Challenged to be Open to God’s Surprises

By the Rev. Marcus C. Lohrmann, February 7, 2011

By the Rev. Marcus C. Lohrmann

In the spring of 1993, Trinity Seminary asked our congregation to consider becoming an internship site for a geographically restricted student. Although I was excited by the possibility, I frankly didn’t expect the congregation to respond positively.

Why? First, because the intern was a woman and our congregation had little experience with women in pastoral ministry, and second, because our expenses would suddenly increase.

The Congregational Council, however, discussed the proposition with great enthusiasm and agreed to present a favorable recommendation to the congregation.

In her presentation of the proposal, Pat Peter, president of the council, clearly indicated the financial considerations involved but also stressed the advantages which the internship could bring to the congregation. She counseled us to be open to God’s surprises!

The recommendation passed, and we began a delightful experience with Seminarian (now pastor) Tamara Wood. The congregation met its financial commitments and, six months later, voted to apply for a resident intern for the next year — at approximately twice the cost to the congregation.

We have completed our second internship experience with Seminarian William Coning, and have now greeted our third intern, Seminarian Elizabeth Bachman from the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago. Again, by the grace of God, the congregation also is meeting its financial commitments.

I begin with this story because it illustrates the intimate link between stewardship and mission and ministry. When our attention is devoted to mission and ministry, God continues to provide the necessary gifts for the church, often in surprising ways.

That theme became increasingly evident as our Stewardship Committee recently reviewed those things which served to strengthen our congregation’s sense of stewardship. The following paragraphs summarize our conversation:

First, congregationally based stewardship begins with the steadfast recounting of the story of the riches of God’s grace lavished upon us in Jesus Christ, crucified and risen. That story defines who we are, namely, children of God called to faith by the Water and the Word of Baptism, nurtured and sustained by the Lord’s Supper, blessed and empowered by the Spirit of God, placed within the community of faith. Thus stewardship is the response of faith. Appeals that are rooted in the law and are designed to produce guilt are short-sighted and ultimately betray the faith.

Second, congregationally based stewardship needs to mine the riches of the church’s liturgy and scripture lessons. The liturgy is filled with action which declares the God who is for us in Jesus Christ and which provides opportunity for the Spirit-prompted response of thanksgiving. The scripture lessons provide preaching opportunities to offer the Good News and to point to faithful response. For example, as I write this article a recent Old Testament lesson used the phrase “abundantly prosperous.” What a marvelous opportunity was provided to define the meaning of that phrase within the situation of the text, within the context of our culture, and within the context of the Christian faith.

The Gospel lesson was the story of the Good Samaritan who, without reference to one’s well being, offered himself and his resources for the sake of the other.

Third, congregationally based stewardship focuses upon mission and ministry and not upon budget.

How tempting it is for congregational leaders to say, “We can’t do this. Our budget already is stretched to the limit.” In contrast, how surprising the results may be when the congregation reviews a need, provides time for prayerful reflection, conversation, and action. One congregational leader observed, “We need to keep stretching beyond the limits.” In our own context we focus upon stewardship as the response of faith to what God has done for us. We proceed to talk about opportunities God provides for mission and ministry and then ask for a financial commitment to enable that ministry. The budget is not determined until after that process has taken place. Even after that, this congregation has not been reluctant to accept proposals for ministry at the annual meeting which exceed the level of written financial commitments.

Fourth, a congregationally-based stewardship approach needs to maximize the members’ opportunity to learn and participate first hand in mission and ministry. The congregation has a long history of providing some support for specific ELCA missionaries. What a privilege it has been to have them visit us and to hear them speak about their ministries! We have welcomed Bishop Mwamasika of the Dodma Diocese in Tanzania to the congregation. A member of the congregation, Laura Haver, was a youth representative from our synod on a visit to Tanzania. Special guests of our congregation have included President Dennis Anderson and professors of Trinity Seminary, Bishop James Rave and members of the synod staff, Harvey Stegemoeller of the ELCA Foundation, representatives of the various Lutheran Social Ministries of our synod.

Recently, the congregation council approved my participation in a Lutheran World Relief Study Visit to West Africa.

Some of our youth recently participated in a Servant Event in West Virginia. All of the above help to provide the congregation with a sense of partnership and understanding of ministry beyond the local congregation. With good planning, such opportunities are not beyond the reach of most congregations.

Fifth, congregationally based stewardship will provide opportunities to praise God for the mission and ministry of the congregation, both locally and beyond the congregation.

