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Primary Vision

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My first experience in church leadership came with something of a rude awakening to the disparity between words, motives and actions.

Elected to the vestry in January 1998, my first meeting in February was passed listening and asking a few questions. In March the vestry went on an all day retreat to spend some time together, to know each other better and discuss the coming year.

The then rector—though at the time we did not know of his plans for another year—was looking ahead to his retirement and was planning projects he considered important before leaving. He wanted to use a portion of a large cash gift to the church to begin a ministry to some of the slum children in northern India. Through direct contact with an Indian Anglican priest of the Church of South India, there was the occasion to do so with proper oversight.

He had begun discussing the idea with the parish some time before, and there was predictably a mixed response. The project was such that it would require vision beyond the life of many in the parish; anything less and it would not really be worth doing. Starting up and abandoning a few years later simply was not acceptable. Some understood and were all for it; some wanted nothing to do with it, as they felt the money could best be spent locally.

During the March retreat there was extended discussion among the vestry about the project, and it was finally unanimously approved. Promptly after the vote the sr. warden said with some excitement that she couldn’t wait to organize bake sales to raise money for the project.

I was stunned and could hardly believe what I heard. We had just been discussing a ministry mission that could conceivably require a 30 year vision, and we were going to raise money by bake sales.  After briefly collecting my thoughts, I opposed the bake sales and spoke instead of imparting the primary vision, of being willing to commit to something that would require giving beyond one’s own life. It did not take long before the rector, the parish administrator and the sr. warden were all quite incensed at me for opposing the idea, but I would not fold. To say the least, the day ended on a tense note.

The topic came up for discussion over the next several months, and the rector even tried to talk privately to me about the matter, to no avail; I would not give in. I repeatedly said that bake sales per se were not the problem, and I meant it, but they did not understand.

My defense was simply this: what we need to be doing is instilling discipleship, not selling casseroles. It is a matter of rewards. If someone buys a casserole for Sunday dinner, with the idea that it will go for a ‘good cause’, they have had their reward: they get a good lunch out of the deal. Jesus, however, will be much tougher than the IRS about the fair market value of goods or services received in exchange. This is what he taught; give to be seen, and you have your reward.  Similarly, give to get a dinner and you have your reward. What we must be about instead is teaching people to rearrange the priority of their lives so that they understand the need to give for the rest of their lives. Casseroles paid for out of on-hand cash will not do that.

The standoff did not end until July when the sr. warden, complaining bitterly one day to the Lord about my opposing the work of her hands, suddenly found herself confronted by the Lord: “Maybe you shouldn’t be so proud of the work of your hands.” She had the courage and humility to tell us about that confrontation; when I heard it my spirit leapt inside, as she had actually understood what I had been saying all along.  Since then she and I have had a warm and mutually respectful relationship.

Today so many ministries must give something of perceived value to entice people to give. The situation is no different than bake sales; if one has had one’s reward in a lagniappe, what will be left when Jesus reviews the motives of those involved? Many people may be shocked to find out that they will already have had much or all of their reward.

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