Just A Spoonful: Why Congregations Can't Just Get By

By Derek Penwell 

One of my best friends is a funeral director. He told me the other day about a family he’d had dealings with at one point in his career. It seems that a woman had died, and the family had my friend’s funeral home take care of the arrangements. The family, according to my buddy, was especially difficult to deal with. They didn’t know what they wanted, and they never brought up the subject of how they were going to pay for the funerary services. They fiddled around long enough without making any decisions that, after fourteen days, my friend had to do something. So, he shipped body off to be cremated.

When the woman’s cremains finally came back to the funeral home, my friend invoiced the family for the cost of cremation and embalming. The bill went unpaid for quite some time, until a member of the family (the woman’s sister) eventually called and asked for the woman’s ashes. My friend said that they would gladly be turned over to the family upon receipt of the bill–$2,250.

“We don’t have that kind of money.”

.“That’s no problem. She’ll keep till you can locate it,” my friend informed her.

“Couldn’t you just give up her ashes, and we’ll pay you later?”

“Sorry, mam. It doesn’t work that way. I’ll be happy to turn loose of them after you pay your bill.”

She was, of course, upset and hung up the phone.

Not long after that another sister called, “I heard you won’t let us have our sister’s ashes.”

“That’s right, mam. When you’ve paid your bill, I’ll make sure she’s turned over to you.”

The sister persisted. She was torn up over the loss, and just wanted to have something by which to remember her loved one. In a choking voice she said, “We ain’t got much money. Can’t you just let us have her?”

“Not until the bill’s been paid.”

“How about part of the ashes?”

Puzzled, my friend said, “What do you mean?”

“Well, how much,” she asked, “would you charge us for a spoonful?”

“$2,250. And if you pay for that, I’ll throw in the rest for free.”

I know congregations like that. They want to know how little they can pay and still get by.

“We don’t have much. Isn’t there an installment plan we can get on? A little up front, and then we’ll pay the rest along the way? Anything like that?”

Following Jesus isn’t for the faint of heart: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?” (Mark 8:34b–37).

Interestingly, congregations have gotten very comfortable with individual sacrifice. Stewardship month in November every year wouldn’t be the same without the reminder that “Jesus’ sacrificial giving of his own life ought to motivate his followers to be sacrificial givers in response.” Some aspiring greeting card copy-writer wannabe even came up with that execrably jejune bumper-sticker slogan: “Give until it feels good!”[1]

One thing congregations often have a more difficult time coming to terms with, however, is the idea of sacrifice on a corporate level. I know of congregations (not all, mind you–but a notable number nevertheless)

  • who would rather the minister learn to exercise a little personal financial discipline than to give up the professionally printed letterhead contract
  • who would be much more comfortable holding the line on educational curriculum than on waiting to invest in touchless paper towel dispensers
  • who would prefer to ignore, and risk alienating, their LGBTQ members (and the straight people who love them) than to risk making even one member uncomfortable by openly addressing the possibility of becoming Open and Affirming
  • who would sooner frustrate the attempts of young leaders to try something bold and new than to seek to withstand an onslaught of recrimination from the former leaders who’ve otherwise faded into the background
  • who would rather burn bridges with the old by continually treating tradition as something to be avoided at all cost.

Surely, there’s something in there to offend most people. The point, however, is not to offend people, but to alert us to fact that congregations are generally all for personal sacrifice, but are often surprisingly skittish about the collective sacrifice of the community.

Why shouldn’t congregations have to pay too? Congregations are no less bodies than individuals.

“Well, sure, but going out on a limb might cost us our lives if the limb fails.”

Welcome to the joy and excitement of following Jesus.

“Aren’t there safer ways?”

Absolutely! It’s just that none of them have to do with living and dying like that crazy Galilean.

“How much for a spoonful?”

Full price.


  1. I’m all for “giving” and “feeling good,” just not for distilling important theological concepts and experiences into bumper-stickers.  ↩


(Just finished up with the content editing portion of the book, so this is the last one from the archives.  Back to full production next week.)