Stewardship Sunday Reflections
By Josh Leach and Rev. John Gibbons
Delivered on Sunday, March 26, 2017
At The First Parish in Bedford
A Thought to Ponder at the Beginning:
事非宜，勿輕諾 If conditions aren’t favorable, don’t lightly promise.
苟輕諾，進退錯 If one lightly promises, then both going forward to do it and backing off from doing it are wrong.
Di Zi Gui (dizigui) or “STUDENTS’ RULES”
From The Damnation of Theron Ware (1896), by Harold Frederic. Surely one of the few literary depictions of a Stewardship Sunday ever penned!
There had been an enormous crowd, even greater than that of Sunday night, and everybody had been looking forward to another notable and exciting season of grace. These expectations were especially heightened when Sister Soulsby ascended the pulpit stairs and took charge of the proceedings. […] At a signal from Sister Soulsby the steward got up, and, in an unconcerned sort of way, went through the throng to the rear of the church, locked the doors, and put the keys in their pockets. The sister dryly explained now to the surprised congregation that there was a season for all things, and that on the present occasion they would suspend the glorious work of redeeming fallen human nature, and take up instead the equally noble task of raising some fifteen hundred dollars which the church needed in its business. The doors would only be opened again when this had been accomplished.
“A man,” she began, with a quizzical twinkle in her eye, “told me once about hunting a woodchuck with a pack of dogs, and they chased it so hard that it finally escaped only by climbing a butternut-tree. ‘But, my friend,’ I said to him, ‘woodchucks can’t climb trees—butternut-trees or any other kind—and you know it!’ All he said in reply to me was: ‘This woodchuck had to climb a tree!’ And that’s the way with this congregation. You think you can’t raise $1,500, but you’ve GOT to.”
Stewardship Reflection: “Don’t Lightly Promise”
I’m going to begin my reflection on this Stewardship Sunday with a confession – that of all the temptations in life, there is none I find so hard to resist as the desire to volunteer. It’s just so easy to do it, and the social rewards are so immediate. Whether it’s signing on for more projects at work, or agreeing to part ways with a beloved single apartment in grad student housing to move into a smaller space with a friend, or saying “I will certainly raise that idea at our next meeting,” it’s just so simple and gratifying to say “yes” when the question is first posed. The other person is always pleased with you for it. They smile. They say “oh good!” And I think, “Oh good, they like me!”
Which doesn’t sound so bad. Those of us who suffer from this temptation often in fact don’t see it as a temptation at all, but a sign of a generous nature. Besides, this may seem like an especially odd vice to warn people off of on a Stewardship Sunday. Volunteering can hardly be the worst human foible in a volunteer-run organization.
The problem, however, comes not from that first exchange of “yes” and “oh good.” It comes when a month passes and they call us up again to ask if we’ve actually done the thing yet or not. “Have you gotten a chance to look over that lease I sent you yet?” “How’s that project coming along?” “What did they say after you raised it at the meeting?” That’s when I have the sinking realization that the reason they smiled originally was not just because of the magical power of the word “Yes” – but because they assumed that by saying yes, I was signaling that I would actually do the thing in question!
To be fair to those of us who suffer from this temptation, it’s not like we’re lying when we agree at the front end, it’s just that following through is so abstract and far off in the future. The person who will actually have to enact the promised conditions is not our present self, but this other, shadowy individual: our future self. We fall victim to traps of thinking, like: (1) I assume that somehow, for some reason, my future self will be more steely nerved and durable than I have ever been before. That he will be such a mature and put-together person that he will be able to carry it all through without complaint. Or (2) Somehow, it will be easier to say “No” in a future conversation on the same subject than it was the first time around, even though the opposite is in fact always the case.
It is mysterious that we – or at least I – show so little regard for the interests of our future selves. What injustices we inflict on them by our procrastination! Biologists tend to agree that human beings are, among other things, self-protective creatures. But this instinct for preservation, even if it defends the person we are now, doesn’t always extend to the person we will be a few weeks or months from now.
