(Jesus said) “Then there’s only one thing left to do: Sell everything you own and give it away to the poor. You will have riches in heaven. Then come, follow me.” This was the last thing the official expected to hear. He was very rich and became terribly sad. He was holding on tight to a lot of things and not about to let them go. — Luke 18:18-23
Pastor Mike stepped into the basement hall at First Community Church for the monthly council meeting and showed a broad smile.
“Good evening, Pastor,” Richard, one of the elders, turned and said, extending a hand. A Styrofoam cup of coffee was in the other already.
“Hi Karl, how are you?” Pastor Mike replied.
The other members of the council were mingling about. Some were sampling from the plate of cookies that someone, as usual, had brought and there was a small crowd at the coffee pot — “What, no decaf again?” someone muttered. Some were already ambling over to the chairs around the long folding tables that had been set up for the meeting.
It was a group of a dozen people mostly reflective of the small community they lived in. Homeowners, white, middle class, family men (and a couple women). Some owned businesses. Pretty much salt-of-the-earth types who paid their bills on time, kept their lawns well-manicured, rarely if ever got their name in the paper for anything, good or bad, and whose kids never got into trouble. No serious trouble anyway. Several of those children were adults now, but none of them attended First Community, except on Easter and Christmas.
Most of them were in their 40s or older, a few were retired. Only one or two were in their 30s. Several of the council members were scions of the families who had helped found the church more than 120 years ago; their ancestors’ names could be found on the stained glass windows in the sanctuary or on other memorials around the church. In fact, there were so many granite benches, wall plaques and brass plates commemorating their forbears that some often made jokes about the interior of the church resembling a cemetery.
Ruth was the council president, the first woman in the church’s history to be elected to the position. That hadn’t set well with some church members, including some council members, who sometimes let her know their feelings in subtle ways, such as interrupting her when she spoke during meetings or ignoring her altogether. The problem was no man had stepped up to volunteer for the job and Pastor Wilson, the former pastor, had recruited her to lead the council as he was preparing to leave. Ruth was an accountant owned her own consulting business. She had the even-tempered demeanor that comes in handy when you have to manage a group with disparate opinions or, as was often the case, no opinions at all, on a number of important issues. In her four years as president, she had helped shepherd the church through some of the most tumultuous times in the church’s history. The associate pastor was fired for using church funds for personal expenses. The youth pastor and several youth ministry volunteers left the church over the way Pastor Wilson ran the church and for his refusal to call out some members publicly for perceived sins. And there was the process of replacing Pastor Wilson, and which brought Pastor Mike. Some church members left, frustrated with how long the process was taking. As a result, Sunday attendance had dropped in the last three years by half from about 300 to 150.
Nevertheless, the council had done a good job of managing church finances and a few years before had paid off a mortgage for a new addition. The annual budget was about $250,000, with $180,000 of that going to building maintenance and expenses and to pay the salaries and benefits of Pastor Mike, the youth pastor, a secretary and a couple part-time helpers. Despite the drop in attendance, the bank account and investments were still bulging with a balance of more than $300,000. And 11 percent of general giving every Sunday went to missions, although the pastor dipped into that fund every once in a while when someone in church was in financial need. The lack of debt was a point of pride among the elders and other leaders. Pastor Mike had commented once or twice how, whenever he attended conferences, other pastors with massive mortgages expressed envy.
The room was filled with their chatter as they discussed the weather, the local baseball team’s fortunes and misfortunes and inquired about each other’s health, jobs and family. At precisely 6:30 p.m., Ruth called everyone to order. The room went silent and Ruth solemnly asked the pastor to offer an opening prayer, as called for by the meeting agenda.
Usually Pastor Mike opened with a fairly standard prayer, beseeching the Lord to bless their time and guide their discussion, etc. But this night he felt a little uneasy. Things seemed to be rolling along smoothly enough at church. Attendance was steady and had even grown a bit since he came on almost two years ago; giving was down a little but that was usual for this time of year; a new push to get people into small groups had gone fairly well, with 54 people, almost all of them women, signing up. But some things rankled him a little. He couldn’t get the men’s Bible study group, which included two of the three elders and several other council members, to change what they were reading and join in with the other groups to study the material he wanted. Children’s Sunday school only drew about 12 kids anymore and the adult discussion groups on Sunday morning had shrunk from four to one. Plus, and most importantly, council members, most of whom considered council membership as their “ministry,” had universally rejected his proposal that they each mentor one or two ministry leaders by getting together for prayer and Bible study once a month or so. It would take up too much time, they said, to meet individually with that many people. Anyway, wasn’t that the pastor’s job? And, anyway, if a ministry leader needed help they knew where to go.
