Stewardship in the small church

A reflection by H. Fred Bernhard

“Tell those rich in this world’s goods to quit being so full of themselves and so obsessed with money: which is here today and gone tomorrow. Tell them to go after God, who piles on all the riches we could ever manage—to do good, to be rich in helping others, to be extravagantly generous. If they do that they’ll build a treasury that will last, gaining life that is truly life” (1 Timothy 6:18-19, The Message).

In 1995 my wife and I were invited to attend a stewardship conference. While there, I experienced a mindset change from scarcity to abundance, realizing that we as Americans are far richer than other peoples around the world. It changed my whole perspective on how I view wealth and material possessions.

Small congregations usually view themselves as congregations with limited resources, both financial and in people skills. Pastors of these congregations hear these responses: “We can’t do that; we don’t have enough money.” “We don’t have the time to do that; all of us are already too busy.” “We’re not like the big church down the street. Let them do that.”

From my own experience, I can testify that a bigger worshiping community does not mean a more effective church. Size may make multiple programs possible, but congregational vitality can be achieved in congregations of all sizes.

The common denominator is passion. Congregations who possess passion know that they can make a difference for Christ in their community and around the world. They know that, no matter how small, they can do big things for God. The secret is a passion for a purposeful, mission-­driven, congregational life. Persons are drawn to such churches because they want to serve.

A mission committee struggled for weeks trying to come up with ways to buy one heifer for Heifer International. With a little help from the pastor, the congregation caught the vision and turned it into a passion for a mission. The result was 32 heifers purchased and donated to Heifer International.

That congregation experienced a mindset change: from scarcity to abundance. What no one thought possible became a reality when they caught the vision and their compassion fulfilled the mission. In simple terms, they put their hands where their mouths were. It’s a spiritual condition, isn’t it? Giving isn’t about the receiver or the gift but the giver.

It’s a sign of our spiritual discipline. We give because it’s the only concrete way we have of saying that we’re glad to be alive and well. Giving is a way of taking the focus off the money we make and putting it back where it belongs—on the lives we lead, the God we serve, the families we raise, the communities which nurture us. Our spiritual condition can be summed up with this prayer: “No matter what we say or do, God, this offering is what we think of you.”

When your congregation, however small, puts its trust in God and changes your attitude from scarcity to abundance, amazing things will happen—things beyond your wildest imagination. Just ask that church’s mission committee!

Fred Bernhard is an ordained minister in the Church of the Brethren and has served as a pastor and interim pastor in many congregations.

This reflection was originally published in Giving magazine, produced by the Ecumenical Stewardship Center. E-mail to receive a complimentary copy of the 2017 issue of Giving magazine.

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Not so simple: Living in Christ

Order a free copy of Giving magazine today at

Order a free copy of
Giving magazine today at

A reflection by Adam J. Copeland

“Not that I am referring to being in need; for I have learned to be content with whatever I have” (Philippians 4:11).

If only simple living were actually simple. I recently found my way to a website dedicated to simple living. The author suggested hiring a style consultant to simplify one’s wardrobe. Then one could sign-up for an extensive eight-week course on how to live a simple life. Oh, and I can’t forget the $30 million minimalist house featured prominently on the site. The website made simple living actually look pretty complicated—and expensive!

Katharine, a friend of mine, recently went on a road trip that took her near the house of an acquaintance, a woman she had met but was not particularly close to. Katharine values minimalism and thrift, so she asked if she might stay the night with her acquaintance. Katharine later explained to me, “I only expected a shower and a bed and certainly no more than a bowl of cereal for breakfast. But what I received was a full experience: decadent, home-cooked meals; a collection of new friends; great conversation; and the warming of a soul that only comes with hospitality towards the whole person, perfectly executed.” Katharine sought simplicity, but she received generosity.

What should we do with this simple-living paradox, this challenge that for many of us today, living simply takes real work? Even when we attempt to live simply, we can end up with another experience entirely. I prefer to look at those who were just as baffled some 2000 years ago. “—Not that I am referring to being in need; for I have learned to be content in whatever I have,” writes the Apostle Paul from his jail cell in Rome (Phil 4:11). Paul had just received a gift from the community of the Philippians, with whom he had previously stayed and to whom he had ministered.

Many scholars scratch their heads in wonder when they see the placement of this expression of gratitude in Paul’s letter to the Philippians way back in the fourth chapter of the letter. Why wait until the very end of a letter to acknowledge a gift that was clearly unexpected? Perhaps it’s the same reason that sometimes pushes me to avoid acknowledging gifts that I consider uncalled for, gifts unexpected and truly generous. Gifts can disrupt a pursuit of simplicity, upending plans for a minimalist approach.

Paul was a missionary who would not have typically accepted gifts for himself. He was about as far from current-day prosperity preachers asking their congregations for funds to purchase a private jet as we can imagine. For Paul , such gifts would have directly contradicted the humility of Christ he pursued, the self-emptying about which he preached.

Far from a response to a planned gift, this passage of thanksgiving says something more about caring for unexpected gifts, treating the gift received with honor, and as a symbol of the partnership in question. Sensibly, Philippians 4:11 qualifies Paul’s motive for writing this piece of gratitude. He’s clear that he knows how to live with little, just as he knows what it is to live with much. Paul writes, “In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need” (4:12). And yet, Paul is grateful, reiterating his thanks three times. While Paul didn’t ask for it, as he was accustomed to simple living (though prison is a rather extreme version of simple living), Paul accepted the gift and indicated it would profit the church and others. Paul also emphasizes the long, loving relationship between the Philippians and his ministry.