Edgar Allan Poe once argued in one of his stories that in addition to the self-interest in human beings often pointed out by psychologists, there was another, equally fundamental instinct in the human mind. It is the impulse to make things unnecessarily difficult for ourselves. Poe writes, in what has to be the most sublime literary depiction of procrastination ever penned:
“[Sometimes] We have a task before us which must be speedily performed. We know that it will be ruinous to make delay. The most important crisis of our life calls, trumpet-tongued, for immediate energy and action. We glow, we are consumed with eagerness to commence […] It must, it shall be undertaken to-day, and yet we put it off ; […] To-morrow arrives, and with it a more impatient anxiety to do our duty, but with this very increase of anxiety arrives, also, a nameless, a positively fearful […] craving for delay. This craving gathers strength as the moments fly. The last hour for action is at hand. […] The clock strikes, and is the knell of our welfare. At the same time, it is the chanticleer-note to the ghost that has so long overawed us. It flies—it disappears—we are free. The old energy returns. We will labor now. [But] Alas, it is too late!”
My sister, a self-confessed serial procrastinator, understands this temptation only too well. In one recent instance, her teacher’s union needed someone to serve as treasurer for the year. What exactly this mysterious task entails, none of us would ever know. Because as soon as my sister agreed to it, she was handed an enormous treasurer’s binder which, from that day to the day six months later when she was able to pass it on to her successor, remained unopened and untouched on her kitchen counter – a permanent unwelcome guest and constant reminder of her dereliction. “I feel like it’s just sitting there and accusing me,” she would say. The union binder cast a pall over the house for months, in her telling. “I don’t even know how many laws and regulations I’m breaking by just leaving that thing there,” she would say. The binder was after all full of opaque forms and paperwork that were probably supposed to be getting filled out and sent someplace, but who could say where?
Recent studies have confirmed that this problem of saying “Yes” to tasks we have no real likelihood of fulfilling is not limited to my sister and me. Courtesy of the TED Radio Hour on NPR, I learned earlier this year that, statistically speaking, it turns out that telling people we are going to do something actually makes us less likely to do it. This is because a huge part of why we undertake goals in the first place is the anticipated approval and gratitude we hope to receive for it from our fellow people. Saying yes often gratifies, at least in the moment, that same social impulse. People are pleased, even if we haven’t actually done the thing yet, so we feel as if we’ve already gotten the reward we’re after, and with none of the same effort.
The great English essayist William Hazlitt, a keen observer of human characters, didn’t need the TED radio hour to understand these dangers. In an 1822 essay, he describes a type of person who is so pleased with himself for saying he’ll do something that the promise becomes its own reward. This person “no sooner meditates some desultory project, than he takes credit to himself for the execution, and is delighted to wear his unearned laurels while the thing is barely talked of.” Hazlitt knew as well as Poe did what makes such people and my sister and me tick. “Whatever they set their eyes on,” he writes, “or make up their minds to, they must have that instant. They may pay for it hereafter. But that is no matter. They […] consider the present time sacred, inviolable, unaccountable to that hard […] taskmaster, the future.”
In place of such a person, Hazlitt holds out an ideal counter-persona. This is the sort of person who has the ability to say “No” – and not just to say it a few months later, after the chance to actually fulfill the promise has already slipped away, but to say it right now, when the request is made. Writes Hazlitt: “I like a person who knows his own mind and sticks to it […] If he can serve you, he will do so; if he cannot, he will say so without keeping you in needless suspense, or laying you under pretended obligations.”
As someone who has kept many in needless suspense by dancing around a subject to avoid a direct refusal, I am stung by Hazlitt’s words, but I see the good in his ideal. I too would like to be able to agree happily to the things I will do, and say no to the ones I won’t. My friend Seanan once quoted to me the words of a 17th century Chinese student’s manual that he grew up with in his household, and which we chose as the thought to ponder in your order of service. “If conditions aren’t favorable,” it says, “don’t lightly promise. If one lightly promises, then both going forward to do it and backing off from doing it are wrong.”
