Carrying — or Burying — Our Congregation’s Stories
By Bonnie Wilcox
Reposted from Luther Seminary – Center for Stewardship Leaders
On internship in a southeastern Minnesota rural parish twenty years ago, I really stepped in it when I asked when we would hold an annual pledge drive to support the church’s ministry. “Not here!” I was told. “That’s never gonna work,” one leader said. “No. We’ve never done it that way,” said another.
I was stunned. My adult church experience was in a young, fast-growing suburban congregation, and annual pledge drives and 3-year capital campaigns were necessary and ongoing.
How was it that one congregation thrived on annual financial pledges to support the church, and another congregation just counted on their members to step up and give enough?
It took a few months, but eventually the history of the no-pledging church came to light. In the early days of the congregation — and up through the Great Depression of the 1930s — the rural church had practiced stewardship by assessment. Each household (mostly farm families) was assessed what the church elders believed was their fair share.
I found records in the archives that documented these assessments — so many wagon loads of stones hauled for the new foundation; so many bales of hay or bushels of grain for the pastor’s milk cows; a requirement of carpentry hours to build the addition on the church. I never read or found any assessments made for cash gifts, only for labor or crops or equipment use.
Conversations began with long-time members about their memories of these days and the stories flowed. Many stories relayed the shame felt by parents who couldn’t — or wouldn’t — abide by the terms of the assessment. Home visits by elders used guilt to extract these assessments.
Even though the practice of assessments had ended by the 1940s, the feelings associated with the practice were carried forward, still shaping the life of this congregation in the 1990s. “We do not pledge here.”
How long should these stories be carried? How much power do we give them in shaping ministry today?
How do we help congregations bury the hurtful stories, yet carry forward the stories of generosity?
It begins with building trusting relationships with holy listening. The stories passed on by their parents and grandparents are honored when we take the time to ask for them and listen. Only when we have collected these stories can we begin to help people let go of old hurts, re-shape perspectives, and genuinely give thanks for the good God has provided that keeps us moving forward in mission.
That’s what Jesus did on the road to Emmaus in Luke’s Gospel, Chapter 24. He listened to Cleopas and the other disciple, really listened to them.
And then he began to help them reshape the story. “Was it not necessary?” he asked them.
It was only in the listening and then the interpretation that Jesus was able to be known to them in the breaking of the bread. And then the disciples were compelled to get back to Jerusalem.
Fears were set aside, generosity embraced, and hope reborn. In the stories of our congregations, we can help them collect, bury and choose what to carry forward into the future.
What are the stewardship stories of your congregation? What needs to be buried — and what needs to be carried forward?
Rev. Bonnie Wilcox is Senior Pastor of St. Mark’s Lutheran Church in North St. Paul, Minnesota.