shoot out the lights: thoughts on stewardship

light bulbYou’d think that the major expense of a church was lightbulbs from how often they get mentioned.

It’s the shorthand phrase we use when talking about when fundraising to prove that we are all perfectly aware of what it costs to keep a church going. We talk about the light bulbs. We say things like:

“People understand that the faith stuff is fine but that we also need to pay for the light bulbs,” suggesting that a budget or a campaign is really just about serious people paying the bills. This one, in my experience, does not pan out as well as we might think.


“The church just needs to talk about vision and ministry. Nobody cares a bit about the light bulbs.”  I have not found this one to be true at all: some folks respond very well to learning what things actually cost.

I’ve heard both approaches used and have use them both myself. You know what? They both had almost the same effect on the outcome of the pledge campaign. Both approaches (pro-light-bulb and anti-light-bulb) had the exact same outcome.

So I say let’s shoot out the lights.

The problem is that “light bulbs” was probably once a very useful shorthand tool to talk about the worldly realities that a church must face: we don’t get a discount on our electric bill just because we’re a church, so pony up people. But I feel like I’ve seen this phrase creep into something much less productive and downright negative. Now, whenever we reach a place of discomfort (say, when talking honestly about faith, money, sacrifice, or commitment) anyone in the room can hit the handy “light bulb” button to bring us back to familiar territory.

The problem is that it may be familiar, but man-oh-man is it thick with anxiety.  Here I am starting to talk about how giving proportionally had changed my life (it really has) and even beginning to feel my breath slow a little bit as I remember what a gift it has been. Then someone panics and yells LIGHTBULBS!!!! and I suddenly feel that cortisol shot enter my system to remind me that money is tight and that we all need to be a little more serious about this.

Which, by the way, very rarely if ever leads to an increase in the proportional giving that would resolve some of the most stressful problems we deal with.

So think about that as you hear the collect this Sunday:

Grant us, Lord, not to be anxious about earthly things, but to live things heavenly ; and even how while we are placed among things that are passing away, to hold fast to those that shall endure.

Even the best-made light bulb is going to burn out, no matter how well you pay for it.  Church is about something bigger, and stewardship is the best chance to honestly get at the heavenly things that we uncover when we put earthly things in their place.

Let’s not miss this opportunity.


About bernardowens

I'm an Episcopal priest in Greensboro, North Carolina.
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