Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Merry as a Wedding Bell

Steve dropped me off at the little church on Juddville Road and promised to come back for me. I walked up the steps, imagining her wedding here in case of wind and rain. Stry asked me to officiate her wedding months ago and I was thrilled to agree. But fall in Door County can mean an outdoor wedding is either beautiful or vulnerable…or both. If the ceremony couldn’t be on the beach with a wide view of the lake, it would be here in this quaint, country church. I was preparing for the worst and the worst wasn’t looking so bad.

The narthex was small and led straight into a petite sanctuary with pews for an intimate Sunday. A portrait of Swedish Jesus hung behind the organ, adorned with its own lighting and a handcrafted frame. I wandered into the chancel and found the red, eternal flame to have a power chord. My fingers played with it gently, flipping it on and off.

The sacristy seemed to double as an office and was empty, so I searched for basement stairs and my appointment. “Hello?” I sang as I descended into the fellowship hall. A friendly-looking man came into view as I got my bearings and I asked if he had seen the pastor that morning. “I don’t know that he’s here yet. Are you going to help us this morning?” It seemed I’d arrived just in time to help fold the monthly newsletter.

“I’m not, actually,” and gave a sheepish smile. “I might be doing a wedding here on Sunday if the weather is grim, so I’m supposed to meet the pastor today and learn the ropes…but I’d love to help with the newsletter, too. My ride might not be back for awhile.” He continued with a firm handshake and introduced himself as Fred. Then he took my coffee cup I’d traveled in with and proceeded to fill it up for the first of many times.

When I found the pastor, it was clear that this was a place of welcome. He told me everything I needed to know about the space, lighting, sound and security. Shame on me, but soon I was hoping for rain.

Since the tour took far less time than I’d anticipated, I headed back downstairs to be useful and to find a refill. “We used to have a third helper and it was much easier that way. I’m so glad you’re here today!” Fred confessed. Jana took the pages from the copier and folded while Fred attached the white circle that seals it closed. I labeled each copy with a recipient and noted the geographical stretch of this little place.

“Is your church very big?”

“Do you have a lot of volunteers at your church?”

“What is worship like there?”

And so a conversation began about membership and what bold stewardship can mean for small congregations. We had plenty in common and shared passions for the communities of faith we hold dear. I learned much from these disciples who believe in their vocations.

The next evening the wind whipped us inside the little church and we celebrated the covenant of marriage with Swedish Jesus looking on. It was beautiful. When the ceremony was over, the doors were opened wide and the wild wind of fall blew inside. The recessional brought waves of music from the string quartet out into the churchyard, showering the graves and fallen leaves with joy.

And as people walked back out into the beautiful and vulnerable weather that is autumn, I reached for the church bell, ringing it with my whole body and all of my delight. A wedding guest approached me later and said, “Have you ever heard the phrase merry as a wedding bell? Because that’s what you are!”

Perhaps that's because the wonders of new people and new vows live on long after you switch off the electric eternal flame and lock up a church that has graced you with its welcome.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Everyone has a Stewardship Story

Tonight I was at the seminary for a stewardship event that welcomed new students and introduced them to the concept of financial coaches. I come home grateful.

I didn't balance my check book or keep my receipts. I didn't know what my credit score was or how to take out a loan. But I did come to seminary debt free and paid all my bills on time. I did know how to ask for help and knew that I'd need to learn something about personal finance and stewardship if I wanted to create healthy money habits in my personal and, eventually, my public life.

In 2004, eight of us signed up for a financial coach. I remember sitting down to lunch with Tom for the first time and handing over the truth: I don't have any debt yet, but I do have some scholarships. I'd like to think I'm thrifty, but I've never really stuck to a budget. Help me figure this out and hold me accountable. I don't think of myself as a money person - I don't think anyone thinks of me like that - so I'll need some validation along the way.

Our conversations were simple but fruitful. Here, in the presence of a stranger who did not judge my actions or let me off the hook, we formed the stewardship identity I wanted. Together we shaped the way I would relate my values and resources during seminary and beyond.

Internship gave me an opportunity to budget on a more fixed income and to practice the ups and downs of a financial year. I saved for flights home and future tuition payments. I shared with my congregation and causes close to my heart. I spent wisely and it felt good.

Senior year I worked in the Seminary Relations office. My job was to thank people. Seriously. 12-20 hours each week I wrote letters, called people and shared my gratitude at donor events. I was saturated with thankfulness and an appreciation for the simple joy of giving. I will always remember Dorothy Lee's words at the Women in Philanthropy Tea: I was confused when I learned that the seminary was calling me a woman in philanthropy, but I'm also tickled because if I can be a philanthropist, anyone can! And that day I decided to believe her.

Matt and I got married about a month after graduation. We sat down to talk about our finances, wanting to start with our gift to the church because we were taught to share the first fruits. We were quiet for a few minutes and then admitted that we didn't know what the first fruits would be! I was starting my first call later that summer and he was still in school, working his tail off for a stipend and paying off loans of his own. Then Matt said, I don't know what the numbers are going to look like, but I think we should give more to church than we do to Comcast. I hate Comcast and still shell out $105 for cable and internet each month. So let's start there and pledge that no matter the numbers, we're giving more to the church, something we actually like and believe in, than to the bill I begrudgingly pay each month.

We crunched the numbers and by September we were giving three times what we paid to Comcast. This was a joyful place to start and from here we began the journey of working toward a tithe. All year we have logged our income and payments on a simple excel program we store and share via Google Documents. This keeps the lines of communication open about our sharing, spending and saving and keep us on the same page - literally. Matt and I make plenty of mistakes and don't always see eye to eye about our financial choices, but our values align and that makes all the difference. I've come a long way from occasionally checking my account balances online.

Matt and I will never make millions of dollars in our professions, but it will be more than enough. We're flying high on good communication, healthy habits and the pride we take in our two year plan to be student debt free. The recession is woven into my prayer life everyday, but I am not swept away by the chaos and mania of scarcity that the media provides. The system I started to discover five years ago with a financial coach includes controlling what's controllable and believing in God's abundance.

The best news of all? Having a financial coach sparked a series of events that has led me to a congregation hungry for the gospel of stewardship and the true message of satisfaction in a world that preaches never enough. Stewardship became an important part of my public identity. I went from being a 23 year old girl who didn't think she was a money person to a woman and pastor who is brave enough to talk about money. And I urge you to take up the conversation. It's a worthy journey and an invaluable gift.

I'm grateful, Tom and Luther Seminary. I'm still writing my stewardship story, but this first draft is thanks to you.