Over the last forty-eight hours, fighting through the delirium of a cold, I’ve participated in a United Methodist summit on “financial literacy.” Hosted by our United Methodist pension agency called Wespath, the Lily Foundation and the Texas Methodist Foundation, the meeting offered presentations and conversation between financial leaders in the United Methodist Church. Pastors and churches struggle to discuss money. My website is a very small response to that struggle. However, as I listened and discussed, I found myself questioning the foundations of some the language we deploy when it comes to money. I found myself questioning language that even trusted colleagues were using. In particular, I want to say to all of my clergy colleagues, to the laity in churches of all denominations, please stop talking about abundance and scarcity.
Pastors know what I mean. For the last several decades, pastors have used the concept of abundance, contrasting it against scarcity. They tend to use a Scripture passage like the one of the narratives of feeding five thousand (Matt. 14:13-21, Mark 6:30-44, Luke 9:10-17 and John 6:1-14), arguing that “God provides an abundance of everything we need to do the ministry to which we’re called.” Pastors warn that working from a posture of scarcity will always land the congregation in a place of anxiety, frozen, unable to do any ministry for fear of “not having enough.”
I confess, I’ve used the language myself. It always seemed like a faithful interpretation. With just three loaves and five fish, Jesus generates enough abundance to create a multitude. Why not trust Christ to offer the same sort of abundance to our congregations?
I think we should trust Christ. I like to think that in my best moments, I do trust that I will have all I need to do the work I believe I was made to do. But, using this language of abundance and scarcity carries heavy theological risks and potential for dangerous practice.
Theologically, I worry that the language of abundance, risks over-spiritualizing our understanding of money and resources. Consider the interpretation: Jesus took just a small amount of food and multiplied it into abundance for the gathered crowd. If we use the story to call congregations to find abundance in what we or our congregations are given, we emphasize what God gives and we receive. In my own sermons, I’ve taken that emphasis and turned it into a question of faith. I’ve actually said, “If we believe God calls us to ministry, then we must have faith that God will provide what we need.”
That interpretation has a kernel of truth. Unfortunately, I also think it might be akin to the “prosperity gospel” that mainline Protestant and Catholic clergy have condemned for decades. Many of us, even as we use the language of abundance, also insist that God doesn’t give more to the faithful than to those who aren’t. As a general rule, we don’t want to teach or think that certain varieties of scarcity (i.e. systemic or child poverty) might be attributed to a lack of faith. We believe in a gracious God, and we refuse to accept that God might place someone in humiliating conditions simply because they didn’t have the right mindset. Unfortunately, our language of abundance and scarcity carries the same risks. If the congregation just thinks the right way, God will give them all they need. God will do it. But, what happens when crises hit? What of the general decline in United Methodist Churches?
Carried to its logical ends, the language of abundance also suggests that our work ends with our mindset, our ability to believe. And, this points at the practice danger. The language of scarcity and abundance offers little foundation for more pragmatic approaches to money. Speaking only of a mindset of abundance misses the need for strong systems of management and accountability. I’m not sure we spend much time theologizing about those practices at all, perhaps part of the general issue of financial illiteracy.
Second, this language of scarcity and abundance is easily co-opted by leaders’ personal agendas. I’ve done this, too. I’m not even sure I was wrong, but when I wanted the church to fund a homeless shelter’s new roof, I used the argument: “if we just look at our congregation’s resources as an abundance, we would see would could fund both the budget and the new roof.” I made the same argument to generally increase pledges and giving. Pastors and consultants employ the argument for capital campaigns, mission initiatives and general fundraising. Often, we do this with good intentions, but I’ve also heard pastors with personal agendas use it to force a congregation into something of which they weren’t sure. Certainly, that can be remedied by surrounding one’s self with key lay leaders, but the risk is still present. Put another way, the language carries an inherent risk of idolatrous decision-making. We want our local churches to do something. Therefore, God must want it and will bless us with the resources to get it done. As a reminder, we aren’t God.
I really don’t want to be a naysayer. I really do believe that God offers God’s own self in exceptionally generous ways. I’m just not sure this language and its means of use in local congregations isn’t creating bigger issues. I’m even willing to suggest some alternatives.
If we interpret the gospel narratives related to the feeding of the multitude, I think we need to stop placing ourselves and our churches into the position of the receiving crowd. Sure, God feeds us, but it seems to me that God has also called us to live out Christ’s presence in the world. If we are the crowd, we are, as the Church, also called to the giving of Christ himself. We are to be the ones who take resources, bless them, break and share them. By stepping into the shoes of Christ, our congregations must understand themselves in the position of giving instead of receiving, but also of gathering and preparing the resources in the appropriate ways. Our generosity in congregations is only abundant if we don’t get in our own way, if we allow ourselves to, as Paul put it, “take the same mind that was in Christ.”
In fact, Paul’s exhortation, leads to what I think might serve as a good basis for greater theological articulation with respect to money and financial management.
“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.”
This hymn in Philippians 2 describes Christ’s “mind” or “attitude” in terms of self-emptying. I admit, this theological concept has its own set of risks, and I’ll be the first to say that without agency, without true freedom to accept giving for one’s self, a person shouldn’t be expected to engage in any sort of emptying. Any articulation of self-emptying must account for systemic racism, gender-bias, homophobia and any other form of oppression.
That said, if our clergy and congregations began to think of finances and financial management in terms of their own “self-emptying,” they might come to the conclusion that (a) they must think of giving in more generous terms than that to which they are accustomed; and (b) that they are called to empty their whole lives. Emptying one’s whole life means finding a way to engage in self-generosity (including financial giving) over the course of a whole lived life.
In a sense, by beginning our theology with the actions of Jesus and understanding them in terms of self-emptying, we might also account for activities of which pastors are currently suspicious. For example, pastors often object to strong retirement savings practices on grounds that Jesus calls us to give rather than horde. Those are all true, but if we understand that Jesus also calls us to give/empty our entire lives, it means we are called to empty the whole, over the course of our entire life, including during our retirement. Retirement savings shouldn’t be about assembling wealth so much as ensuring we can continue in ministry until our last breath.
I could go on, but I really just wanted to think out loud, to think through my suspicions around abundance/scarcity dichotomies and to imagine a new way to think theologically about finances. Now that I’ve written this, I do hope we stop talking about abundance. Maybe my cold and the Chicago’s O’Hare really has made me delirious, but I just think it carries too much risk. It also isn’t appropriate for some contexts of crisis and actual poverty. Self-emptying has its own risks. But, if those are too heavy, I at least want to keep talking, and maybe to spur some colleagues to talk too. I’d like to find some way to change our language, to accommodate a new and healthier way of living into our financial lives.