A Steward of the Church
A sermon by Rev. Charles Blustein Ortman, delivered at the First Unitarian Church in Providence, RI, February 7, 2016
READINGS ANCIENT & MODERN
Our ancient reading today is from the Book of Genesis:
And God said, "This is the sign of the covenant I am making between me and you and every living creature with you, a covenant for all generations to come: I have set my rainbow in the clouds, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and the earth. Whenever I bring clouds over the earth and the rainbow appears in the clouds, I will remember my covenant between me and you and all living creatures of every kind.
Our modern reading today, "I Am Your Church," is from the book, Young People’s Method on the Church, published in 1933 by Unitarian religious educator Percy R. Hayward:
I am your church. Make of me what you will. I shall reflect you as clearly as a mirror. If outwardly my appearance is pleasing and inviting, it is because you have made me so. If, within, my spiritual atmosphere is kindly, yet earnest; reverent, yet friendly; worshipful, yet sincere; sympathetic, yet strong; divine, yet humanly expressed, it is but the manifestation of the spirit of those who constitute my membership. But, if you should, by chance, find me a bit cold or dull, I beg of you not to condemn me; for I show forth only the kind of life I receive from you. I have no life or spirit apart from you. Of this you may always be assured. I will respond instantly to your every wish practically expressed, for I am the reflected image of your own soul. I am your church.
As we take a peek this morning at the meaning of stewardship in this church, I'm reminded of the 18th Century figurative head of the Unitarian Church of America, William Ellery Channing. He wrote, "I am a living member of the great family of all souls; and I cannot improve or suffer myself, without diffusing good or evil around me through an ever-enlarging sphere. I belong to this family. I am bound to it by vital bonds."
We come here, I think, primarily so that we might strengthen those bonds, so that we might be reminded, over and again, that we are a part of this great human family that exists here with us – in this, our time, and on this, our planet. We come, I believe, in order to learn from one another and to support one another in the religious and spiritual quest of being at least a part of the change that we want to see in this world. We come together in this congregation, I have faith, so that we might all hold our aspirations for intentional living as a vision of the present moving into the future, building our vision upon the aspirations of those who have gone before us.
Our world faces so many urgent challenges. Who else do we think might take up the cause of answering those challenges, a cause which is the hope for our future generations? It is we who must be the change that we want to see in the world. It is we who are called to participate in creating the kind of world that we want to leave for the generations to come. I trust that our lives call us to these challenges and that we come here to help find our best means of answering them. What does it mean to be a steward of such a place, to be the caretaker of such a vision as the one that we hold here?
What makes it possible for us to think that we can promote a culture of change in our world, which already has a culture that really doesn't seem all that interested in changing? I'll tell you what it is for me. It's being part of a religious community such as this.
It's being part of a religious community that affirms and promotes the inherent worth and dignity of all people; that affirms and promotes justice, equity, and compassion in human relations; that affirms and promotes the interdependent web of existence of which we are all a part. What I need, what I trust we all need, in order to be the change that we want to see in the world is right here in this room. It is right here and it is wherever we go out from here, as the spirit we have created goes with us. It is because of the very real human values that we promote while being here. What does it mean to be a steward of such a place, to be the caretaker of such a vision?
Today I want to focus with you on the idea, the principle, the practice of stewardship. Because the annual pledge drive is still a month away, I want to talk with you about stewardship in somewhat broad, theological terms. I don't want to mention that your staff is underpaid or even that you are understaffed, though both are true. I don't want to talk about the much lower than average high pledges here at First Unitarian, or even the substantially low average pledges, although both of those are true as well. And I don't even want to talk about how the church has, for a long time, been operating its day-to-day budget by borrowing from the bequests left by those, now gone, who wanted to secure the future of these facilities for both you and for those who will come after you, though that is true as well.
There will be plenty of time to talk about those issues and more when we actually begin the pledge drive in March. So I'm just not even going to mention those things this morning. You can think about them now if you want. And maybe it would be good if you did; but for now, I just want to talk about stewardship.