Pastor Mike was tired. He lowered his head. He wanted, more than anything, to hear from Jesus:
“Dearest Lord Jesus,” he began. “Thank you for blessing us and watching over us here at First Community Church. Thank you for the lives you have changed and the people you have drawn to yourself. We have worked to obey all that you have commanded your church to do and we offer many programs designed to help people. But Lord I feel we need your help. Please guide us and help us to do your will so that your name, not our names or the name of First Community Church, would be glorified in our community and around the world. Please Lord, speak to us. We’re listening.”
Pastor Mike bent over and put his head in his hands and let out a sigh. Most of the council members started to straighten up, unfold their hands and open their eyes, expecting the “amen” to come. But it didn’t. Pastor Mike just sat there silently, his head in his hands. They followed suit and resumed a prayerful position.
Seconds and then minutes ticked by.
“Speak to us, Lord,” Pastor Mike repeated.
Ruth and few others began to nod and even rock back and forth slightly. “Speak to us, Lord,” Ruth said quietly.
Darrel, a council member who rarely said anything and whose wife had multiple health problems, whispered, “Yes.”
More time passed and then …
“Give it away,” a voice said. Not quite a whisper, but was so quiet, it could barely be heard. In fact, only a few heard it, but they weren’t sure what they heard.
Mike peeked through his hands. There was silence.
“Give it away,” the voice said again, a little more clearly this time.
Pastor Mike and several others looked up. Some were looking sideways at others wondering what was going on, not necessarily because they had heard the voice but because no one was talking and the prayer time hadn’t ended yet. But several, like Ruth and Dave were looking at Pastor Mike, their eyes wide, questioning, almost frightened. They had heard the voice too.
Pastor Mike raised his eyebrows and gulped.
“Lord, is that you?” he asked. “What do you mean?”
“Your money. This is Jesus. Give it all away, just as I did,” He said. “Give your possessions to the poor, to my Kingdom. And follow me. Help others follow me. That is all that is necessary.”
“How, Lord? Pastor Mike asked. “What do you mean?”
He waited. There was no answer.
Pastor Mike waited some more, listening, looking at the ceiling. “How, Lord?” he asked again.
Then he turned to the council members, all of whom were staring fixedly at him. By now, everyone had heard the voice.
“What does it mean?” Ruth asked.
“I think it means give away our money,” Darrel said, repeating what the voice had said. “I think it’s pretty clear.”
“But if we do that, how do we pay the bills? How do we take care of the building and pay Pastor Mike’s salary?” Jack, one of the elders, said. Several other councilmembers nodded.
“It doesn’t make any sense,” Darwin, another elder said.
“Maybe he means we get rid of the building. And maybe he means get rid of me, that is, as a salaried staff person,” Pastor Mike said in a dazed fashion, staring at the floor. He felt stunned. His mind was racing at the implications. “How much of what we do and spend really is focused on following Him and helping others to follow him?” he said, thinking out loud. He had read about pastors who had left large churches and given up comfortable salaries and homes to seek a simpler calling, even meeting in houses and coffee shops or workplace lunch rooms in groups as small as two or three, simply seeking to obey and walk with Jesus. He had read about the amazing things happening in China and other countries where believers were forsaking western-style church organization and hierarchies, focusing on making disciples and worshipping God as simply as possible.
After a moment, he said, “I think that’s exactly what he means. I realize we’re talking about a dramatic change, but I believe Jesus Christ just spoke to us and I think we need to obey him. I suggest we immediately look into divesting ourselves of all corporate assets, including this building, and contributing those funds to works that advance the Kingdom of God and that together we search Scripture to discover how we can grow together in walking with Christ and helping others do the same.”
“Amen,” Ruth said excitedly. She had read about the amazing things God was doing in Africa and the former Soviet Union and even here in the United States, how people were abandoning traditional forms of church not because they had lost their faith but because they were seeking a deeper, more genuine faith. She wanted that too.
A few other council members, some with their faces buried in their hands, nodded in agreement.
But not enough.
“I think the prudent thing to do,” elder Richard intoned, “would be to form a committee to investigate Pastor Mike’s proposal and that it return to the council with a report on their findings and that those findings, after discussion and approval by the council, be put to a vote of the full congregation at the next regularly scheduled annual congregational meeting next January, seven months from now. I propose that the exploratory committee consist of four persons — two elders, the chairman of the Finance Committee and the chairman of the Buildings and Grounds Committee.”
“I second the motion,” Karl, the Finance Committee chairman, said quickly.
The motion passed 7 to 5. Pastor Mike did not have a vote.
Ruth shoulders slumped and she sat there silently until Jack said, “Let’s move on.”
Ruth started, her mind in a far off place.
“Yes. The first item on the agenda is a review of bids put forward to replace the gutters on the parsonage.”
Pastor Mike barely heard her as he silently prayed in his seat, alone in his thoughts.
Dan Benson wrote this parable in June of 2011 and it was first posted on his blog. Check out his blog at http://snortinghorses.blogspot.com