Recently, we have had a congregational dinner about every two years. We make it a celebration which includes good food, singing, and several presentations. Last year our congregation’s Teen Singers and “Color Me Christian Clowns” delighted participants while a presentation from Bishop Rave helped us to see our connection with the church beyond the congregation. Such celebrations provide members of the congregation opportunities to see the results of the sharing of “time, talent, and treasure”. In so doing we thank God for their partnership in ministry.

Sixth, congregationally based stewardship needs to provide an opportunity for one-to-one conversation about the mission and ministry of the congregation.

This congregation has a long tradition of every member visitation. About 30 callers make four or five visits each, present stewardship materials, and personally receive the commitments of members. The visits are preceded by informational mailings and temple talks in the worship service.

Such visits allow callers to share their enthusiasm about the mission and ministry of the congregation and to respond to questions with respect to the ministry of the congregation. The visits help to illustrate that each person’s involvement is critical to the life and mission of the congregation. We are, after all, the Body of Christ in which all are gifted and placed with responsibility for one another.

Seventh, congregationally based stewardship can benefit from the resources offered by those outside the congregation. A number of years ago our congregation contracted with a church agency to lead us in our stewardship emphasis. Our resource person was a real blessing to both the congregation and to me as we thought through our stewardship emphasis utilizing the resources of the Gospel and good organizational skills. In a variety of ways, we continue to reap the benefits of that experience. But how critical it is that a congregation choose a resource that has an understanding of stewardship which is rooted in the Gospel and focused upon mission and ministry.

Eighth, congregationally based stewardship is ongoing and not limited to a two-month campaign to meet the budget. That much should be clear from what is written above. To provide an additional example, we do provide a quarterly summary of members’ financial contributions to the church. With that summary we include a letter which highlights some aspect of the congregation’s ministry and which thanks our members for their support.

Ninth, congregationally based stewardship recognizes that stewardship is not limited to what one does in and through the congregation. Such an understanding of stewardship is far too inadequate and fails to recognize that the response of faith to God’s grace and mercy in Jesus Christ shapes all that we think and do. Therefore, congregationally based stewardship seeks to affirm the manner in which our members exercise their stewardship of God’s grace within family life, within their daily vocation, within their service to the community and world apart from congregational structures. The mission and ministry of the congregation extends to wherever the people of God “bear God’s creative and redeeming world.” (Baptismal Rite, LBW, p.124). A view of congregational stewardship which fails to embrace that truth is short-sighted.

Tenth, congregationally based stewardship needs to be open to creativity. Surely, creativity is the business of the Spirit of God. As our Stewardship Committee’s review of stewardship in the life of our congregation came to an end, we asked, “What might be some creative ideas for approaching the matter of stewardship this year?” One woman responded, “I’ve been thinking about this idea. The ELCA’s theme this year is ‘Growing in Christ’. Why not make our stewardship theme, ‘Growing in Christ through Multiplying Ministry’?” Then she took out a package of M&M’s. One by one she dropped a piece of candy in a glass. As she did so. with each piece of candy she mentioned a ministry supported through the congregation until all the candy was gone. With that idea we were off and running. My hunch is that sooner or later every member of the congregation will be receiving a package of candy with the invitation to think about the theme, “Growing in Christ through Multiplying Ministry.”

At one time or another most of us have groaned as we thought about approaching the matter of Christian stewardship. Perhaps we need simply to confess such groaning and to approach the issue again utilizing the rich resources of our Christian faith. Regardless of our personal or economic status, we are “in Christ” and thus, “abundantly prosperous.” When we focus upon the manner in which God has blessed us in Christ and upon the matter of the mission and ministry to which God has called us, by God’s grace we discover that stewardship is, in fact, a very exciting thing. That’s the way it’s been for us.

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Marcus C. Lohrmann, now bishop of the Northwest Ohio Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, was a parish pastor when he wrote this article.

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For nearly a century, Lutheran Laity Movement for Stewardship assisted, inspired and trained congregations in important ways. LLM ceased operations on May 31, 2003, but the Stewardship of Life Institute is proud to continue its work by making its web resources available to a new generation of stewards.

© Copyright 1995, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.
This essay first appeared in the Winter 1995 issue of Faith in Action, the publication of the Lutheran Laity Movement for Stewardship. Articles in Faith in Action may be reproduced for use in ELCA and ELCIC congregations provided each copy carries the note:
© Copyright 1995, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author

Marcus C. Lohrmann, now bishop of the Northwest Ohio Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, was a parish pastor when he wrote this article. See the Rev. Marcus C. Lohrmann's website.

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