While simple living is not so simple, it can lead to generosity in many forms: generous giving of time, generous giving of money, generous giving of love, and eventually, generous thanksgiving. Philippians 4:11 reminds us, however, that complications arise when attempting to live simply. Epaphroditus, the one who delivered the gift from the Philippians, almost died of illness when he was with Paul. As Paul sought to live simply, Epaphroditus “came close to death for the work of Christ, risking his life to make up for those services that you could not give me” (2:30). Such reminders help to dissuade us from dangerous notions that those who live in poverty have life simple or easy. The gospel is clear in its call to care for the poor and needy. We should not need to be reminded that poverty is hazardous for individuals, households, and society.

And yet, for those of us who have much, living simply can become a call to action responding to God’s good and unexpected gifts to us. As Paul indicates, it is a learning process, a sanctification process, even, of being made holy by the Spirit’s good work in us. Like Paul, as we focus on living out the gospel of Christ, we cannot expect that simple living is easy. Together, though, we might find that with God, simple living is faithful.

Rev. Adam J. Copeland teaches at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota where he serves as director of the Center for Stewardship Leaders. This reflection was originally published in Giving magazine, produced by the Ecumenical Stewardship Center. E-mail to receive a complimentary copy of the 2016 issue of Giving magazine.

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Living lesson

“Every meal was a living lesson.” Photo by Regina Holmes

“Every meal was a living lesson.”
Photo by Regina Holmes

Adapted from “Raising a Grateful Child” by Dr. Rich Melheim.

“Example is not the main thing in life. It is the only thing.”
—Albert Schweitzer

I grew up in a home where thanksgiving and thanks-living were core—not only to what we did but also to who we were.

Every meal at our table started with “Come, Lord Jesus, be our guest” and ended with “O give thanks unto the Lord for He is good and his mercies endureth forever.” My sisters and I didn’t need a lecture, lesson, or worksheet on gratitude. Every meal was a living lesson.

We lived in a little railroad town where the homeless, drifters, and vagabonds filtered through every spring and fall on their way to somewhere and often on their way to nowhere. These travelers had our little house pegged as a place for a free meal and some kindness.

From May to October, there were constant knocks at the door, sometimes multiple times a week. Mom would open to the hungry face, then send our unexpected—yet expected—guest around to the back step for a hot plate of home-cooked food, a smile, and a listening ear. Mother often muttered something about “entertaining angels unaware” after visitors left. My sisters and I didn’t need a lecture, lesson, or a worksheet on stewardship. Every back-door meal was a living lesson.

On Easter, Thanksgiving, and Christmas, we entertained a houseful of college students from faraway and others who were alone on these special days. My parents’ attitude was “you can always throw more water in the soup” and “where there’s love, there’s room.” We grew up serving these guests every holy day before we ourselves would eat. We spent countless festivals carting borrowed card tables and chairs from church to fill our house with hospitality, laughter, and love.

To my parents, there was no caring without sharing. If you were blessed, you were blessed to be a blessing. Again, we didn’t need a lecture, lesson, or worksheet on hospitality while growing up. Every holiday was a holy day and an opportunity for a living lesson.

Dr. Rich Melheim is a pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. This story was published in full in the 2015 edition of Givingmagazine, produced by the Ecumenical Stewardship Center and distributed by the Church of the Brethren. Order complimentary copies of this and past issues at .

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“God calls us to follow Jesus’  example and be fearless in our living, our giving, and our service.” Photo by Mike Lantzy

“God calls us to follow Jesus’ example and be fearless in our living,
our giving, and our service.”
Photo by Mike Lantzy

Adapted from “God’s First Responders” by Michelle Cobb.

Every day our attention is grabbed by news stories of public servants who respond to emergencies. They are known by their well-recognized garb: hats, boots, and coats that identify these persons as first responders in times of great need.

In the local church community, we also have the opportunity to be first responders—of a different kind.

God’s generosity was revealed when God gave the world Jesus Christ, who expressed the ultimate depth of God’s generosity. In turn, God calls us to follow Jesus’ example and be fearless in our living, our giving, and our service.

The local church community is a perfect place for cultivating an attitude and practice of generosity. It is the place where we are taught what it means to be stewards of all that we have, and how to offer the time, spiritual gifts, skills, and finances with which we have been entrusted.

When the soil of the heart is fully responsive to the message of God’s generosity, the result is abundant, fearless living (Mark 4:8). Fearless disciples who live their lives with this belief create fearless and generous congregations.

God also works through us to reveal God’s generosity to others. Paul reminds us that we “cannot begin to think or imagine” how this God in whom we trust will work through us and through the church to accomplish God’s will in the world (Eph. 3:20). So let us live, give, and serve fearlessly as God’s first responders. May we be easily recognized as carriers of God’s grace-filled generosity in a hurting world.

Michelle Cobb is a district superintendent for the United Methodist Church. This story was published in full in the most recent edition ofGiving magazine, a timeless resource produced by the Ecumenical Stewardship Center and distributed by the Church of the Brethren. Order complimentary copies of past issues at , and watch your church mailbox for the 2014 edition, coming in April!

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