The Oxford English Dictionary tells us that the word steward comes from Old English stiġ (house, hall) and weard (ward, guardian, or keeper). Stewardship initially referred to the household servants’ duties for bringing food and drink to the castle’s dining hall. Now, Wikipedia defines stewardship as an ethic that embodies the responsible planning and management of resources. The concepts of stewardship can be applied to the environment, economics, health, property, theology, etc. Seems to me that the ethic of embodying responsible planning and management of this house of worship for its keepers (i.e., all of you) offers a good beginning for our understanding of stewardship here, in this religious home, where we come to seek transformation in our lives and in our world.
Let me tell you why I wanted to come to First Unitarian Church to serve as your interim minister, for this brief year we have together. In the materials that were initially sent to me by your Interim Search Committee (made up of Beth Armstrong, Cynthia Rosengard and Merritt Meyer), I saw here, among you, a desire to be better stewards of this congregation, particularly in three areas:
- You wanted to create a more solid infrastructure in order to care better for one another – especially in times of need, but also just generally caring for one another.
- You wanted to care in a more enthusiastic and focused way on social justice issues, on needs facing the larger community and on society itself.
- Finally, you wanted to take better financial care of your church by being more fiscally responsible for these incredible facilities, and to do so while funding an aspirational budget that would adequately and fairly support your visions, as well as the staff you bring on to help you fulfill those visions.
When I had my first interview with Beth, Cynthia and Merritt, the conclusions I had drawn from your written materials were confirmed in our conversation. Then, when I arrived here this summer and began having dozens of conversations with many of you, those conclusions were confirmed over and over again. To your great credit, to date you have made good on your claims in those first two areas.
You wanted to improve the ways in which you are connected with and that you care for one another. Progress in this area has been astonishing to me. Your Deacons, Chalice Circles, Membership and Lay Ministry groups have cooperated in the creation of a dynamic Caring Network that has already provided a much greater capacity for meeting various needs of congregants. For example, members of the congregation and the community now have a place and a structure in which to work on issues of grief under the auspices of our Grieving Mindfully group, which, after a great deal of consideration and planning, held its first session a couple of weeks ago. And in an effort to provide ongoing opportunities for connection and caring, within a context of exploring ultimate matters in an intimate setting, your Chalice Circle leadership has banded together, strengthening and promoting the Chalice Circle program. Today during coffee hour, there will be a Chalice Circle table set up in the Atrium for anyone who is not involved in that program but would like to sign up or to know more about how it works.
You wanted to take a stand on social issues that are meaningful. To that end, leadership stepped forward and you have undertaken a deep exploration and conversation regarding the congregation's relationship with Black Lives Matter. You held a meeting recently and chose to take a vote regarding moving forward in this conversation and in all the work that it implies. I trust that the spirit of democracy and cooperation, as well as the call to be co-creators of a more just world were as palpable to you in that meeting as they were to me. Your vote on that plebiscite was completed this past Tuesday and the results of it will be announced immediately after this worship service. I trust that this is a shining moment that will reflect well into your future.
Responsible fiscal stewardship is the issue that remains an unknown, untested factor within this year's progress. The annual pledge drive will get under way four weeks from now, but that is hardly good reason to wait until then to think about the congregation's relationship to its finances. As I mentioned in my newsletter column, back in January, I'd like to begin this year’s pledge conversation with this thought – please don't think of your church as a place where you can get a great bargain. It’s not – and besides there is no such thing as a spiritual bargain! Please think of your church as a place where you come to find and make meaning of your life experiences, a place that inspires transformation of what has been into what yet can be.
I hope you will think of your financial support here as a way of securing this spiritual home for yourself and your family. I hope you won't think of your opportunities for stewardship here in terms of fees for services. I hope you will think of your potential for stewardship by considering yourself to be a keeper of this house. None of you need to consider that you're doing this alone; together you are all keepers of this house, this place for the finding and making of meaning, this place that exists for connection and support, this place that exists for your shared efforts in making a focused and consequential impact on the world around you.
