Farmers Interested in Raising the Output of Their Crops

Dr. Ed Kruse, HealthierChurch.org*

I farmed for a little while, and I find many stewardship parallels with farming. Instead of growing time, talents, and treasure in our congregations, let’s imagine that we were farmers and we were interested in raising the output of our crop. Here are some options: We could increase the number of plants. We could grow better quality, higher yielding plants. Or, we could get more efficient at harvesting. The first two approaches increase the capacity to actually grow more, up to a point, and better harvesting raises the farmer’s capacity. And the greater the person’s capacity, the greater the potential to receive increased responsibility and opportunity, as exemplified by Jesus’ parable in Matthew 25:14-30 (NIV). Notice how two of the three farmers “shared the owner’s happiness” and were “put in charge of more.”

Non-givers → First Time → Regular → Tithers → Extravagant

Think about the people in your congregation using the above example, from the non-givers on the left, to extravagant givers on the right. Maybe you think about this more broadly than just giving, using a term like participation or commitment. Perhaps you talk about participants in ministries of the congregation the way ELCA Pastor Michael Peck does growing from observer to participant to partner to leader, and then to developer. Does what we do as a congregation depend on emerging capacity of disciples?

How are we approaching stewardship, as growers or harvesters? Or both? In your congregation, are 20 percent doing 80 percent of the giving? Might the best strategy be to focus on better harvesting from that 20 percent? That might be easier in the short run because growing disciples takes time. On the other hand, it may rob the 80 percent of an opportunity to grow more. If our higher yielding plants are not getting replenished, might it be time to accept our stewardship challenge of faith formation and discipleship? Non-givers do not become extravagant overnight. The agricultural principle is to grow seeds from planting to germinating to pollenating to ripening the grain. Organically helping people grow from beginning faith to mature faith might be reflected in growing giving from 1% to 2% to 5%. Or trying tithing and moving to beyond tithing.

I know people for whom the Holy Spirit made this happen organically: John Schreiber (“grew 1% for every year I was ordained”), Arthur Larson (“grew from 10% to a 7-figure bequest to the Stewardship of Life Institute”), (seminary professor Harold Park (“my wife and I give 40% of our fixed income in retirement”) and book-documented Robert G. Le Tourneau (“grew from 10% to 90% of my regular income”). How does that happen? Hopefully this provides an idea to teach others in your ministry.

Congregations are energized by our growing in gratitude, as we engage our faith and life in relationships and service to God and others. Thank you for doing God’s work with a generous heart!

 

*Credit for Ed Kruse adapting this article must be shared with Steve Oelschlager, ELCA Director for Stewardship; Mike Peck, Lutheran pastor, Overland Park, KS; and Nelson Searcy, Founder of CongregationLeaderInsights.com.

Breaking News

newsflashWe have received Breaking News. A young woman was last seen alive late yesterday afternoon, walking in front of a Walgreens store. As she was walking, she was shot by a drive-by shooter. Police are not releasing the young woman’s name. We have no details yet as to where she was walking, whether it was for exercise or going home after a day at work.

“A minister reported seeing a shooter drive by the young woman in the parking lot, shoot the young woman and take her purse. Police are not releasing the name of the minister, and we have no details yet on the identity of the shooter. Police state that they have no clues. The young woman is reportedly still laying in the parking lot, pending the investigation.

“We have just received Breaking News on this story. A passer-by apparently noticed the woman, stopped his car and put the woman in his car and drove off. We don’t know the details of who this passer-by was. Stay tuned. We will stay on top of this story.

“Just a moment. We now have more Breaking News, as we speak. A source from an unnamed hospital says that a young woman was admitted at the emergency room by an unnamed individual, and is still in serious condition. Police are not releasing any other details at this time.

This story is remarkably similar to last night’s news, or the day before yesterday’s news, or a well-known story that was reported 2000 years ago. What matters to me is not that the well-known story that was reported two millennia ago had the same lack of details, without any media attention. The detail that matters to me is the passer-by. If you want to check the source, go to page 1889 of a book called The Message, written by Eugene Peterson, about the story of The Good Samaritan (Luke 10:30-37). There was a point to that story.

It is not that there is evil in the world. It is not that victims abound. It is not that news reporting has become melodramatic. It is not the lack of details in both stories, or that news invasively reports stories before details are available. It is not about the race or gender of the participants—it’s about the passer-by. What makes a difference to me, and matters to me, is:

  1. There were, and still are, three kinds of people in the world.

There are those that live by their belief that “what’s yours is mine and I’ll take it.”

