[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.
Do you not know that those who are employed in the temple service get their food from the temple, and those who serve at the altar share in the sacrificial offerings? In the same way, the Lord commanded that those who proclaim the gospel should get their living by the gospel. I Cor. 9:13-14
When all this craziness began, I had secretly hoped that I would write up exactly 40 daily email updates before things went back to normal. That would have been a neat, meaningful, Biblical season. But alas, this is update number 41. It has all lasted longer than anticipated. I sometimes feel like the temporary changes we’ve made are just my new way of making a living for the foreseeable future.
Making a living. That’s a topic that has been on many people’s minds these past couple of months. With unemployment skyrocketing from record lows to extreme highs in a matter of a few weeks, even those who have kept their jobs have reasons to wonder how long it will last. The government has stepped in with various emergency measures to help people through, but uncertainty about the future certainly dominates any discussion of jobs and employment.
It can be difficult for church members to ask for help, but St. Paul’s does indeed offer confidential help to those in need. We have generous members who have been materially blessed who are more than willing to help others with groceries, for example. We just need to know where the needs are in order to be good stewards. Good stewardship and Scriptural practice informs all our dealings with those in need and with our employers and employees.
Did you know that St. Paul’s has 43 employees, about half of them full time? When you operate a substantial church and full preschool and K-8 school as well as after care, in a nearly 70,000 square foot facility on nearly 16 acres of land, well, that’s a pretty major undertaking. All of those people have a central or assisting role in what St. Paul compares to those “employed at the temple” in the Old Testament and those who “proclaim the Gospel” in the New Testament Church. They all, in whole or in part, make their living serving the Lord by serving His Church directly.
Everything St. Paul’s Lutheran Church and School does revolves around preaching and teaching the Gospel. That is true for the one doing the actual preaching in the service, the one making sure the building is up to code, the one teaching a particular grade, the one answering the phones and running the office. Everyone doing anything here, be it full time, part time, or (for those in a position to do so) on a volunteer basis participates in the overall functioning our Gospel mission on behalf of all the members.
As your pastor I have felt very blessed not to be in fear of losing my livelihood during this strange time of not having normal church services. I think I speak for all of employees here in thanking the people of St. Paul’s for their dedication to the mission and to us. We have continued to function as a church and school, albeit in modified format, and have managed to pay our employees. The St. Paul’s membership has shown remarkable stewardship via online giving and dropping off or mailing in offerings. Overall, the offerings coming in have been down slightly, but not nearly as much as might have been the case given the lack of in person services and the sudden downturn in the economy. Again, thank you.
As responsible stewards, we did apply for and receive approval for the government loans designed to keep people employed in a time of potentially interrupted cash flow. We will know later whether/how much we’ll be repaying on those loans, but amid all the uncertainty, it made sense to cover all our bases and make sure that St. Paul’s did all we could to keep those who serve the mission here employed.
Our future, of course, is in the hands of our gracious God, and He does not generally share His plans in advance. Rather, He calls upon us to trust Him in any and every circumstance. We show that trust with our stewardship of all He has given us, including our bodies and health, our church family, our government and community, and the whole Gospel mission of St. Paul’s and everyone working in it. Thank you again for your faithful stewardship and for valuing everyone who works or volunteers here as part of God’s work in your life. May that mission continue to build you up in faith and service to our Lord wherever and however He has called you to serve.
“Keep your life free from the love from the love of money, and be content with what you have…” Heb. 13:5a
This morning our economic stimulus check arrived from the IRS via direct deposit to my bank account. I don’t know what to think about that in terms of economics or politics. I don’t even know how I’m supposed to feel about it.
I could feel happy. Why not? Free money! Who wouldn’t be happy about that? I could feel guilty. After all, it is money I did not earn and I’m not among the people who have lost their jobs and businesses. I could feel outraged about the strange set of government decisions leading up to such an odd circumstance, which seems to violate much of what I normally consider to be responsible fiscal and regulatory policy. Confused? Cynical? Thrilled? I could feel a lot of things. So might you.
