A Stewardship Devotional
At the most recent gathering of the Covenant Stewardship Commission, I was asked to lead in devotions one morning. When it was over, several of the members asked if I would write down my thoughts for them, so I thought that I'd share them here on my blog site with them and with you.
2006 has been a year of fantastic change for me. I left a wonderful 13 year ministry at Salem Covenant Church to accept the call to serve Montecito Covenant Church in Santa Barbara, California. Here's what surrounded my life at Salem: traditional worship with organ, choir, robes, and an evangelical liturgical worship environment along with an emerging contemporary worship service with a signficant presence of tension and edge. Salem was a large multi-staff church in an exciting urban community in which I was raised and known. I knew my way around Minneapolis and the Midwest. I knew my people and they knew me.
After 7 months at Montecito, I find myself in completely new surroundings. The worship service is contemporary-blended with a lot of enthusiasm and joy but not a deep heritage of hymnody or choral music (I'm now singing in an exciting little occasional choir). I'm the only full-time pastor in a congregation of 300+ (vs 900+) with a great part-time staff. The church is situated in a lovely estate-small village community in California. The names of streets, cities and foods are entirely new to me (I regularly require pronunciation help). I am a total outsider. I never realized how geographically ignorant I was till I moved here. We left a daughter, son, my parents, my brother and his family and lots of old friends to a place where we knew virtually nobody. The Montecito community is composed of several distinct communities: Westmont students, facutly and staff, long-time residents, a very affluent community, and a very poor Hispanic community. I don't really fit into any one of those communities.
But the biggest change was selling our home. We were some of the privileged pastoral families who have purchased homes. We owned homes for 21 years. Owning our home has been a source of great joy; to go home at night to "our house". Both Martha and I were born into pastoral families where the parsonage was the norm. Only after we left home did our parents buy their own homes. So we were yonger thanthey were in buying homes and we loved it. Martha could paint rooms any way she wanted. We could knock out walls, put up fences, replace windows as we wanted and had the cash. It was a place of retreat and refuge. Our kids customized their rooms. I bought my life insurance to make sure that the mortgage wouuld be paid off and Martha and the family could "have their own home free and clear."
But we sold our home and moved into a lovely parsonage right on the property of the church. It is convenient, quiet, very nice and on the current market would be way out of our price range. On paper it all makes sense. We invested the proceeds from the sale of the home for the future. But I lost the "security" of owning our own home. I lost that sense of a safe fall-back place where we could do whatever we wished. The home belongs to the church. Any changes need to be cleared by the church. It will never be "ours".
I did not realize how much I invested in the meaning and notion of "owning" my own home. Now we are stewards of someone else's home. Please let me be clear. The Montecito Church willingly offered to help us buy a home and are wonderfully helpful in letting us live in and make changes to the parsonage. But the parsonage will always be a parsonage and the parson (pastor) will always be the steward of the parsonage.
But then, I began to reflect about the whole notion of ownership. How much of our other homes did we ever own? Weren't they always partly owned by the banks? Isn't the whole concept of personal and private ownership, for the believer, really a myth? Does not the Christian affirm that God has always owned everything and that we are always stewards, caretakers, renters? Then I began to think about my surroundings. I don't own them either. I'm always in a steward position with relationship to my community, congregation. I never was "entitled" to live in Minnesota or Michigan or anywhere. I serve where God sends me, not where I'm entitled or "belong."
Moving to California also meant I moved into an environment where the church is definitely in the minority and "suspect" status. The midwest has a culture that more readily accepts and endorses the presence of the church (a la Prairie Home Companion). In our current community the church is really not wanted. The congregation lives under a "Conditional Use Permit" that the neighborhood grants us since we are in a residential community. They tolerate us so long as we are not too much of a nuisance. Many California christians also do not assume church membership as normative behavior. Many of my growing circle of friends are strong believers, but not members of any local church (see my postings on Ronin Christians below). There is no institutional loyalty. In fact, the church is suspect by both non-believers and believers. Pastors live in a clearly minority status relative to the community.
When I surveyed all this, I realize I've gone from "owner" to "Occupant-steward", from "insider" to "outsider", from "dominant" to "minority" and from "entitled" to "suuspect/scrutinized." Now that's not all bad. My life is free-er now than ever before. It's less about the programs and titles and more about genuine relationships and transformational communities. In fact, I the people of God have always done better with God when they recognized that they were stewards, not owners.