There are those who live by their belief that “what’s mine is mine, and I’ll keep it.”

And there are those who live by their belief that “what’s mine is yours and I’ll share it.”

All of them live by their belief. For better AND worse, it matters what we believe.

 

  1. There were, and still are, three choices with how you adjust to how you were raised.

There are those who were raised to have a chip on their shoulder and they are going to keep it. There are those who were raised to not get involved. They can ignore the pain others feel.

And there are those that were raised to care for others without needing to know the details.

All of them live by how they were raised—for better AND worse That matters.

 

  1. And there were, and still are, three ways that Jesus looks at both the story from Luke and the story from today

Who became the neighbor to the person in pain?

Who became the neighbor to the person who was abused?

And who became neighbor to the person who was hurting?

All of us are apt to be around those who need a neighbor. And neighbors matter.

Thank you for caring enough to consider that a neighbor is not “something you are,” but “something you become.”

And, by God’s grace, we have the capacity to write the next chapter differently than the last one.

How Do Churches Thrive? Strategies from Six Innovation Experts*

Adapted by Ed Kruse, HealthierChurch.org, from an American Express Open Forum article*

If you feel you or your church are stuck in a rut or, worse yet, failing, use the seven strategies from these six innovators to spark creativity and change in your congregation. Recognizing that God transforms people and how you are innovative can open doors that otherwise are locked.

No matter what activity you’re pursuing, you have to continually evolve or you won’t make any progress. This is especially true when it comes to church—you have to keep innovating. Stay fresh and up to date. Discern when to zig while everyone else zags. So how can you keep up with the fast-changing world in order to remain viable and needed? These people share their secrets to blocking out the noise and continuously innovate.

  1. Change Your Own Role
    Barbara Bates, CEO of the public relations agency Eastwick

I can honestly look back at my career and pinpoint several times when I was stale—not keeping myself sharp. Everyone suffered because of it. We weren’t staying current and needed a shot in the arm to get back to our innovative ways. I hired someone whose main focus would be the day-to-day operations, which gave me the time I needed to concentrate on expanding the mission. Many congregations are innovating better by appointing an administrator.

  1. Push Past the Point of Exhaustion
    Robert Greene, author of The 48 Laws of Power

balanceInnovation comes when you’re able to push past the point of exhaustion and desperation. If you don’t push past that point, he says, you’ll experience burnout. “There’s a point here, a fine line between finding challenges for yourself, moving on when you need to move, and giving up because you’re not able to push past that point of frustration … it’s a very slender line. Pastors and church leaders are vulnerable to burnout. Move beyond burnout.

  1. Focus on Solving Core People Problems
    Bob Wells, senior VP, Sherwin-Williams

Innovators do not focus on innovation. They focus on knowing member’s/guest’s problems and stick to solving them. Look at church more like dating than war. In war, people focus on beating the competition. In dating, you focus on strengthening a relationship. That difference transforms how decisions get made. Whatever innovation unfolds, stick with it. We started by conducting surveys. We learned to lead by considering proximity. We decided to meet the neighbors. We opened small groups because we understood what people needed. Our growth has soared since then. This transforms church leadership teams.

  1. Never Accept Things the Way They Are
    Bismarck Lepe, CEO, Wizeline

How do I innovate? I never accept the way things are done as though that is the optimal way. Everything can, and should, be challenged—and when you’re right, that is an opportunity. I’m a firm believer in dreaming big and reaching big. I also care about the people who work here and trust them to help with the outcome. Many churches are eliminating committees and boards and shifting to permission-giving leadership.

  1. Create Different Channels for Ideas
    Laszlo Bock, VP of people operations, Google

The secret to wiresinnovating is empowering all workers and providing multiple channels for ideas to form. Provide as many channels for expression as possible. Different people and different ideas percolate up in different ways. Personally, I believe the human condition in this culture is looking for meaning, and that we want to know what’s happening in our environment, and have some ability to shape that environment. In churches, there is no better way to help people get involved than to give them ownership and permission to carry out their ideas.

