Monday, April 27, 2009

Passing the Plate

The poor widow who gave out of her poverty rather than her wealth (Mark 12:42) and the rich young ruler (Luke 18:18-30) who refused to give anything out of his both typify American church giving. Sociologists Christian Smith, Michael Emerson, and Patricia Snell have recently published a study on Christian stewardship, Passing the Plate (Oxford University Press). Their findings are a call to action. More than one out of four American Protestants give away no money to their churches. Evangelical Christians tend to be the most generous (giving the lie to the misconception that liberal Christians are more liberal in their concern for the less fortunate), but even their giving is nothing to brag about. Thirty-six percent of the Evangelicals report that they give away less than two percent of their income. Only about 27 percent tithe.

Passing the Plate’s researchers estimate that American Christians who say their faith is very important to them and who attend church at least twice a month earn more that $2.5 trillion dollars every year. If these Christians gave away 10 percent of their after-tax earnings, they would add a whopping $46 billion to ministry around the world.

Tithing is practiced by few. The median annual giving for an American Christian is about $200, just over half a percent of after-tax income. 5 percent of American Christians provide 60 percent of the money churches and religious groups use to operate. “A small group of truly generous Christian givers,” say Passing the Plate’s authors, “are essentially ‘covering’ for the vast majority of Christians who give nothing or quite little.”

Most Methodist preachers already know that America’s biggest givers –as a percentage of their income—are its lowest income earners. Americans earning less than $10,000 gave 2.3 percent of their income to churches. Those who earn $70,000 or more gave only 1.2 percent.

The amount of money we have appears to be a negative influence on generosity. Church giving as a percentage of income was higher during the early years of the Great Depression –around 3.5 percent—than at any point since. When income went up, we began to give less.

The causes for these miserly patterns. First, researchers say that the Bush years have been particularly tough on the Middle Class. Fixed costs in households have increased from 54 percent to 75 percent of family budgets since the early 1970s. (Our Asbury Church at Madison has a great program that trains families in Christian financial management.)

Second, some givers say they don’t trust their churches’ use of money. Third (and I found this fascinating) individual Christians are acting much like their churches. “Relatively little donation money actually moves much of a distance away from the contributors,” Smith, Emerson, and Snell write. The money given by the people in the pews is mostly largely spent on the people in the pews. Only about 3 percent of money donated to churches and ministries went to aiding or ministering to those outside of the congregation. (I am ashamed that we have dozens of pastors and churches in our Conference that do not pay their fair share of Conference mission and benevolent apportionments – apportionments run only about 10% of a congregation’s receipts.)

Passing the Plate says that a major reason Christians do not give is because they are not asked to. Tithing is seldom mentioned. Pastors are reluctant to bring up stewardship because the issue is so closely tied to their own salaries. And the study found that pastors themselves are often not great models of financial giving which can exacerbate their reluctance to preach on it. I am appalled by how many of our pastor’s tithe. Poor leadership by the pastor always results in poor congregational giving. Faithful giving begins with every pastor, D.S., and Bishop saying, “I have discovered the joy of cheerful tithing, and you can to.”

Alabamians give at a higher rate than other Americans and congregations in North Alabama are generally more generous than many segments of contemporary Methodism. Still, Passing the Plate suggests we could all do better. We don’t talk about money as much as the Bible talks about the subject. No church that expends 90% of its money on itself is a faithful congregation. There is no way to follow Jesus with a closed hand. Jesus’ great gift makes givers of us all.

William Willimon


By Lovett H. Weems, Jr.

1. Immediately make sure your personal giving is what it should be.

2. Immediately say "thank you" and find ways to do so regularly all year.

3. Tell people regularly what was accomplished through their giving.

4. Immediately do something concrete to assist those in economic distress.

5. Ask lay professionals to conduct workshops on budgeting and personal finances.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

A Faith that is Based on the Testimony of Women

When women went to the tomb in darkness, on the first Easter morning, they were disheartened by the thought of a large stone placed by the soldiers before the entrance of the tomb. To their surprise, the stone was rolled away. An angel, messenger of God, perched impudently upon the rock.

The angel preached the first Easter sermon: “Don’t be afraid. You seek Jesus, who was crucified? He is risen! Come, look at where he once lay in the tomb.” Then the angel commissioned the women to become Jesus’ first preachers: “Go, tell the men that he has already gone back to Galilee. There you will meet him.”

(How sad that there are still churches that continue, despite this clear witness of scripture, to deny the testimony of women and to prohibit them from preaching the gospel that God has given to them – but I digress.)