We at First Parish are all serving in an organization that runs on promises. The only reason any of this is able to happen each week is because people step up and volunteer. But it runs even more so on each of us actually following through on our promises. It runs not just on volunteering, but on meaning it, when we volunteer. Sometimes after conversations about stewardship, I think each of us can leave with a guilty feeling that we really ought to be signing up for more things. That is not quite my message today, or not all of it. I’m saying let’s make the things we do volunteer for really count. Let’s volunteer for the things that bring us joy, and that we know we can do well. And there are enough things happening here, I guarantee, that one of them will be for you.
This is the real beauty of volunteer organizations, and the secret of how they operate. They are sustained by people signing up for the things they love, not the things they hate. If we find ourselves just tremendously dreading something, chances are it’s because we wouldn’t actually be the best at it anyway, and there is probably someone else out there who is perfect for it. My sister found this out at the close of her six month treasurer tenure. She realized it as soon as she handed the accursed binder over to her successor. All at once, things were getting done. Those mysterious forms and folders were flying out of the binder and actually going places, to wherever they were supposed to end up. Suddenly someone else was doing with ease and dispatch the very tasks that had taken her months and untold suffering even to contemplate.
In describing the mental traps that enable over-promising, there was one key one I forgot to mention. It is the trap of believing that if we don’t say yes to a request, then no one else will either. And then we will be solely responsible for whatever disasters ensue. We might call this the “I alone can fix it” belief, and according to the advice we received from Rev. Emily Click in Divinity School, it is a mental trap that particularly afflicts ministers. Rev. Click’s advice to us in combatting this temptation was, in so many words, to get over ourselves. That we shouldn’t flatter ourselves that we are needed quite as much as that.
Not every one of us has to do everything, and no one is served by having us volunteer for things we won’t actually do. Churches, careers, relationships, lives – all of them may run on promises, but they fail on empty promises. So find the things that you love. There are an endless number of things that need doing here at First Parish, of an almost limitless variety. One of them will be the one that floats your distinctive boat, whether it’s joining the choir, teaching R.E., fighting for climate justice or facilitating a small group. Follow your bliss, because once you do, you’ll find that your “yeses” really count and your promises are no pain to fulfill.
All of which is a long way of saying, Freely we have received, freely… and I mean, really freely, freely may we give, to support the good work on the congregation, both here and beyond these walls. The Offering will now be gratefully received.
A Stewardship Reflection
Rev. John Gibbons
You know, I’ve got a couple of big fat files full of fund-raising ideas: some are funny, others are well-reasoned, poignant, eloquent, clever, passionate, surprising, blunt… There are some far-fetched approaches and misguided and just plain stupid approaches too. We have tried ‘em all! And, to tell you the truth, I don’t know that any particular strategy makes any difference.
One of our members – Nan Jefferys – is a development professional and I asked her what does makes a difference. Nan says that most of these varied strategies are over-rated. In a church, she says, “What you need to be worrying about is the quality of relationship that the members have with the church. What is their sense of investment?”
That rings true to me and is something that I want all of us to think deeply about: What is the quality of relationship we feel to First Parish? What would strengthen it? What barriers to a deeper relationship may exist? Are there things we should do differently?
You know that one of our church’s strongest initiatives in recent years has been our work in climate justice. Evan Seitz has been our organizer (and securing his work in our budget, by the way, is one of our financial goals in the coming year), and Evan recently wrote a history, an overview of what he’s been trying to do with us (He wrote this, by the way, in support of a grant application he’s made and his overview is just really impressive. He describes what he’s done with us and it’s like, Really? He’s talking about us and we don’t recognize ourselves because it’s us!)
Anyway, in his overview Evan credits much of our success to a model of social change which he calls an “action/reflection model.”
Now, according to this model, actions come first (lobbying, testifying, advocating, protesting, marching, getting arrested, whatever); and then, after taking action, Evan has led us in a process of reflecting on that action (What was that all about? What did we learn? What would we do differently? What will we do next?)
An action/reflection model is the antithesis of the way we usually do things. Usually, we say, “Uh, Let’s study this. Let’s ponder this and, if possible, let’s ponder this ponderously. Let’s talk this to death. Let’s think about all the reasons why we shouldn’t take action. Might get in trouble! Wouldn’t be prudent!).“ That’s is our usual approach…analysis paralysis!