  1. Delve Into a New Field
    Robert Greene, author of The 48 Laws of Power

Your mind can get stale when you continue to follow conventions you’ve learned in the church. To loosen up the rigidity that happens when you get older, exercise your brain. How do you do this? Develop an interest in a particular kind of science or literature. Find an interest that is unrelated to what you do. Seek outside sources of information. Stop looking at the same web sites and listening to the same people and reading the same journals. Open the windows and let some fresh air in. The greatest innovators often being a fresh pair of eyes. They are trained in something else so they’re not handcuffed by all the customs. The key in churches is to make tradition respected, not deterministic.

  1. Get Moving
    Katie Rae, managing director of Techstars Boston and founder of Project 11

bikeSometimes just switching your environment and getting out of your office and moving is all you need to inspire fresh thoughts. My big way to tune out everything else is to move. I need things to move very fast so I can think. So I ride my bike, go on a run, go in a car by myself and drive awhile. I record my thoughts. “Some people are naturally writers—I’m naturally a talker. In these moments, I just let things flow. I’ve got to get alone and move.

Innovation helps church members and guests feel fresh and that they can participate. So whether you change your church responsibilities, refuse to accept the status quo, solve your peoples’ core problems or just take a daily walking break, by learning to foster innovation in yourself, you may just be a step away.

* Adapted from an American Express Open Forum article by Vivian Giang, November 13, 2014. For the full original article, see

https://www.americanexpress.com/us/small-business/openforum/articles/successful-people-continuously-innovate/?extlink=of-email-weekly-mainarticle-20141120-o&mkt_tok=3RkMMJWWfF9wsRonuKnMcu%2FhmjTEU5z16ekrX6%2BygZd41El3fuXBP2XqjvpVQcpiPbrYDBceEJhqyQJxPr3NKNkNyM9vRhHjCA%3D%3D

20 Questions – A Listening Game

TwenquesI have sometimes said, “You know what I mean?” assuming that it is not my responsibility to make others understand, which it isn’t.

Not all assumptions are problematic. Some are wise, even necessary, such as those we need in order to make progress. Some assumptions help us get to question further. But when we assume without question, it might be harmful. When we assume that others heard what we said and meant without question, we abandon real listening, aka “active listening.”

We do not need to question everything. Why not? Because we have faith. Have you heard the amazing definition of faith in the Bible, “Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen?” (Hebrews 11). I do not question whether God forgives me through Jesus Christ. My wife and I do not question whether the other loves us.

Active listening demands questions. We question in order to clarify, summarize, or synthesize. I have been questioned about things I said without thinking. This next example is far more profound than first meets the eye.

One of Barb’s and my favorite games in the car is “20 Questions.” One of us thinks of a mystery person, place, or thing that might stump the other person. The person may be living or dead, old or young, real or a cartoon, etc. You can think of other questions to ask already, can’t you? The other must discover the answer by asking up to 20 “yes” or “no” questions. We assume the other has heard of that person, place, of thing. This is an important assumption.

The last time we played 20 Questions, I failed to guess the name of a famous person. I knew of him, and his story was published widely, so why did I fail? Hint: discern what assumptions I made. Here is how it occurred:

Barb: “The subject is a person.”

ED #1 – Is the person male?   Barb: Yes.

ED #2 – Is he less than 50 years old?   Barb: Yes.

ED #3 – Is this under 50-yr-old an American?   Barb: Yes.

ED #4 – Is he famous? Barb: Yes.

ED #5 – Is this American famous for doing a good thing?      Barb: No

ED #6 – Is he in Government, or in Arts/Entertainment?      Barb: No

ED #7 – Is he in Education or Religion?   Barb: Yes

ED #8 – In Religion? That helps. Is he known in the last 50 years?  Barb:   Yes

ED #9 – Does he profess to be Christian?   Barb: Yes

ED #10 – Is he of European descent?  Barb: Yes

ED #11 – Did he harm or kill someone in a specific incident?     Barb: Yes

ED #12 – Was he in the Civil Rights movement, or guilty of misconduct?    Barb: No

ED #13 – Did he stab someone or kill someone in a vehicular accident?        Barb: No

ED #14 – Did this terrible incident happen less than 10 years ago?      Barb: No

ED #15 – Was it publicized widely?    Barb: Yes

For questions 16-20, I guessed different groups and individuals, all were “No.” I could not learn the state where this happened. Why did I fail? My assumptions got me on the wrong track.