But of all the things I might have felt, you know how I did feel? Embarrassing as it is to admit, the first, fleeting feeling (thankfully it only lasted half a moment until I was able to laugh at myself over it) was disappointment. You know why? Because it was Because it was less than I thought it would be. I thought four of our children would be eligible, but it turns out only three them were. I quickly chided myself for reacting so selfishly, but if I’m honest I can’t claim I never had that fleeting reaction.
That’s how quickly inflated expectations and a sense of being owed something can rob us of contentment. Gratitude, by contrast, brings with is instant contentment. The Hebrews verse quoted above is not just some law that is there is show us how greedy we are (though it can do that!); it is practical advice to those who know their God and want the good gifts He gives. Contentment with little is a greater gift than possession of much.
Even more so than a check from the IRS, everything in all of creation is a gift. Your body, your time, your story—you didn’t earn it. It was just given to you. Receive it with gratitude, and contentment will follow no matter your circumstance. Think of it all as something you have coming to you by rights and disappointment and bitterness will follow, again no matter your circumstance.
The truth of God’s Word apply to normal and abnormal circumstances. The Commandments and Creed cannot be temporarily suspended by order of the governor or replaced by the largesse of the federal treasury. What we learn in “normal” times applies to difficult, extreme, uniquely challenging times. Conversely, the lessons we learn by enduring those challenging times apply even to normal times. No matter what the circumstance, knowing that God is for you leads to a sense of security and contentment, even where such feelings might seem most out of place.
Greed and complaining are always out of place, no matter how naturally they come to us. I’ve heard lots of good ideas from people about what they plan to do with the stimulus checks. Some focus on the secular purpose—stimulating the economy in the short term. Some focus on just making it through by paying their own bills. Some focus on spiritual things and charity. My goal is not to tell you what to do with it. My goal is to continue to teach by word and by example the truth of God’s Word during this shutdown. And I know that contentment is a gift God wants for you, and that you have an innate tendency to rob yourself of it with ingratitude.
Here’s an assignment. Look up the rest of verse 5 quoted above from Hebrews and keep reading the next few verses. I guarantee they apply to you whether you are sick, unemployed, overworked, irritated, lonely, or anything in between. A reminder that God is on your side does wonders for your day.
In Christ, Pastor Speckhard
At a special service on November 23rd, 1980 our building was dedicated to God “As a place where the lambs of the flock of Christ may be fed, where little children may increase in wisdom and favor with God and man, where the young may be taught to remember their Creator in the days of their youth, where a generation may grow up fit for citizenship on earth and in heaven with Thee.”
Biblically speaking a symbolic generation is 40 years. Israel wandered 40 years so that the generation that left Egypt would not be the same generation that entered the Promised Land. So if we apply that symbolism to St. Paul’s we have to say that this building has almost served the purpose for which it was dedicated, to be a place “where a generation may grow up…”
If you were born the day this building was dedicated, then you are almost 36 years old right now, and hopefully through our ministry you have grown in favor with God and man and been made fit for citizenship in the world and in the kingdom of God. And hopefully that means that you desire to pass on the Gospel to future generations just like the 36-year-olds around here back in 1980 did. We are the people to whom this building was dedicated. We are the inheritors, the receivers, the fulfillment of all the prayers and the hard work, the vision those people had in mind.
Time marches on.
Today, with those 40 years almost up, we have several options. I suppose we could shut down the
ministry of St. Paul’s altogether and say our work is done. But no Christian would seriously consider not feeding the next generation with the Gospel. We could relocate St. Paul’s somewhere else and build a new building like the people a generation ago did. That hardly seems like a desirable idea, but it is possible, I guess. We can keep milking the generosity and hard work of our forebears for as many more years as the building they built for us holds out without our doing anything and then shut everything down, but that would not only be ungrateful of us but extremely bad stewardship.