And after you consider the significance of the church in this moment, please consider those of the future who will need to find what you have found here. Please consider leaving them a sound legacy, appreciating that you are not the founders, but the stewards of a community whose sturdy foundation was left here for you by those who came and went before those of us who are here now.
It is always my goal in preaching to raise the issues of the day so that they might be seen by you through the lens of religious sensibility and values. My further hope is that by raising these issues I am also raising an invitation for you, the congregation, to more seriously, more religiously, examine your relationship with the issues, to the end that a transformation in your relationship to and with them might be possible.
One of the dynamics that was stressed for me by the leadership of your congregation in discussing a deepening sense of fiscal responsibility is the very real need that this congregation has to stop using money, which was intended for the preservation of these facilities, not for day- to-day operations. If endowment money continues to be used in that way for very much longer, it could easily threaten the ability of the congregation to maintain these facilities altogether, and eventually even the congregation’s ability to fund its day-to-day business could be at risk.
I received an email a couple of weeks ago from your President Elect, Keith Brown. He had just attended a meeting of the History Committee for a discussion about the upcoming commemoration of this building’s 200th Anniversary, which will be celebrated this coming autumn. To our point this morning, Keith wrote:
One request (and offer) from the History Committee was in the spirit of using all the bandwidth we have to get out content to reinforce what is for me the basic message/invitation to expand our imaginations as a congregation: we are beneficiaries and heirs of past generosity as well as engagement – we are stewards and keepers, not just consumers of those resources, and the more we recognize and understand past patterns of sacrifice and commitment, the more we pledge ourselves to paying our dues to the past and [to] the future.
We are not talking about the specifics of the pledge drive this morning. We're talking about stewardship, taking the time, before that pledge drive ever begins, to consider seriously what it means to be a good steward of these gifts that have been so lovingly left by preceding generations of over 300 years. We’re talking about taking the time to consider the gifts that serve you all so well right now, gifts that future generations who would find their way here will depend upon. We’re talking about those paying it forward gifts, which will rely on your good stewardship in this moment. How do you want to think about that? You might want to think about it, not only thinking of what you want to do, but about what you can do.
As a kind of consulting minister during this interim year, I can tell you what I think your church needs of you. I think it needs even more than your pledge campaign team is going to be asking you for. They will be asking you for a 5% to 10% increase. For some of you, that would be a substantial increase. Still, I would suggest that what is needed is far more than that. Maybe you can surprise them with your born-again understanding of stewardship. Your church needs for those of you with deep pockets to dig significantly deeper. It needs those of you with more modest means to consider seriously the value and the potential of this congregation in your life, in the community and in the future, and then to support it at a level which shows your gratitude, your faith and your hope. Perhaps that level is 100% to 200% higher than what you might be contributing at this point. To get where I think you want to be, it's time to think of stewardship in a whole new light.
It would be irresponsible of me to fail in making my next point. This church needs those of you who live under stressed financial circumstances to recognize that you are not in a position to provide the financial support that might be available from others. This church needs you to recognize that your presence provides substantial support for all the aspirations that this congregation holds. "From each according to his ability, to each according to his need." (Karl Marx)
To place the idea of stewardship back into the larger context in which it belongs, we might consider the words of Mahatma Gandhi, who first said, "Be the change you want to see in the world." So I wonder, how is that going for you? What is the change that you want to see in the world? What is the change that you need to be a bigger part of?
It's good we have this place that holds us together in community. It's good we have each other – to hold in high expectation of fulfilling our own expectations, of achieving our own and our shared aspirations. It's good we have this place, this community, where, together, we can regularly step out of the world for a moment so that we might be more intentional in our lives when we step back into them.
We reinforce each other here. Each of us is a living member of the great family of all souls; and we cannot improve or suffer ourselves without diffusing good or evil around us through an ever-enlarging sphere. We covenant with each other here – to be our best and to do our best.
How can you be a good steward in such a grand endeavor as this? By being your best; by doing your best. And the rest… well, the rest will be your history; the rest will be the legacy that you will leave to those who follow.
This is your church. Make of it what you will. It will reflect you as clearly as a mirror.