Some assumptions we make in the church are humorous. For example, a youth director thought he had a great object lesson for a children’s message, “Raise your hand if you know what has brown hair, eats nuts, and has a bushy tail!” One child said, “It sounds like a squirrel, but the answer is probably Jesus.”

Other assumptions we make in the church may be harmful, such as assuming that guests can find their way through the order of service or the restrooms or that others heard the same thing we said or meant.

Sidney Harris suggested that the difference rests partly in whether the hearer is 1) a fan of the speaker, 2) a bystander, or 3) a critic or adversary, symbolized by “I,” or “you,” or “him.” A movie I find provocative, you may find tasteless, and he may find offensive. Or I “make a mistake,” you “blew it,” and he says it was “inexcusable.” Or my religion is a “creed,” yours is a “ritual,” and his is a “dogma.” If I make a strong point, I say that I am “firm,” you say I sound like I am being “obstinate,” and he says I am “pig-headed.”

Did you discern who the mystery person was in my 20 Questions game? Of course not, but you would have had better questions than I asked, and different assumptions. I assumed the person killed one person instead of hundreds. I assumed it happened in the United States, instead of a small country called Guyana. I assumed it was a car accident, or a gun, or even beheading, instead of poison/mass suicide.

Perhaps you can guess the person’s name now—it was Jim Jones. That was a tough one. My assumptions got in the way.

What are some consequences of ignoring our assumptions? How might it hurt others?

Openings: Coaches for Churches and Interim Ministers

coachingMany churches are at risk of closing their doors. All congregations, healthy or not, would benefit from some outside eyes, and they would all benefit from the expertise of Interim Ministers and Coaches for Congregations.

An excellent article on this subject is Anthony B. Robinson’s “Rethinking Interim Ministry.” Robinson is strikingly sensitive and courageously basic, and he suggests six critical tasks that are presented for Interim Ministers, and I see them as being a perfect fit for Congregation Coaches (a better term than “consultants”). The main qualification of such a Coach, as well as an Interim Minister, is that they must be intentionally equipped and certified.

Here are Robinson’s six critical tasks, ever-so-slightly adapted, all of which are refreshingly transformational:

  1. Tend to the basics and do them well – insist on creating inspiring worship, relevant preaching, creating a culture of caring, and responsible administration.

  1. Help congregations understand the seismic shifts in our culture – initiate the conversation about the shifting context that answers important questions, such as, “How come when we do what we’ve always done …?”

  1. Do a congregation pre-assessment – do not attempt to grow without doing this; and by all means interview community leaders and guests that are connected to the congregation, even those who have moved away long ago.

  1. Revisit key themes of Scripture about the nature and calling of the congregation – if congregation leaders are going to make renewal and new life happen, they need to get in touch in a fresh way with the basics. Once congregations lose touch with that “extraordinary power,” their tendency is to turn the organization we have known into an idol. That is the point at which they can re-think and re-discover their mission or purpose. This step is exceptionally helpful in times of leadership change and transition.
  1. Make some tough decisions when necessary, and with suitable deliberation – most congregations could use some help with personnel who may have been around forever, but are no longer effective, as well as moribund programs or building issues.

  1. Create a culture of encouragement – a fair number of congregations are discouraged. Some are demoralized and feel powerless. They need steady, realistic encouragement and need to see how they can make a difference using God’s power to surprise them. The task is to shift the culture more than it is to change ministers. This is worth looking into! Let’s talk.

Two things that keep churches from growing

church growthA recent survey titled, “What keeps churches from growing?” cited 17 “causes.” Three of them were: 1) “lack of ideas,” 2) “charismatic leaders,” and 3) “biblical illiteracy.” I read it. All the responses may trigger conversation, but as reasons for church decline, they miss the mark.

A church with 170 ideas will not grow faster than one with 17. No church staff or leadership team would be better (or worse) if all members were charismatic. And you and I have seen biblical literacy stymie church growth.

Admittedly, this blog, inspiring as it is 🙂 may not shed any light on the subject either. But I promise you this—it will shift the paradigm!

Two words, both verbs, seem to me to have the greatest value in understanding why any congregation did not grow.

  1. “Start” Congregations have never grown when its leaders failed to start! This is not simply an idea. It is a central dynamic, a necessary action for growth. No trip can never occur unless it starts.

It is not an original, but this sentence still packs a powerful message: “The first step to grow is to show up.” If a worship service is scheduled, it loses its potential if no one shows up. If a leadership meeting is planned, no matter how important it is, if everyone forgot or had a scheduling conflict, there is no growth.

