In May of 1997 I attended my first meeting of the Los Ranchos Presbytery (in Orange County, CA). I was the just-recently elected Pastor of San Clemente Presbyterian Church and was warmly welcomed by my new colleagues. But what truly stands out from my first Presbytery meeting was that is was last meeting for retiring pastor George Munzing of Trinity Presbyterian Church in Santa Ana. George had served at Trinity for over 30 years and I remembered thinking as a roll call of people stood and offered tributes and blessings that 30 years was a very long time.
I can’t possibly know or say whether I will be called to San Clemente for three decades or more, but what is apparent to me 7 ½ years later is the tremendous difference that a long pastorate (and deep, enduring relationships in the church itself) makes--especially in the most stubborn areas of discipleship.
Today, San Clemente Presbyterian Church and Trinity Presbyterian Church are pretty similar. We are both about the same size (approx 1200 members), with the same worship attendance (just under 1000 worshippers a week), we draw from similar socio-economic strata of people, we have both undertaken considerable building projects and capital campaigns to go with them, we have similar evangelical convictions and commitments. In some ways, SCPC is enjoying a season of staff and pastoral stability that Trinity is not (all of their pastors are interims at the moment and they have had some considerable challenges of late.) But there is one very significant difference between SCPC and Trinity: The size of our ministry budgets. For the past seven years, no matter the ups and downs of their congregation, Trinity’s budget has been almost $1 million a year larger than SCPC. And the bulk of that money goes directly to mission work around the world.
What is significant to me about this discrepancy is that SCPC is not a church of overly miserly, greedy people (not at all!). In fact, we are pretty normal for a growing church in a growing area with lots of newer Christian families. In many ways, we completely conform to the profile of South Orange County Christians in our charitable giving (most families give between 1-2% of their household income to the work of the Lord—which is exactly the county average according to most stats I have read). It’s not that we are so negligent, it is that Trinity, for all the struggles of the past few years, remains a most spiritually mature, solid and committed Christian community of people who have learned and take seriously the call to biblical stewardship and mission.
In my opinion, this is a direct result of George Munzing’s long pastorate. Only as a pastor and a people together develop deep trust and have long conversations centered on living out the Scriptures are the most stubborn areas of our lives surrendered to Christ and his values.
And let's face, nothing is more stubborn than stewardship.
While Jesus spoke of our money and resources as the first arena of discipleship (see Matt 6:19-34, Luke 16:11-13), most of us agree with Mark Twain, that the last thing converted in a person is their wallet. Most of us recognize that biblical starting places like tithing 10% of our income to the Lord are now—unfortunately—considered by most Christians to be lofty “goals” that are rarely met. (In direct opposition to Jesus who seems to think that we should all commit far more than a tithe to the work of the Kingdom!) Stewardship, security, acquisitiveness, materialism, generosity, hospitality…these are very difficult issues for most of us and growth is usually slow in coming. When I see a church like Trinity and the fruit of a long pastorate and a committed Christian community who has hung together in good times and bad, give generously to the Lord’s work and understand that the Christian life is a “long obedience in the same direction” (to steal Eugene Peterson’s co-opting Nietzsche’s phrase). Then I am encouraged once again to sink the roots a little deeper and give God more time to work in all of us.
A final note: This weekend, I won’t be blogging because I am speaking for Trinity Presbyterian Church’s Men’s Retreat on Friday and Saturday. It will be a privilege to be with even part of such an inspiring community.