Last week I attended the annual meeting of the clergy association of the little town I live in. November is Stewardship Month here, so I thought I'd pick the brains of some of the more seasoned town ministers to see how they were doing on that. And I wasn't disappointed.
We meet at the Fires of Hell Pentecostal Brotherhood Church of God in Christ in the Holy Spirit, in the old pickle factory off of the Cranberry Highway. Bobby Darrell Johnson is the pastor there and he met me at the door.
"How's it goin'?" I asked him.
"Just fine," he said. "Church is growing, money's growing, building program's growing. Couldn't be better."
"Wow," I said, "that's pretty remarkable. A lot of us are really struggling right now. What's your secret?"
"No secret," he said. "I just put a little Christian pressure on people when I ask for money and they come through for God every time."
"Like what?" I asked.
"Like this," he said. "Watch and learn." He pulled out his iPhone and started pushing buttons. There was a pause, and then he said, "Hi there. This is Brother Bobby Darrell? Over at the church in the pickle factory? Who's this I'm speaking to? (pause) Oh yeah, 'Alice.' How you doin' Alice? Good, good. Family doin' all right?' Good, good.
Now, listen Alice, I just thought I'd give you a quick call to let you know that if you don't raise your pledge this year, then you're gonna burn in hell for all of eternity and your husband is gonna get himself possessed by a demon. What's that? He already has one? Well, he's gonna get himself a second one and then all your kids are going to grow up to be Democrats... yeah, it'll be that bad."
"Okay, so can we count on that pledge from you for next year? Good. That's real good. Now thank you a lot, You have a good day now, hear? And God loves you too."
When he hung up I was flabbergasted. "That was amazing," I said. "Who was that woman?"
"I have no idea," he said, "but it works every time. I recommend it to you, though you may want to change the party affiliation, depending on if you get yourself a liberal on the phone, if you know what I mean. It'll do wonders for your church."
Later on, when I was standing by the punch bowl, I ran into my old friend the Rev'd. Ebenezer Cramwell, Rector of St. Matthew's of the Well Healed, visiting from over in Deluxberry. "How are you?" I said. "It's been a while."
"I'm doing fine, son," he said, "Excellent, in fact. How about you?"
I told him about my conversation with Bro. Bobby Darrell, and his stewardship techniques. I asked him how he raised money at his church.
He looked away a little insulted. He said, "We don't get involved with much of that. It's rather beneath us. That may be the way of the masses, but our church is of the classes, so we'd rather not act like that."
I was confused. "So how do you raise money?" I asked.
"In my church, we don't raise money. In my church we are money."
That was interesting, I thought, but not very helpful. So, I excused myself and sat down in front to join the meeting.
After the program was all over I went out to my car and met Father Kearney Reilly O'Malley, of the Holy Cathedral of the Saint Sacred Most Holy Heart of Mary Church. A sweet little place with lots of things going on. "Hey Fr. Kearney," I said. "How's it going in the parish?"
"Ah," he said. "We've been blessed. We aren't rich, but we do get by, and I'm very happy."
I told him I had just been talking to some of the others about their stewardship techniques and wondered what he was doing.
"Oh," he said. "We don't do a lot of stewardship talk in the parish.
"Well, I don't know. But the people just seem to give money and it pays the bills. I can't explain it."
"Do you do anything special to encourage them?"
"No, not really," he said. Some people come here because they were lonely, or beaten down, or lost, and they found a home and a family and felt loved, and now they tend to just open up their checkbooks once a year and 'give back.' I guess they're grateful.
Others see the work we do in feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, helping the homeless, caring for the sick, lobbying against the powerful in congress, and they want to be a part of our vision. So they tend to open up their checkbooks and give to that. I don't know. I guess they just want to see a church that lives up to Christ's call to heal the world. They want to help build the kingdom of God. Other than that, I haven't a clue."
When I got in my car and drove home that day I was puzzled. I was pretty sure that our church could never live up to what the Rev'd. Cramwell was talking about, or live down to the techniques of Bro. Bobby Darrell. But Father O'Malley puzzled me. Could a church really balance its budget because its members were grateful that they had been healed? Or because they were challenged to want to become healers? Could that ever actually work? I wasn't sure. It sounded so odd, so counterintuitive, so... biblical.