By Reverend Bruce A. Barkhauer
In my role as the Minister for Faith and Giving for the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) I have the privilege of talking with a variety of people on the subject stewardship. Some of these conversations begin with the sort of awkward hesitation, apology, embarrassment or anger you might imagine is emotionally conjured up about such a topic. Folks who are not regular practitioners of this faith discipline often feel a need to confess their lack of generosity, mount a defense as to why they are unable to give, or to express a sort of requisite indignant irritation that the church is always “talking about money.” Nevermind that ministry and mission cannot take place without resources, or that thinking about stewardship as merely money is akin to thinking about the ocean as merely water.
Recently, a former student of mine conveyed to me a deep sense of loss about the seminary (from which she is a graduate) having made a decision to sell its buildings and property. Her mourning was communicated as frustration, but it was clear to me, if not to her, that she was grieving. The seminary is going to continue its ministry educating and preparing women and men for service to the church and the world, as it has done since 1865, but it was hard for her to comprehend that concept through the loss of sacred space that identified it to the larger community in general, and to its past students and faculty in particular.
I understand how she feels – and I suspect you do as well. We are temporal people who move about in shifting landscapes and cultures and we tend to mark specific places where events that impact us, for better or worse, occur. While such a designation is really more about us than the particular surroundings, nonetheless, the surroundings help secure these events in our memory. Sights, sounds, and especially smells have powerful impact on recall and can stir the emotions and passions we associate with these events in such a way that we can almost re-live them.
The bible is replete with stories of people setting up stones, naming locations, and offering details about the places where encounters with God occurred. We call them sacred places for a reason. The church we were baptized in, the camp we went to as a young person, the place where we were married, and the sanctuary from which a beloved family member was laid to rest—these are locations with significance. We can see in our mind’s eye the way the light filtered through the stained glass or we can smell the smoke from the vespers campfire—and something deep is moved within us. How could such a place be torn down or sold for some other purpose? It does not feel right.
Yet, for all of the altar building and place minding in the biblical narrative there is another reminder. This is not where the people stayed. Often, it was the place from which they were launched in their new, more Divine-aware, state. The place did not define them—the encounter did. The place merely served to enliven the memory. To stay there, in that sacred and holy space, would be the exact opposite of what the encounter was designed to motivate toward. Places serve a purpose, but the time and place for that purpose is ultimately, like us, finite. Some places go on for long periods of time, marking the presence of the Holy. Other places are by necessity, transient.
The seminary building and property were built for a time and place that simply do not exist anymore. When constructed in 1950, it was able to educate and house up to 250 students, an ambitious goal which was never fully realized even in an era when the mainline church still held considerable sway in the culture and fulltime jobs in ministry were abundant. Now, in time of uncertainty for the shape of both religious expression and the method for delivering education, the building and grounds no longer make sense. They are an economic drain to maintain and they are no longer necessary to fulfill the evolving mission. The financial situation of the seminary mandates a bold, new initiative. The fiduciary responsibility of the Trustees directs that they must (by law) replace the historic value of the seminary’s endowment, balance its budget, and lower the amount of draw required from permanent funds to sustain daily operations.
The mournful cry from my former student was – “Why now and at what cost? This can’t be the right time!” However, it is precisely the right time, since a buyer is available and interested in offering a fair price. The time is now, because the physical plant is unnecessarily consuming dollars that can be better redirected to education, which is the primary mission of the institution. In this moment, the decision works because the method of delivering education has shifted to an on-line congregation based format. This better meets the needs of students who find it increasingly difficult to take a three-year full-time detour from earning income to pursue a costly advanced degree program that offers little economic hope of repaying the steep investment. This choice now opens up the opportunities for recruitment of high caliber academic candidates. It is good for the church.
It is also good stewardship. The money saved is reinvested in the mission. The profit from the sale assures the financial flexibility to take meaningful and appropriate risk to meet the needs of the culture within both the church and society. Without some “venture capital” it is too difficult to maneuver for change and opportunities are often missed. There will be some failure in order to achieve and sustain success. Any person who has spent time in business will affirm that truth.
The seminary is offering up a positive model for the church to consider. Through a time of discernment, brought about at least partially in crisis, they have determined where (if not knowing entirely how) God is calling them to go. They do so with a confidence that God will go with them.
For many of our congregations this is not an unfamiliar story. Physical plants were built for a place and time that no longer speak to our current situation. Sanctuaries designed to hold three hundred souls on a Sunday morning now host fewer than sixty. There is a lot of wasted space – and squandered resources keeping them open – assets that could be used to share the gospel and proclaim the Good News in mission and ministry. The resources they need to fulfill their original mission.
Would we mourn the loss of our sacred space? Yes. Would we miss the reference points that have marked our journey and highlighted the transformation that has taken place in our lives? It goes without saying. But God’s people have been called to get up and go on a journey before—with little more than a promise than “I will be your God, and you will be my people.” Faithfulness sometimes requires leaving, and taking the sacred story with us to “a new place that God will show you.”
The practice of stewardship is at least in part, the appropriate management of the material goods entrusted to us. It takes faith to trust that God has, can, and will provide for us, in abundance beyond our imagination. And stewardship, at its core, is all about trust.
If your congregation is at a place where considering “right-sizing” is an appropriate conversation to engage in, there are resources to help you. Consider contacting either Rick Reisinger at Disciples Church Extension Fund or Gary Kidwell at Christian Church Foundation.