingram found himself thinking about his patron every day. What were his charitable interests in the world? What acts of generosity pleased him most? What kind of record-keeping would earn his trust and deepen their unique friendship? When each month’s lunch ended, Mr. Saville topped off his pastor’s discretionary fund and the process started all over again.
For Chip Ingram, his relationship with John Saville became a snapshot of our relationship with God. Even more than Mr. Saville, God has unlimited resources. But God also needs our eyes and ears and hearts to reach out and help people who need God’s generosity. The more we succeed as God’s go-betweens, the more God’s joy increases and the more fun we have spending the money that God entrusts to us each month on those whose needs are greater than our own.
In other words, filling out a 2017 pledge card for Sudbury UMC is not mostly about “paying the salaries and the bills of a church that is actually a small business.” Sometimes that’s the way some of us think and speak about the generosity we try to cultivate at Sudbury UMC. No wonder stewardship becomes a dry and dreary word. No wonder we curl ourselves into a protective ball to keep God’s hands off our resources! But what would happen if we remembered that the God whose resources we have been entrusted to manage for the blessing of the world is more like a friend than a landlord? What would happen, I wonder, if stewardship became an act of celebration instead of an act of obligation?
See you in church,