“We’ve always done it that way” –– a phrase to celebrate

Done-it-this-way2

What if this didn’t have to be a bad phrase?

 

Did you make a New Year’s resolution? By the end of the year, research says there will be an 8% chance you’ve kept it.

Eight percent!

Why so low?

Because objects in motion stay in motion. Objects at rest stay at rest. To change their course or get them going, you need external force. And the bigger something is, the more force it requires. You’ve experienced this if you’ve ever tried to push a car.

The same is true of your resolutions. They require change, a new force, willpower. And that means working against nature, working against what you’ve become accustomed to.

They say one of the best times to change a habit is when you move. Why? Because you’re already undergoing major, unavoidable change. While everything is in motion, you can get that new habit in motion, as well. It’s a natural new start. And it’s easier to start that way, than to try to change later.

That’s an important general truth––it’s easier to start that way. Changing later is hard.

“Because we’ve always done it that way” is a common phrase in corporate culture and church culture. It’s usually derided as a bad answer. But it’s also human nature. When we start doing things from the beginning, we’re likely to continue doing them.

How to use “we’ve always done it that way” for good

While we usually sneer at “we’ve always done it that way” as an uncritical, unreflective response, it can be just the opposite. Whenever you start something new, you have a great opportunity. Ask yourself this question:

Ten years from now, what do we want to look at and say, “We’ve always done it that way”?

Let’s take generosity as an extended example. I’m going to start with a thought about churches and then say something about families and individuals.

NEW CHURCHES & GENEROSITY

Several years ago, I was with the leader of a new church start in another state. They were about two years old at the time. He talked about how they were still trying to get established and hoped to start giving to missions and our denomination’s ministry fund (called apportionments) soon. They weren’t yet giving anything externally. Actually, they were receiving external funds.

That’s not unusual. They were two years old and still trying to get their feet under them.

About five years later, that new church start was still going. They had grown and hired multiple staff. I saw their pastor and asked how they were doing. Not well, it turned out. They had just learned they were losing their external funding, and they weren’t sure how they could survive without it. They were still giving nothing to missions or the denominational fund and still relying on external support.

How does that happen? They had grown and looked to be thriving! But from the beginning they had required every penny for themselves––plus some outside funding. And when their resources grew, their internal need grew equally. So that great ideal of starting to give some away remained just an ideal.

For new church starts, a wild and unusual suggestion––ask yourselves how you want to be giving ten years from now, and then start giving like that on day one. Because if you choose to use everything internally until there’s “enough to spare,” you’re likely to find yourselves ten years later with still nothing to spare. And if you choose to give generously from day one, in year ten you’ll be able to say, “we’ve just always done it this way.”

I’m going to take a moment and celebrate the church and community I have the privilege to be a part of. First UMC has always been a generous church, and a few years ago, they decided to automate it––no questions asked about whether to be generous, in lean years or good years. The church puts 12% of every dollar given immediately into a fund for missions and puts another 13% immediately toward our denominational fund––which goes to support important missions locally and around the globe. That’s 25% out the door to support missions external to us. It’s automatic, immediate, no questions asked.

As my community at First Church (called Offerings) has looked to move from our Downtown campus, our leaders have never wavered on this. 25% goes out the door from the very first day. They want extravagant generosity to part of our identity, and they don’t want to start that later. If you think you’ll start later, you may never get around to it. They want to say, “We’ve just always done it that way.”

To be certain, this involves sacrifice. If we kept that extra $20,000, I can tell you quickly how we would use it. If we had an extra $40,000, I can tell you how we’d use it. But isn’t that always the case? There’s always something more. Always something more we would like or could use or even think we need. And that’s why if you don’t start giving generously from the beginning, it’s likely you never will. Changing that pattern doesn’t get easier when you get bigger. Remember trying to push that car from stand-still?

FOR INDIVIDUALS

The same goes for individuals. So you’re just getting started at your first job, just barely scraping by? You couldn’t possibly be generous now. That’s for when you have more.

As your resources grow, so will your appetite. If you don’t set a pattern for generosity now, on that just-out-of-college budget, you’ll be shocked that you have just as little to spare on a nice 6-figure salary later. Even more, if you find that right now you need 110% just to get by (i.e. what you’re making isn’t quite enough to sustain, so you take on a bit of debt…), you’re likely to need 110% to get by, even when you’re making 6 figures.

Whether you’re just starting out, or just got a new job or raise… take advantage of anything new and ask whether you can start a new pattern now.

A big challenge for any of you who want extravagant generosity to be part of your identity… It’s 2015. What if you resolved to give away 15% of your income this year? And made it 16% next year? You see where this is going… If that’s impossible for you (ask yourself if it’s really impossible), then set your own numbers.

Years from now, someone may ask how you––as a church, or a family, or an individual––can be so generous. And I hope you might be able to say, “I don’t know. We’ve just always done it that way.”

A note to people who have been burned by the church

church kills

For those who’ve experienced the wrong meaning of this…

 

I went to a restaurant a few months ago and had a bad experience. The wait was long, the food was mediocre, the service was bad.

That surely isn’t the best they can offer.

Now I may or may not give them the benefit of the doubt. Maybe they were just having a bad night. Maybe I was just having a bad night. Even the best restaurant in America gets an occasional bad review. So maybe they deserve a second chance. Perhaps even a third. I may go back; I don’t know yet.