How we start our day regularly affects how the day goes. I don’t drink coffee, but we have both seen and known people who can’t do anything until they have their first cup of coffee. Our first 30 seconds at the breakfast table make a difference in what we choose to do and how we go about doing it. How do we know? Because we have noticed it on days we forgot to do it! (The Daily Texts, have one Old Testament verse, one New Testament verse, and a short prayer. Sometimes these take less than 30 seconds combined to read!)

The second verb is equally simple and profound.

  1. “Follow-up” Congregations that failed to follow up did not grow. I am not proposing follow-up as an idea either. It is not an intended program; it is an intended outcome. It is a way of being the church.

It is not about having the best leadership style. Any leadership style requires follow-up. I strongly prefer permission-giving leadership, but however you lead, without effective implementation your congregation will not grow.

Lose the authority image? That’s good, but if you are a control freak, follow-up will cover a multitude of mistakes. “I couldn’t be more sure of my ground—“The One I’ve trusted in can take care of what he’s trusted me to do right to the end.” (2 Timothy 1:12, Eugene Peterson, The Message).

In other words, “What keeps churches from growing?” Whenever their leaders fail to lead.

Why Do People Get Upset?

trafficYesterday four of us were driving to have dinner with our friends. It was during rush hour. The traffic was bumper-to-bumper. A photo of our situation could have been titled: “Parking Lot.”

I was tuned in to my thoughts, but also listened to those of others in the car. One was concerned that, “We’re going to be late.” Of course we had no clue how long the traffic blockage would last.) Another said, “How can people put up with driving in this every day, going to and from work?” And we noticed how many drivers cut in front of each other. Someone else suggested, “Should we call and let them know where we are?” (I wondered how the people we were meeting up with knowing where we were, would help them know when we would get there.) J

My thoughts drifted back to when I was young and would get upset when driving in traffic. I would be bothered by other drivers. I would resent drivers speeding up when I was trying to pass them. I would get irritated at people for driving within the speed limit. And I didn’t like waiting for one passenger who arrived late to ride with us. I complained, blamed, and made excuses. If I had said, “The traffic jam caused me to…” it would not have been truthful. It would have been more truthful to say, “My apologies for being late. There is no excuse.” The underlying question, was, “Why do people get upset?”

Lowell was a mentor of mine when I was newly married. On one occasion I told him that I was upset with my wife, and he asked, “How come you get upset with your wife?” I had a litany of reasons, which I recited to him with emphasis. Lowell responded, “No, I asked why do YOU get upset with your wife?” I retorted, “If you were married to her, you would get upset too.” I obviously did not understand the question, because he repeated firmly, “Let’s try this one more time, “Ed, why do you GET UPSET? It is a simple question that is unrelated to your wife.”

That day changed my life. Lowell taught me, “Some people get upset because of the payoff, or benefit, as a result of getting upset.” “Ouch!” I blurted out, as I had just gotten busted. “I suddenly realized, “Whenever I get upset I get my way!” That was my payoff! I liked having control. I liked keeping the status quo. I liked getting my way. That was a day that turned my life around. I told Lowell, “I never again want to manipulate people by getting upset at them.”

I still get upset at times, but not at others. My upsets now occur when I am disgusted that I do not live up to my own expectations. And a quick analysis reveals that even when I get upset with myself, my perspective is out of focus, I am not connecting the dots to my faith in Christ.

Back to the traffic jam. None of us verbalized that we could have left earlier, or planned better, or rescheduled our trip to a more convenient time! And, more to the point, none of us said, “So you’re upset. Get over it!” They could have. Or they could have said, “You are choosing to get upset. What would Dr. Phil say?”

I know what Dr. Phil would say. He’d ask, “How’s that working for you?” For me the whole matter connected the dots to who I profess to believe in, and so often do not live like it!

I smiled the rest of the trip.

Why Churches and Restaurants Close Their Doors

sorry-we-are-closedJesus taught them, “Is it not written: ‘My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations?’ But you have made it a den of robbers.” Mark 11:17 (NIV)

A friend of mine works with restaurant managers. I work with church leaders. We have discussed ways that churches and restaurants are similar. They both feed people and serve others. We noted that both churches and restaurants sometimes close their doors and wondered whether restaurants and churches close their doors for similar reasons. We concluded that restaurants and churches close because of a decreasing number of participants. But, for a church, fewer participants is not a valid reason to close the doors!

