“We just don’t talk about money in this congregation,” a church lay board member said, explaining why her congregation was continually running a deficit and perennially doing poorly in stewardship. “And one member told me his family will leave the church if we start asking for money.”
Her congregation is hardly alone. A “wall of silence” cuts off honest discussion about money in many congregations, regardless of size, denomination, setting or vitality. As a result, too many congregations live hand-to-mouth, curtailing ministry expansion and living bare-bones existences amid God’s great abundance.
The key questions are: 1) How did the wall get there in the first place? And, 2) How can we break down that wall?
Let’s start with the first question. The foundation for the wall is laid when congregations become reluctant to talk about money. Maybe during a run of fat years nobody had to talk about giving. Or, maybe now things are going poorly and nobody wants to name the elephant in the room. Whatever, the resistance to talking about money begins subtly. It will only grow, unless wise, courageous leaders are able to circumvent it by teaching, preaching and talking about money.
But too many congregations are headed by risk-averse leaders who, by their failure to challenge, unwittingly allow the wall of silence to be reinforced by years, often decades, of groupthink. What begins as a bad idea becomes codified as a congregational commandment: “Thou shall not talk about money.” If it gets this bad, then leaders who do mention money may be criticized, ostracized, reprimanded and, in some cases, sent packing.
What to do about it? Here are some ideas:
First, you are not going to be able to dynamite the wall – getting rid of it by an enormous program, brainstorm or stewardship emphasis. The wall is thick and strong, having been fortified by years of congregational agreement and apathy. If you try to blow it up, you will fail. Moreover, you’ll cause collateral damage – such as outraged people who leave the church and take their money and talents with them. Or worse, outraged people will stay and undermine your ministry by planting and watering the seeds of conflict that will bear fruit when you are forced out or finally throw in the towel and move on.
Second, remember that many (most?) congregants actually like the wall of silence. It has protected them, kept them safe from uncomfortable discussions and nagging questions. It has shielded them from having to confront their own financial stewardship, thus guarding them from the shame and guilt that might arise if they had to think about their own generosity. It has kept their private fortunes private – away from the light of God’s teachings about abundance and generous giving.
As a result, it’s best to think long-term. Your strategy should be for many years – five years? A decade? It took years to build the wall; it will take years to dismantle it. Don’t think “bulldozer,” think “garden trowel.” A good long-term strategy involves consistent, continual teaching and preaching. Lift up what the bible says about wealth – there are hundreds of scriptures. Preach on money whenever it comes up in the Lectionary (and the Lectionary Year C focuses on Luke’s Gospel, which is all about money!).
Start non-threatening discussions about money with your congregants and lay leadership by talking about money without stressing either the need for the church to receive or the need of the members to give. Using Jesus as a model, talk about money as often as you can without asking for it (Jesus never asked for money, but he talked about it a lot).
Using the garden trowel image, take little scoops out of the wall, so small that they might go unnoticed even as they begin to make a difference. Little by little, over the years, you can break through that wall of silence.
Eventually your leadership will be able to say, “Talk about money? Sure, we have healthy conversations about how we use the abundance God has given us personally and as a church.” Now that’s a goal worth achieving.
(c) Copyright 2018, the Rev. Rob Blezard. All rights reserved.
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Photo of Berlin Wall, Daniel Huizinger, Creative Commons