And so today, I’m wondering what would it be like to apply an action/reflection model to our stewardship efforts? Usually, you know, we cross our arms and wait for somebody to make the case for pledging. “You want a 5% increase? Well, gimme a cost/benefit analysis, gimme pie charts and Venn diagrams, and fair share giving charts and equations. You want my pledge? Well, convince me; explain it to me; coax; wheedle; cajole; get down and beg!”
Acting like consumers of services, we say, “Well, how does the church rank in comparison to our other discretionary expenditures? What is your Morningstar rating?” And then, after a while (usually a long while), if we choose to respond at all, we say, “Awright, awright, here’s my pledge. It’s been a tough year so it’s a little less or here’s the same amount or awright, awright, here’s 5% more. Whew! That’s done!”
Well, I’m wondering: What would it be like for us, instead, to boldly act first and then reflect on our action? What would it be like to dive into the deep end of the pool – the way we’ve done with climate justice, the way we’re considering doing with sanctuary, the action first/ think about it later approach we’re actually taking more and more these days in all sorts of ways?
I’m not saying we should do anything stupid but what would it be like for us to make our most generous possible pledge (hear what I’m saying: most generous possible pledge?
If we make our most generous possible pledge, I’m pretty sure there are a lot of people who could pledge more, perhaps significantly more than they currently pledge…and still be well within what’s possible.
Taking an action/reflection approach to pledging would – by itself – strengthen your relationship with the church and significantly increase your sense of investment in it. Once again, instead of waiting for the church to prove its worthiness of your investment, I’m saying dive in, and in so doing I guarantee that you will be more invested and engaged with what this church does or does not do.
I recall the words of the poet Kahlil Gibran, “You often say, ‘I would give, but only to the deserving.’ The trees in your orchard say not so, nor the flocks in your pasture. They give that they may live….”
You should know that I practice what I preach. I refuse to be the top pledger in this church (I mean, really: you know what I earn. It would be ridiculous for me to be the top pledger.) And I am not the top pledger. But still I pledge something north of $9,000 a year.
Keep breathing. I’m not saying you should be pledging $9,000. Proportionally you may give lots lots less and still be a whole lot more generous than I am. And then again, maybe you could be pledging $9,000 or a whole lot more and still not be all that generous.
Please understand: I’m not caring for elderly parents. Our son saved us a lot of money by not going to college. I haven’t any debt. Your circumstances undoubtedly are completely different from mine. I’ve got a job; not everyone does. But still, I pay my pledge based on my income, not on Sue’s. I don’t rely on any trust fund. And I have enough to do what I need and want to do.
I don ’t feel that I’m financially over-committed. I do feel that I’m invested – deeply invested – in First Parish. And, in many ways, the action – giving – came first. My sense of investment was a result of my first having made the decision to act.
Action, then reflection makes for success.
So that’s my Stewardship Sermon for 2017. Let’s pay attention to the quality of our relationship to this church. Let’s enhance our sense of investment. And to do so, let’s consider an action/reflection model. First, take action and, then, see what happens. Jump in the deep end. Take a walk on the wild side.
Like Josh says, it it’s something that matters to you, don’t procrastinate.
Please (I’m not begging but I do say please) Please make your most generous possible pledge. Thank you. And that’s it.
A man known throughout the town for his great wealth – and tight-fistedness – never contributed anything to charity or supported any effort to alleviate the suffering of the poor and needy. The chairman of one of the community’s worthy charitable organizations decided to approach the rich man at his office.
“Sir,” the fundraiser said, “our records show that despite your great wealth, you have never given to our drive.”
“Oh, really?” the rich man fumed. “Well, do your records show that I have an elderly mother who was left penniless when my father died? Do your records show that I have a sick brother who is unable to work? Do your records show that I have a widowed sister with three small children who can barely make ends meet? Do your ‘records’ show any of that information?” the miser railed.
“No, sir,” replied the embarrassed volunteer. “We did not know any of that.”
“Well, if I don’t give anything to them, why should I give anything to you?”