The women obeyed and sure enough out in Galilee the risen Christ encountered them. Why Galilee? Though all of Jesus’ disciples came from there, Galilee is in the Judean outback, a dusty, rural sort of place. Jesus himself hailed from Galilee, from Nazareth, a cheerless town in a forlorn region. (“Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” asked Nathaniel, before he met Jesus.) Galilee was held in contempt by most Judeans. It was a notorious hotbed of Jewish resistance to Roman rule. So the risen Christ has returned, once again, to those who had so miserably forsaken and disappointed Jesus first time around.

It’s emblematic of Jesus. Despite his disciples’ betrayal, the first day of his resurrected life, there’s Jesus, risen from the dead, with nothing more pressing than rapidly to return to the rag-tag group of Galilean losers who had the first time so failed him.

And what does Jesus say to them? His last words, at least as Matthew remembers, are – “You have all had a rough time lately. Settle down and snuggle in here in Galilee. After all, these are the good country folk with whom you are the most comfortable. Buy some real estate, build a church and enjoy one another’s company in a sort of spiritual club.” -- No! The risen Christ commands, “Go! Get out of here! Make me disciples, baptizing and teaching everything I’ve commanded you! And don’t limit yourselves to Judea. Go to everybody. I’ll stick with you until the end of time just to be sure you obey me.”

How like Jesus not to allow his people rest and peace, not to encourage them to hunker down with their own kind, but rather to send forth on the most perilous of missions those who had so disappointed him. They were, in Jesus’ name, to go, to take back the world that belonged to God. Here we encounter an implication of Jesus’ peripatetic nature: there is no way to be with Jesus, to love Jesus, without obeying Jesus, venturing with Jesus to “Go! Make disciples!”

By the way, in that time and in that place, the testimony of women was suspect, inadmissible in a court of law, ridiculed as being worthless. So why would the early church have staked everything on the testimony of these women at the tomb? You can be sure that if the men (hunkered down back in Jerusalem, I remind you) could have told the story of Jesus’ resurrection another way they would have – unless it happened exactly that way.

Let’s give thanks that these first preachers, these first evangelists, despite any fears they may have felt, despite any resistance they encountered from the men, stood up and told the truth of what they had seen and heard. Happy Easter!

William H. Willimon

Monday, April 13, 2009

The God Who Refused to be Done with Us

God promised to come, in spite of our sad human history. God vowed to be with us, to show us God’s glory, power, and love. That all sounded good until God Almighty dramatically made good on the promise and actually showed up as Jesus of Nazareth, not the vague and thoroughly adorable God whom we expected. Even among Jesus’ closest followers, his twelve disciples, there was this strange attraction to him combined with an odd revulsion from him. “Blessed is the one who takes no offense in me,” he said. But the things Jesus said and did led many to despise him. On a dark Friday afternoon in Jerusalem that revulsion became bloody repulsion as we nailed Jesus’ hands and feet to a cross and hoisted him up naked over a garbage dump outside of town. At last we had done something decisive about Jesus and the God he presented, or so we thought.

Three times Jesus had hinted that his death might not be the end of the drama, yet the thought that anything in the world might be stronger than death was inconceivable to everyone around Jesus, even as it is inconceivable today. (First Century Near Eastern people did not know many things that we know, but everybody knew that what’s dead stays dead.) All of his disciples were quickly resigned to his death. End of story. It was a good campaign while it lasted, but Jesus had not been enthroned as the national Messiah, the Savior of Israel. Caesar had won. Rather than cry, “Crown him!” the crowd had screamed, “Crucify him!” and stood by gleefully as the Romans executed Jesus on a cross. Mocking him, the soldiers made a crown of thorns and shoved it on his head, tacking above the cross a snide sign, “KING OF THE JEWS.” Some king, reigning from a cross. In about three hours, Jesus died of either suffocation or loss of blood, depending on whom you talk to.

As is so often the case with a true and living God, our sin was not the end of the story. Three days after Jesus had been brutally tortured to death by the government -- egged on by a consortium of religious leaders like me, deserted by his disciples and then entombed -- a couple of his followers (women) went out in the early morning darkness to the cemetery. The women went forth, despite the risk in the predawn darkness, to pay their last respects to the one who had publicly suffered the most ignominious of deaths. (“Where were the men who followed Jesus?” you ask. Let’s just say for now that Jesus was never noted for the quality or courage of his male disciples.)

At the cemetery, place of rest and peace for the dead, the earth quaked. The huge stone placed by the soldiers before the entrance (why on earth would the army need a big rock in front of a tomb to keep in the dead?) was rolled away. An angel, messenger of God, perched impudently upon the rock.