Or we can step up to the plate like they did and make a decision with a view toward 40 years from now in mind. The heating units that were brand spanking new on Nov. 23, 1980 are also almost 36 years old. Buildings, wiring, plumbing, furnaces—they all age. You have to constantly maintain them just to keep them the same as they were. The blessings of a nearly 70,000 square foot facility come with responsibilities. We need to replace the HVAC system in the school with newer, more efficient, and A/C capable units if anyone is going to be nurtured on the Gospel here 40 years from now.
And not only do buildings age, but standards change. Back in 1980 the houses around our church were all the very latest architecture. Today we are far more conscious of the needs of the elderly and most people think tri-level homes have too many stairs for some people to live in comfortably. If our subdivision were being built today the houses would look very different.
What is true of home architecture is true of institutions. Not only have we tried to reduce steps, we’ve tried to facilitate easily getting dropped off and picked up. Newer buildings, especially those that serve the elderly, tend to have a covered drop off/pick up area where people who move slowly can get from the car to the building without being out in the rain and snow.
In 2017, the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, we hope to begin the process of rededicating St.
Paul’s Lutheran Church and School. The Parish Planning Council has already begun looking into ways to bring this about. It will require a lot of planning, a lot of dedication of time, talents and treasure, and a vision of how we will hand off this ministry to the next generation. This rededication will hopefully address the aging of the building and the changing of the standards in our society around us, and will also take up ideas and suggestions that come from anyone in the congregation, so be sure to attend the meetings, read the newsletters, and give feedback to your deacon or to the staff as things progress.
What we want to be able to do here at St. Paul’s is join in the prayers of those who gave us this place
and at the dedication of it said, “O Lord, the God of our fathers, by whose works of love in past generations You have richly blessed us, grant that our works may prove a blessing to our children in generations still to come.”
Lent is, among other things, a time to consider the idea of discipline, which has as its root the idea of being a disciple, a learner. Many people take up Lenten disciplines” like doing an extra devotional or time of bible study, or practicing some kind of fast as a way to help focus on being a disciple. Lent itself comes from an Old English word meaning “spring.” And when you put spring and discipline together, you get the idea of spring cleaning, which may or may not have much theological application but is certainly something everybody is familiar with.
When we consider being learners from example, we are blessed to follow in the footsteps of people who were thinking of us long ago. They thought to include St. Paul’s in their wills, which is why we are blessed today to have an endowment fund. We use the proceeds of that fund in our budget every year. Ideally, we would cover our budget with our own giving, but as of right now we are unable to do that, which is what makes their foresight such a blessing to us.
How do we best discipline ourselves, meaning make disciples of ourselves, when we’ve been blessed by the example of such people? Well, first and foremost we ought to be grateful for the blessing. Secondly, we ought not take it for granted as though it were rightfully just a part of our budget, but should instead dedicate ourselves to the goal of having our offering dollars cover our budget so that the endowments funds can be used for things out-side our walls, blessing other people and other missions. But thirdly, we should consider quite simply following their example. If they thought of the future of the church, we who benefit from them should learn from them and do likewise.
Getting back to spring cleaning, have you considered tidying up some of the loose ends in life by making a will? Making out a will is one of those nagging things that everyone knows they really ought to do but many people simply never quite find the time for. I am an example of that myself. We made a will several years ago but it has been on our list to update it ever since Stephen was born.
I encourage you to get your house in order this spring by making or updating your will, and I encourage you to do what Heidi and I did—include the church as one of your children. In other words, in our case our estate will be divided by seven; six children and one church. (Although until I get my spring cleaning done i.e. get my will updated, it is still only five kids and the church is Faith Lutheran in Green Bay.) Please consider doing something similar. It is way to be a thankful recipient of gifts like our endowment, a disciplined learner from those who went before you and gave you those gifts, and a participant in the greatest spring cleaning of all, which is the cleansing of souls through the proclamation of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, which by God’s grace and the Spirit-created generosity of the stewards of his gifts, St. Paul’s will be doing until Christ comes again in glory.
Rev. Peter Speckhard, Senior Pastor at St. Paul's Ev. Lutheran Church, Munster, Indiana