0.7: Put it back

By Lauren R. Stanley

Last January, the Executive Council made a very difficult decision: Cutting out the money the Episcopal Church pledged toward the Millennium Development Goals. That 0.7 percent line item totaled $924,000 in the last triennial budget.

Now, considering that since the last General Convention, much was made of the Episcopal Church’s working hard to make the MDGs become a reality around the world, cutting that money from the proposed budget, which is but a draft being forwarded to General Convention 2009, seems quite harsh, not to mention contradictory to our very ethos.

But with the economic times being what they are, with money seemingly disappearing overnight, with the endowment and pledges falling, what else can be done?

To be fair to the Executive Council, this decision was not made lightly, and it was not the only portion of the proposed budget to take a hit.

But just because we don’t have the revenues right now does not mean that we can’t have them. It simply means we haven’t tried hard enough, or been creative enough, in our teaching of stewardship, in our presentation of the Gospel, in our fund-raising not for ourselves but for God and God’s beloved children.

So here’s an idea that if we were bold enough to try, just might help: Pennies from Heaven. (No eye-rolling, no sniggering, please. Pennies may not have much value on their own, but if you put enough of them together, you get a lot, and I mean a lot of money. So control your laughter and pay attention, please, because this could work, if we all bought into it.)

Here are the numbers: We have approximately 2 million members in the Episcopal Church. If we were to set up a program and ask each person to set aside a mere 25 cents per day – just one quarter, less than the cost of a newspaper, less than the cost of just about anything except a gumball these days – the Church would gain an additional $182.5 million – per year! That’s more than three times the proposed budget for 2010 (which is $53.1 million). And what would it cost each person? $91.25 per year. We’re not talking major money here … we’re literally talking pennies per person.

OK, so maybe getting all 2 million members to participate is going to be tough. So let’s say that only half of our members participate. That would still be $91.25 million.

Still too optimistic? Well, what if only one quarter of our members participated? Net gain: $46.6 million.

Maybe this is all pie-in-the-sky. So let’s drop the numbers even more. Let’s ask each person to give 1 cent – one penny – per day. How do the numbers work out then?

Two million members each participate, each giving a paltry $3.65 per year. That still nets the Church $7.3 million. One million participants: $3.65 million. Half a million participants? $1.825 million.

Which is nearly double what was cut from the Church’s budget for the MDGs.

In other words, asking each of us to give mere pennies per day would more than make up the cuts made to fulfill the MDGs.

(If the numbers sound staggering, and you’re wondering why the MDGs have to get all the money from a program like this, my answer is simple: The MDGs don’t. Raise a $182.5 million and you get to split it up: Fifty percent to the parish, 25 percent to the diocese, 25 percent to the world through the MDGs. It doesn’t matter; it would still be a bounty worthy of the Lord.)

Is it a crazy idea, asking each member to make a commitment of this kind, too pie-in-the-sky? Perhaps. But how else is the Church going to fulfill the Gospel imperatives that are so eloquently expressed in those goals?

Yes, the Church has a lot of work to do. We haven’t sold the idea of the MDGs as well as we should have or could have. (The April 12 Living Church reported that in response to a survey on its news service website, an astonishing 67 percent of participants said the MDGs are “not on their parish’s radar.”) And we certainly haven’t sold the idea of giving to the Church very well, either. After all, how many of us – lay and clergy – actually tithe from our total income?

But just because we haven’t sold stewardship as well as we should have doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. Because this is a program that could work, if we were serious about it. If we asked each member to contribute pennies per day – not to write one extra check per year, but to intentionally put their pennies in their piggy banks or used water bottles or cardboard boxes or whatever they want to use, so that each and every day, each and every one of us stops to think and pray about those in need – this program would be successful beyond our wildest dreams.

In the last six months, I’ve heard from dozens of friends, lay and clergy, about how their parishes had to cut budgets, how stewardship campaigns are so very hard because the economy is in a freefall, how difficult it is to stand up in front of a congregation and announce that the budget is $40,000 or $50,000 or $60,000 short. I’ve heard anger, I’ve heard regret, I’ve heard fear. And I know that if I were sitting in the pew and my leaders told me we needed another $40,000 (or whatever the sum would be), I’d panic. Because I don’t have that kind of money. And I’d feel regret, and I’d worry. But if those same leaders stood before me and told me, “OK, here’s what we’re short, and here’s how it breaks down: We need another 25 cents per day from you,” I’d say, “OK, that I can do.”

Even more, by asking each of us to give this small amount, so that it takes all of us to accomplish the goal, each of us knows that we are members of a community, that we don’t have to solve the problem all on our own. We have a whole capital-C Church to help us do this. It’s not just about putting a roof over our heads or making sure we fix the church basement leak; this is about doing God’s work and caring for God’s people wherever they are.

Our problem is not that we are in a serious economic recession. Our problem is that we simply don’t solve problems the right way. We look at the biggest picture possible and overwhelm our people and ourselves, and then … well, then we fall short of our goals and things like support for the MDGs gets cut from a shrinking budget.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. We can do so much better, if we simply stop overwhelming ourselves with the seemingly impossible and remember that all things are possible with God.

It’s not as though we have a choice, to be honest. From the very beginning of time, God has instructed us to care for those in need. Terence E. Fretheim, professor of Old Testament at Luther Seminary, speaks eloquently of these imperatives in his book The Pentateuch. He writes that Deuteronomy especially understands that human life is at odds with God’s intentions for creation, and that the law is the “divine ordering at the cosmic level” for what happens in the social sphere. Thus, he says, Deuteronomy “focuses on the stability of the community and its flourishing” and cites the “recurring refrain: the widow, the orphan, and the resident alien.”

“Caring for the disadvantaged,” Fretheim writes, “is more a theological matter for Israel than a sociological or political one; these commands come from God above, not from the government, and the integrity of God’s creation is at stake in the way in which these people are cared for.” And then he quotes from Deuteronomy 15: “Do not be hard-hearted or tight-fisted toward your needy neighbor. You should rather open your hand … Give liberally and be ungrudging when you do so, for on this account the Lord your God will bless you in all your work and in all that you undertake. Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, ‘Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor …’”

Opening our hands to our poor and needy neighbors: that’s the goal of the MDGs. That’s what the Church formally committed to at last General Convention: Working with the United Nations and the rest of the world to end extreme poverty and hunger; achieve universal education; promote gender equality and empower women; reduce child mortality; improve maternal health; combat HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases; ensure environmental stability; and develop global partnerships for development.

Those are the things we’re giving up, simply because of financial constraints. But when Jesus commanded us to care for the least of our brothers and sister, he didn’t add the codicil “but only if you can afford it.” He simply told us to do it. So we really don’t have the right to get excited about doing God’s work in one triennium and then walk away from that work the next triennium simply because we think we don’t have the money.

We do have the money … one quarter, or even just one penny, at a time. Together, in community, we can do all the things that God has commanded us to do.

The Rev. Lauren R. Stanley is an Appointed Missionary of the Episcopal Church from the Diocese of Virginia, temporarily serving in the United States.

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