The angel preached the first Easter sermon: “Don’t be afraid. You seek Jesus, who was crucified? He is risen! Come, look at where he once lay in the tomb.” Then the angel commissioned the women to become Jesus’ first preachers: “Go, tell the men that he has already gone back to Galilee. There you will meet him.”

It was a typically Jesus sort of moment, with people thinking they were coming close to where Jesus was resting only to be told to “Go!” somewhere else. Jesus is God in motion, on the road, constantly going somewhere, often to where he is not invited. Jesus was warned by his disciples not to go to Jerusalem but Jesus, ever the bold traveler, did not let danger deter him, with predictable results – his death on a cross. And now, on the first Easter morning, death cannot daunt his mission. Jesus is once again on the move. So the angel says to the women, “You’re looking for Jesus? Sorry, just missed him. By this time in the day, he’s already in Galilee. If you are going to be with Jesus, you had better get moving!”

It’s that the week after Easter, time after resurrection. Let’s get moving.

William H. Willimon

Note: Just this week I got some empirical proof of the resurrection. A couple of years ago we sent sent young Wade Griffith to our venerable Trinity Church in Tuscaloosa. Trinity has suffered rather steady decline in the past decades. Trinity has not paid its fair share of mission and benevolence apportionments for at least two decades, maybe even longer. This year Trinity will pay 100%! They are currently hiring a new Children’s Minister, because they are being besieged by children. Tell me that Jesus did not rise from the dead and return to us!!!

Monday, April 06, 2009


Matthew 9:9-13
When the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” But when he heard this, he said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick…. For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.”

I stand at the front door of the church. It is Sunday. I like to stand here and watch people entering the church. What unites them?

Sinners come in the church. Some are still in their mother's arms. Sleeping, they come, but not of their own volition. They look innocent enough, but they are still sinners.

Though outwardly, cuddly and cute, they are among the most narcissistic and self-centered in the congregation. When they wake up, they will cry out, not caring that the rest of us are about important religious business. When they are hungry, they will demand to be fed, now. Cute, bundled up, placidly sleeping or peevishly screaming. Sinners.

Sinners come to church. They are being led by the hand. They do not come willingly. Though they put up a fight an hour ago, a rule is a rule, and there they are. They have said that they hate church. They have said things about church that you wouldn't be allowed to have published in the local newspaper, if you were older. Ten years old they are, and they lack experience and expertise but not in one area: they are sinners.

Sinners come in the church. Sullen, slouched, downcast eyes. Out with friends last night to a late hour, the incongruity between here in the morning, and there last night, is striking. They know it and it is only one of the reasons why they do not want to be here. Dirty thoughts. Desire. Things you are not supposed to think about. These thoughts make these sinners very uncomfortable at church.

Sinners come to church, and they have put on some weight, middle-aged, receding hairlines, "showing some age." They are holding on tight. Well-dressed, attempting to look very respectable, proper. Youthful indiscretions tucked away, put behind them, does anybody here know? A couple of things tucked away from the gaze of the IRS. And a night that wasn't supposed to happen two conventions ago. These sinners are looking over their shoulders. They are having trouble keeping things together. Maybe that is why there are so many of these sinners here, coming in the door of the church.

Sinners come in the church, doors at last are closed. The last of them scurry to their appointed seats. The organ begins to play, played by an extremely talented, incredibly gifted artist, who is also a sinner. And the first hymn begins. Something about, "Amazing Grace," sung, appropriately, by those who really need it, need it in the worst way. They sing in the singular, but it ought to be in the plural. “Amazing grace that saved wretches like us.”

Sinners come into church. And now for the chief of them all, the one most richly dressed, most covered up, the one who leads, and does most of the talking. Some call him pastor. Down deep, his primary designation is none other than those whom he serves. Sinners come into the church, and now their pastor welcomes them, their pastor, the one who on a regular basis presumes to speak up for God, making him the “chief of sinners.”

Sinners, come to church, all decked out, all dressed up, all clean and hopeful. Sinners, sinners hear the good news, "Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners." Jesus called as his disciples, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, Mary and Mary Magdalene. Sinners. Only sinners. And Jesus got into the worst sort of trouble for eating and drinking with sinners. Only sinners. Sinners.

Jesus saves sinners. Thank God. Only sinners. We sinners.

William Willimon

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Young Clergy Blog

Friends, we invite you to participate in a discussion with Bishop Will Willimon and the young clergy in the North Alabama Conference: Young Clergy Gathering Notes