If a church feeds fewer people, does it nullify Jesus as the Bread of Life? Is a decreasing attendance at Holy Communion a reason to close? If Jesus feeding the 5,000 drops to 50, does that call for congregation renewal? If statistics are declining, does that scream for congregations to do something about it?

Elizabeth Ostring hit the nail on the head when she said, “When congregations face declining worship attendance and participation, the leaders can begin by looking in the mirror.” As cartoon philosopher Pogo said, “We have met the enemy and he is us!”

Are there external causes for churches to close their doors? A church in Bridgeton, Missouri. closed because the St. Louis airport acquired their property by eminent domain. A church in Stockton, Wisconsin closed because it burned down. Actually, neither church closed. One relocated and the other rebuilt. A rural church near Wakeeney, Kansas is still open with only three members remaining.

We have two hunches why churches close, and we invite you to discuss them: #1. “If a church has terrible service in feeding people, people will leave, and the church will close its doors.” My friend says, “If restaurant managers and staff do not take responsibility for their feelings, thoughts, and actions about terrible service, they should be fired and replaced, not close the restaurant doors. If we do not eliminate terrible service we will lose our first time visitors instantly and our long time participants silently without announcing that they are leaving. If we condone terrible service, we trade in our reputation and mission for food that is thrown into the garbage.

“We can have a traditional or contemporary menu, a good presentation, inspiring ‘specials,’ fine facilities, and great location, but if we have terrible service, we deserve to close.” We can say the same about churches that condone terrible service. Does this make the church a den of thieves that steals others’ ministries through mediocrity?

Call committees need to discern applicants’ resumes that reflect track records of excellent service. Pastors must recognize the centrality of the weekly worship “service” providing a message that inspires, and music to match. Committees must provide missional leadership or eliminate the committee. Church councils must make decisions that inspire, or the members should resign so other council members can do so. Stewardship committees should be generous givers who teach the spiritual discipline of generosity, and stay away from budget and finance. Church newsletter writers and editors must replace guilt-language with appealing invitations for service. Those who make announcements that start with “We have to…” or “We need…” should never make such an announcement again! God promises to provide renewal when we cleanse the temple. Terrible service is inexcusable.

Cause #2.“If a church focuses on the trivial, it will drive people away, and the church will close its doors.”

My restaurant friend told me, “One server thought tipping was the priority, and posted a copy of a signed receipt disclosing a stingy tip! The server focused on the trivial and was fired, and the restaurant owner posted an apology to all its customers.

“An owner of a burger joint in Philadelphia pulled that same stunt when a professional football player apparently left a twenty-cent tip on a sixty-dollar tab. The receipt was posted on the Internet. The restaurant closed its doors.”

Congregation leaders spend time on trivial matters when they don’t focus on God’s mission. A congregation in Colorado published an annual “scandal sheet” that listed all the members and what they gave. A congregation in Nevada had a “Lord’s Lottery;” and drew an envelope out of the weekly offering; and the “winner” received ten times what was in the envelope.

Here are some examples of trivial matters that threaten to close the doors of the church:

  1. Do your leaders ever make decisions on trivial matters? (One church council spent six months discussing where to put the Coca-Cola machine and the box for recycling.)
  2. Does your congregation silently condone complaining, condemning, or criticizing?
  3. Does your congregation require two candidates to run for any position?
  4. Do crying children become a subject of after-church conversation?
  5. Does your congregation ever vote on something to settle something controversial?

Focusing on the trivial in church governance literally steals other peoples’ valuable time. Where is God in all this? Do we like to see people in church? If we do not eliminate terrible service and quit dealing with trivia, the only thing we will see in churches is empty seats. The church is important to God, and to me. It is time to cleanse the temple.

Where Is Your Brother?

The Offering of Cain and Abel – Jan van Eyck

The Lord said to Cain, “Where is your brother Abel?” “I don’t know,” he replied, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Genesis 4:9 (NIV)

Tim was born without legs. They called it a birth defect, among other things, although I don’t know why they call it a defect. And I don’t know why such “defects” occur. I care about Tim, sort of, though often it’s little more than a “that’s too bad.” Maybe I don’t care about him that much, after all?

Tom, Tim’s older brother, was born with all his limbs. They call that “normal.” But I don’t know why Tom is normal and Tim is “abnormal.”

