[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.
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.”
Church attendance nationally is down, and not just by a little bit. It is as though in the last fifteen years our culture has just collectively decided that going to church on Sunday is not a "thing" anymore. And what is true for our nation is certainly true for us here at St. Paul’s. In 2001 our average weekly attendance was 822. In 2015 the average was 463. But trends are not fate.
While our societal trends are not really in our control except to the degree we participate in them, we can still focus on what we can influence, which starts with ourselves. Most of the drop in attendance here at St. Paul’s is not because people have quit church altogether but because they have stopped attending regularly. Many people who used to be here every week now come once or twice a month. People who used to come every other week now come a few times a year. We have stopped taking it for granted that our week ought to begin with first things first by attending church and starting thinking of it more like a commodity, something to do when we really feel a need for it or when it is convenient. What was formerly a "given" has turned into an option.
The New Testament tells Christians not to stop meeting together. Apparently some of the earliest
Christians had already begun skipping regular worship under the mistaken impression that “going to
church” didn’t matter for them as long as they had faith. But that misses most of the point about
attendance. The key word is “together,” which means that you not only benefit from the presence of other people as you sing, pray, and hear the Word, but your presence also benefits them.
When you decide to skip church, you aren’t only deciding for yourself that you can do without Word
and Sacrament ministry and the mutual consolation of the brethren for a week. You’re also unilaterally declaring that everyone else can do just fine without you there. And you are wrong. The indelible impression on young minds of seeing widows and newlyweds, trouble-makers and respectable folk, black and white, rich and poor, young and old all singing and praying together can never happen if most of those people don’t show up.
When you stay home because your toddler is such a hassle, you aren’t only making your morning
more manageable. You’re also declaring that the 90 year old who sometimes sits behind you shall not have your toddler to smile at and thereby have his faith in the future of God’s promises reinforced.
When you as a twenty-something stay home from church because Sunday is the day you sleep in and
you don’t feel like you get much out of church anyway because you already learned it all in Sunday
school, you’re not only getting extra sleep for yourself. You’re also depriving some other twentysomething visitor, who never did learn it all in Sunday school, and who is nervous and uncomfortable in church, of the assurance your presence might have given that this strange place is a place for them, too.
When you as a middle-aged man skip church, you’re not only (mistakenly) reasoning that you have
more important places to be, but you are robbing some fatherless teenage boy whose mom made him go to church that morning of the example your presence in worship might have given.
When you stay home because you’re too embarrassed to use the wheelchair, you are robbing your
church family of the comfort of seeing that growing old gracefully is possible, and that should the day ever come from them to be a wheelchair, their church would welcome them as it welcomes you.
No matter who you are or what your situation is, when it says in Hebrews not to stop meeting together, God isn’t just telling you that you will be blessed if you go to church. He is also telling you are a blessing to the others there whether you know it or not. Don’t selfishly rob everyone else of the blessing God wants to give them through your voice, your problems, your prayers, and your presence with them in worship.
Remember all the hype around Y2K? All kinds of people thought that computer glitches would threaten civilization. My brother was locked in at LTV Steel that night to be there in case emergency measures were called for needed his engineering expertise. Or perhaps you remember when the ancient Mayan calendar ran out of numbers, briefly popularizing the idea that the end of the world was nigh. People have always been fascinated by such major calendar events. Even if you’re not a conspiracy theorist or Da Vinci Code type of kook, major anniversaries make you think.
Another such big anniversary is coming. October marks the 499th year since the traditional date for the beginning of the Reformation, when Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses (theological statements he was willing to publicly debate) in Wittenberg, Germany. That’s one short of the Big 500, but that just gives us time to really think about the significance of that time span and prepare for how we want to acknowledge it.
We are St. Paul’s Lutheran Church and School. If the people who fought and died for the right to teach salvation by grace through faith in Jesus Christ could leap ahead 500 years and see us today, what would they think? In what ways would they say their sacrifice was worth it, and in what ways would they expect better of us? It is an interesting thing to ponder because we have a whole year to work on it.
They fought for getting the Bible into languages the common people could read and for getting copies of the Bible into their hands. Do we view that as a precious enough birthright to actually take advantage of? Or do we treat regular Bible study in the home and in church as something we can live just as well without? They fought for the Gospel of free forgiveness proclaimed in the name of Jesus to penitent sinners. Do we treasure that Gospel or take it for granted and view it as a superfluous part of our week amid all the more important things we have going on? They viewed sound Christian teaching as something worth being martyred for. Do we hold fast to the truth, or do we treat doctrine as no big deal?
Much has changed since 1517. The Roman Catholic Church has changed greatly, adopting many of the positions enumerated in the Augsburg Confession. We don’t need our 500th anniversary to be some sort of “in-your-face” to Catholics. But we do need to dedicate ourselves to receiving and passing down the Gospel. We don’t know, of course, whether there will be another 500 years of history, but if there is, we want there to be another 500 years of people proclaiming and believing the Gospel message here at St. Paul’s, and we are a critical link in that chain.
Let the one year lead-up to the 500th anniversary of the Reformation be for you personally and for all of us at St. Paul’s a chance to think about how we can best be the faithful recipients of the of the faith once handed down and the faithful forefathers of some future people who will look back at us 500 years from now, God-willing, and thank Him that they received the faith through us.
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