Cultivating Generosity in Small Town and Rural Settings – Part 1

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In today’s post, pastor Larry Strenge considers stewardship leadership and rural ministry settings. His wise words, though, are relevant to all of us, urban, suburban, and rural Christians alike. I particularly appreciate how Larry’s story starts with an early memory around money and giving. What are your early memories around finances? How do they still shape you today? Larry takes up these—and other—questions in the first of a two-part series.

Yours truly,

Adam Copeland, Center for Stewardship Leadership

Cultivating Generosity in Small Town and Rural Settings – Part 1
Rev. Larry Strenge

Giving to congregations in Small Town and Rural (STAR) congregations, especially smaller-member settings, has dramatically changed in my lifetime. Let me tell you a story to explain.

When I was a seventeen-year-old (in about 1968) my family lived in a small town, Odin, Minn. (pop. 180) where a couple of years earlier my dad had purchased the Odin Elevator. Before long my parents were active in the community and the local congregation, Zion Lutheran. Late one Sunday morning I have a vivid memory of my parents sitting at the kitchen table. They had just returned from the congregation’s annual meeting and were carefully examining a sheet of paper. When I asked, “What’s that?” my dad groaned. “It’s the scandal sheet!” It was the published giving of every member of the congregation!

What did I learn?
As I watched and listened a deep impression was made on how “generosity” was calculated in our household. It had little to do with “blessings” or “gratitude.” It had everything to do with shame and story, or better, the fear of it!

For my parents generosity was a calculated enterprise. How does one, in the story told about you, not look too haughty or too cheap? The answer. Just give enough so you fit in under the radar of people’s stories and you avoid the shame talk.

Fortunately, by the time I became a pastor in 1987 this published giving practice was mostly, to use a rural image, “plowed under.” The soil was turned over and made ready to be sowed with the good seed of the Gospel, seed to grow gratitude and generosity in the new beings’ lives.

But as Jesus noted in his parables of Matthew 13, even when good seed is sowed, an enemy can come along and plant weeds in the field!

The enemy and the weeds of today
The enemy? Big cultural shifts! In a short post like this one, I don’t have room to go into all those “cultural shifts” that brought about the state we find ourselves in today. Fear. Cynicism. You know what I’m talking about. And talk about money? Lynne Twist, in her book The Soul of Money recognizes in it the toxic myths of scarcity. The result? A dramatic cultural shift to be a “consumer culture.” STAR settings are no exception! Our identity shifted from citizen to consumer. There isn’t enough. More is better. That’s just the way it is. These are the beliefs of this system and run deep in our souls.

The weeds? There are plenty. But let’s start with this one: Pastors untrained, and thus, unwilling to talk with people about money. In this consumer culture, money talk is taboo.

So, ask yourself, “What does this all mean for us as leaders in the Church?”

For me it means we need to recognize the shift and lead a movement to reclaim the joy of generosity as a spiritual practice! It is one of the fruits of the Spirit named by Paul in the freedom the Spirit brings. (Gal. 5)

To do that, I want to invite pastors to live into what I’ve learned from Henri Nouwen in A Spirituality of Fundraising. He teaches “why” we stewardship leaders need to start having conversations about money. It’s not to get more. That may happen. But rather, it is to invite people in these STAR settings to experience the joy of generosity. It starts by seeing these “money conversations” as a “spiritual conversation” in a market driven economy and culture.

So how does this movement happen?

Sticking with rural imagery, it’s time to, with the Holy Spirit’s leading, to do some “cultivating.”

Cultivating: Gets rid of weeds but also adding oxygen to the soil to grow strong roots
A dozen years ago I heard Eugene Peterson give a talk that changed my life. In it he addressed the question, “What are pastors good for?” In it he said, pastors are called to “cultivate attentiveness to what God is doing.”

When it comes to money talk for today’s STAR congregation what does that cultivate attentiveness mean?

It begins by pastors learning “why” and “how” to have a conversation about money. It starts with their own money autobiography. Then it means having money conversations not so we get some more of people’s money. Rather those conversations for the why and how.

What I’m passionate about is to have that conversation to develop generosity and the joy of giving as a spiritual practice! It is a “fruit of the Spirit!” (Gal 5:22)

How can this spiritual practice happen for you? Next week, we’ll consider some practical strategies for you and your congregation to being cultivating gratitude and generosity rooted in the Gospel. 

For More Information:

Rev. Larry Strenge is Director for Evangelical Mission in the SW MN Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

To view Larry Strenge’s 20-minute presentation of these ideas see this video from Rethinking Stewardship 2018. 

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