Circumstances like Tim’s are more than “that’s too bad” characteristics. They are quite sad, and even tragic. Some of those circumstances can impact people all their lives, limiting them, alienating them, embittering them. It is not uncommon for victims of circumstance to feel, “I didn’t have a chance.” It is not unusual for people to develop a bitter perspective on life when such circumstances occur.

I am not surprised when that happens. Sometimes folks have serious setbacks and misfortune that turn circumstances into ministries and missions. Tim was surely disadvantaged, but only he can decide whether or not he is abnormal, sad or tragic. I don’t see him through eyes of pity. But what happened with Tim through his brother Tom gives me a whole new way of looking at it all.

Sometimes brothers walk away from each other. Tom did not walk away from Tim. At one point, Tom insisted, “Tim, I am carrying you wherever your wheelchair cannot take you.” And he did.

Against challenging odds, Tim and Tom graduated from high school together. They went mountain climbing together, went swimming together, and traveled together for eighteen years. That’s a long time. And then the day came for them to go their separate ways.

Tim got a job at Goodwill Industries, and lived in a customized apartment. Tom went to college, then graduate school. The day they parted, each said, at the same moment, “I am really going to miss you.” Both brothers missed each other but kept in touch regularly. They always shared how much they missed each other, and for eight years, they saw each other once a year.

Tom completed graduate school, got a job, and the day after the graduation ceremony he went and bought a red convertible, which he described as “the most beautiful car I have ever seen.”

He came back to see Tim, and said, “Tim, how do you like the car?” Tim said, “Wow! That is the most beautiful car I have ever seen!”

Tom said, “I know. I said the same thing. It’s yours! It is designed so you can drive it with just your hands.” Tim wept, and repeatedly thanked Tom. It was a moment that was unforgettable.

Tom showed Tim how it worked, and said, “Why don’t you take a drive and show your friends?”

Tim showed the car to his friends, who were astonished. Tim said to his friends, “I’ll bet you wish you had a brother like that.”

One of them said, “No, I wish I could be a brother like that!

My 25 Big Stewardship Mistakes – #26: “You Are Your Brother’s Keeper”

manwiththeyellowhatOne of the ways I taught “stewardship responsibility” was by saying, “You know that you are your brother’s keeper.” I was wrong.

I justified supporting Disaster Response, I asked people to give to World Hunger Appeal and I asked people to boost their giving to Mission Support to help other congregations and ministries around the world, all because “You Are Your Brother’s Keeper.”

That is not to say that, properly understood, the sentence has no value Today there is a nationwide movement called Brother’s Keeper, that does marvelous work in enabling youth and young adults to have a fair chance to learn skills and attitudes that are priceless in helping them to make it in life.

The intent is good. The problem is that there exists in such language a condescending dynamic that is not good. For me “keeper terminology” is not acceptable. Perhaps it never was. The original concept comes from Cain, the son of Adam and Eve, who killed hs brother, Abel. When God asked him, “Where is your brother?” Cain replied, “How should I know? Am I my brother’s keeper?” What Cain said was embedded in an attempt to escape responsibility for murder.

I am the oldest child in my family. One of my brothers has not done well, and for some years, I was his legal guardian. My wife and I went to see him. Far before his time, my brother was in a nursing home, a good place for those with diminished capacity. We saw various caregivers clean up what he spilled, help him stand up, get him to move one foot, take him to another room, try to get him to talk. A young caregiver named Elsa was outstanding.

None of the caregivers did their precious ministry as though they were my brother’s “keeper.” I saw my brother’s caregivers care for him in the way that I wish I could, but cannot. They are my surrogates. That is so much more dignified than being his keeper.

“Keeper” is a common term used for those who “keep” animals, perhaps in open spaces, or even caged. Hence a zookeeper, which is an important stewardship responsibility. There are many excellent similarities between being a zookeeper and a caregiver for people. But there is one big difference. None of the animals are people—or a brother or sister.

For me, saying, “You are your brother’s keeper” was a well-intentioned comment, but was a big stewardship mistake. I will not use that sentence. And I think Elsa would appreciate that. Neither one of us sees ourselves as anyone else’s keeper. I will trade in that sentence for a better one that applies to every male and female in the world who has been created and redeemed by God in Jesus Christ, namely, “I am my brother’s brother” or “I am my sister’s brother.”