[Jesus said] “Suppose one of you wants to build a tower. Won’t you first sit down and estimate the cost to see if you have enough money to complete it? For if you lay the foundation and are not able to finish it, everyone who sees it will ridicule you, saying, ‘This person began to build and wasn’t able to finish.’” Luke 14:28-30
Planning. How on earth does one plan anything these days? Not only did nobody anticipate what this year would be like, but we’re more aware than ever that we don’t know what next year will be like. All planning is tentative. Christians have always known that. We walk into the future with faith in the One walking with us, not knowledge of what will happen.
Still, there is a common sense element to it. You have to plan. Sometimes you have to plan far in advance, trying to remain flexible to accommodate the unexpected, but not just waiting and waiting to see what happens. You have to plant if you want to reap. When Jesus warns against worrying about tomorrow, he is warning against worrying and fretting, not planning and preparing. And when He rebukes the man in the parable who built bigger barns to secure his future, He rebukes faith in the worldly and visible at the expense of spiritual, eternal things; He is not rebuking the common sense logistics involved with farming.
Sometimes we plan things at church waaayyyyy in advance. For example, people planning on getting married here need to plan it. A lot of variables might prevent it from happening as planned, but it certainly won’t happen as planned if it was never planned. Or take another example. In March of 2022 I’m hoping to take another group of pilgrims to the Holy Land. Will it happen? Hopefully. But certainly not if it isn’t planned. Will the choir sing at Easter? Who knows? But not if they didn’t rehearse any songs in advance. Operating a school here at St. Paul’s requires this constant balance of planning and flexibility, too.
That’s why I like Jesus’ word “estimate.” You don’t know in advance how much the tower will end up costing. But that doesn’t mean you just start building and go until you run out of money. You estimate. You acknowledge uncertainty, but plan based on estimates. Every year we head into the first semester with a lot of estimates about how much of this or that we will need, what things will cost, how many snow days to factor in, etc. Same with planning church services.
When you estimate, you factor in two things. Jesus says you estimate the cost and compare that to how much money you have. In the case of congregations, how much money you have is also a matter of estimating. People move away. New people join. People lose their jobs or get promotions and give more. All you can do is a make an educated guess about how much money people will put in the offering plate (or donate online) to make the ministry here possible.
Of course, Covid-19 threw a massive monkey wrench into everyone’s estimates of everything. The income and expense sides of our estimates changed dramatically. But we still have to plan. We have staff, supplies, maintenance, and improvements to consider. We are laying the foundation for the school year and in a larger sense for ministry to the next generation. We have to be able to estimate what we will able to do with what we will have, always allowing that there is no certainty except in Christ’s presence with us and for us.
Right now, in-person church attendance hovers at ballpark 50% of where it normally would be. Hopefully the other half are live-streaming the services remotely. We’re working on ways to have more people attending while keeping the livestream option available. And of course we’re hoping the pandemic subsides or a vaccine comes along. But who knows?
Weekly offerings are at about 85% of where they normally would be, which is pretty good. That means people are still supporting the ministry even as they have to stay away and worship remotely. Planning for the future, though, looks very different if the estimate on the income side takes a 15% hit for any length of time. Will the offerings come back? Who knows? If it stays at 85% as the pandemic subsides, though, we’ll really have to reevaluate our plans. We have to make honest, good faith estimates based on the best information available.
Everyone understands that when unemployment skyrockets, offerings go down. And when uncertainty takes over, offerings require more faith, which really tests us. No surprises there. But everyone also wants to see St. Paul’s (admittedly tentative) plans for the year and the next generation succeed. We’d rather not plan on having 15% less going forward as a congregation; it would adversely affect our mission; we don’t much fat in the budget. But with many people struggling, it falls on those who aren’t struggling financially to go above and beyond when it comes to giving to make up the difference. Please consider doing what you can to start inching that 85% back toward 100% by the end of the year, so that our planning and estimating here at St. Paul’s can build on the ministry we all have here.
God will continue to work in us and through us, come what may. We don’t have to guess or estimate about God’s grace. It is boundless. The practical, common sense logistics of farming in the fields of the Lord is what this is all about, and we’d all love to build on the tremendous blessing that St. Paul’s has been for countless people throughout the years.
Rev. Peter Speckhard, Senior Pastor at St. Paul's Ev. Lutheran Church, Munster, Indiana