Thursday, April 28, 2005

The Preacher’s Corner
By Rev. Dr. Milton Winter

Grandmother’s example still sustains me

I do not think I have ever written in this column about stewardship. “Stewardship” is, of course, the polite word that preachers use for fund-raising. I loathe this aspect of ministry, yet I recognize that it is necessary to church life. A congregation’s money does not grow on trees any more than does the money that runs your household.

Preachers try to dress up the situation with various high-sounding rationales. And, mind you, I do not depreciate the spiritual aspect. It is real and it must be taken seriously. But I will not go into that here.

Some people would rather just handle the matter in a “strictly business” arrangement — rather like the Jewish temple in Miami that divides the temple budget by the number of members and sends each family a bill. It is as simple as that. Pay your bill and there will be seats reserved for you on the high holy days. No pay. No seats. Everybody pays an equal share.

For my part I prefer what St. Paul called “a cheerful giver.” I recognize that there is a duty to give, and that dutiful giving is appropriate and right.

But I think what serves God best is the money that is given cheerfully. Some people can hardly wait to see what God will do with their “widow’s mite.”

In Scotland they used to believe that money was too worldly to be brought forth from one’s purse in the house of God, so the deacons would stand with an offering plate outside by the kirk-gate. This custom continued for many years until it was noticed that some worshipers were climbing over the fence and going in the back door. At this point the back doors were nailed shut. Pity they had not yet invented offering envelopes, which could be filled full, or turned in with but a half-pence, and no one but the treasurer would be the wiser.

There was a time when the preacher was paid “in kind” — that is from the foodstuffs and products that members raised or manufactured. Many’s the preacher in Virginia, North Carolina, and Kentucky who was paid in tobacco, and not a few in Pennsylvania were actually paid in corn whiskey. One supposes that most of this was bartered or taken to the port cities to be sold and shipped. All the old city churches of Philadelphia had large undercrofts that were used to store barrels of whiskey which were brought to the city each winter after the corn in the western part of Pennsylvania was harvested and turned into a liquid product. The preachers disapproved of drunkenness, but were not averse to rental income from the large rooms underneath their pews.

The elders of my communion took a dim view of bazaars, fairs, and the like as a way of raising money. Feminist scholars have pointed out that in olden times, this was about the only way female homemakers had to raise money for the Lord’s work. Was the elder’s insistence that money for the Lord’s work be contributed and not “earned” a way of shutting off women’s financial influence in the churches? In spite of the fact that women had fewer ways of acquiring money then, they seem to have contributed remarkable amounts of money and labor to the churches.

My grandmother was a teacher’s wife. She never forgot that the state of Mississippi did not pay Granddaddy for a good while during the Great Depression. (He taught his classes anyway!) But she always wrote her check to the church the first Sunday of every month. She was a gentle, dignified person, who lived in the era of four cent stamps. She never had a car or a cell phone. But she invested in things that would last, and her example in supporting God’s work has carried me a long way. It sustains me even now.

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