But even if I give up on that restaurant, I’m not giving up on restaurants. Because one restaurant failed to give me good food and good service doesn’t mean that I’ve decided none of them are worth it. Even if I have two or three or ten bad experiences (I’ve surely had at least a dozen), I’m not ready to give up on the whole restaurant thing. I think they have something of value for me—namely, a typically good meal that I didn’t have to cook or clean.

Burned by the Church

For you who have had a really bad experience in the church—or even two or three or ten—two things:

First, on behalf of all of us, I’m sorry that it happened. I hate it that some people have been burned by the church. But I also know it’s inevitable. Because everyone has off-nights.

More than that, it’s inevitable because the church gets into bigger things than a restaurant. We’re dealing with eternal matters, virtue and vice, deep relationships. We’re dealing with souls. And that means things are going to get personal at some point. And we may handle those things the wrong way. Or we may cause offense even handling things the right way at times.

The restaurant can take too long to deliver you a burnt steak and then be rude about it. But that’s about as far as they can offend you. Your offense at that can last a few days.

Because of the things we’re dealing with in the church, we can cause greater offense—the kind that still burns years and decades later. If you’re upset because of that kind of experience, hesitant to go back or adamant that you won’t, your feelings make sense.

But second, can I urge you not to give up on churches and on the Church, just because you had those bad experiences? The church is still the Body of Christ, flawed though we are. Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her. And to be part of that larger Body, we should be part of an actual church body—a real, visible local congregation.

Though it’s popular today, it’s a big problem to like Jesus but reject the church. As Cyprian, a North African church father, said: “You cannot have God for your Father unless you have the Church for your mother.”

If you’ve been burned, or perhaps just gotten bored, or maybe even lazy, can I urge you to make 2015 the year that you re-connect to a local church? Your experience may not be perfect. Mine hasn’t been. But it’s likely to be life-changing. Without the love, forgiveness, truth and grace that I’ve received from a real, visible local congregation—First UMC in Lexington—I have no idea where I would be.

Abundance, Scarcity, and Prodigal living

abundance

Stephen Covey coined the terms “Scarcity Mentality” and “Abundance Mentality” in his excellent book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. But the way he used them isn’t the way I usually hear them used.

For Covey, the Scarcity Mentality assumes there’s only one piece of pie out there, and if others get more, it means less for you. It reflects a sort of insecurity about all of life.

By contrast, the Abundance Mentality believes in an expandable pie. There’s enough out there for all of us.

That’s a great perspective. Sadly, I usually hear it (mis)applied to financial decisions. That version goes something like this…

Scarcity Mentality

Scarcity Mentality is all about fear and avoiding risk. It always sees the reason you can’t do something, the reason something will fail. And that reason is usually lack of resources.This might try to disguise itself as prudence.

It would be fair for us to ask Scarcity Mentality people where their faith is. Shouldn’t we be able to act in faith and trust that God can do more than what we imagine?

This is a pretty good application of the Scarcity Mentality. If you (personally or organizationally) have this mentality about things, I hope this challenges you to think differently.

Abundance Mentality #1

What then gets termed “Abundance Mentality” is the view that we can act in faith and God will take care of the rest. We can stretch beyond what’s comfortable, maybe even beyond what’s wise, because we trust that God will provide. It’s a step of faith.

Opposite the Scarcity Mentality, this mentality spurns caution and fear. “Just have faith,” it says.

I’ve used this kind of Abundance Mentality when talking to people about clear matters of faithfulness. You work at a job where you have no option but to lie, swindle, or oppress? I would advise you to leave that job immediately. Even if you don’t have other options. I might even say, “Let’s trust that God is going to reward your faithfulness and provide.”

But this Abundance Mentality gets used much more broadly. It can serve as justification for almost any life or organizational decision. I’ve seen people rack up massive student loan debts because they were sure God wanted them to go to seminary. And whenever a church wants to do more than their budget allows, or build more than what their capital campaign has raised, someone will bring up abundance: “Where’s the faith that God will take care of the rest?”

Unfortunately, that sort of Abundance hasn’t always come through.

After a record stint of church construction in 2002, church foreclosures have become more common. Don’t you imagine there was a lot of talk about abundance when those churches were building? “Even if the numbers don’t quite add up, let’s take a step in faith.” So why have hundreds of congregations been filing for bankruptcy or defaulting on loans? One expert says it bluntly: “Religious organizations may be subject to the laws of God but they are also subject to the laws of economics.”

Seminary graduates are dealing with stifling student loan debt and not finding the work they need to pay it back. One recent grad reflects: “I am not mad at the church. However, I wish someone had advised me against taking on so much debt in order to be trained for ministry.”

Even when these decisions didn’t result in foreclosure or bankruptcy, I’ve seen them result in a lot of compromises. I’ve seen people take jobs that compromised their values (or their stated ministry callings) because they needed to pay those bills. I’ve seen churches compromise their ministries because they had to find a way to keep paying that debt. It seems that too often, this “Abundance Mentality” on the front-end creates a lot of compromise on the back end.

The problem with Abundance Mentality #1 (Prodigal Mentality)

I’m not much a fan of this “Abundance Mentality.” It runs to the other end of the extremes that we see in the Scarcity Mentality. It doesn’t only spurn fear and risk-avoidance, it can serve as an excuse for careless and reckless decisions.

What if some of our “leaps of faith” may actually be excuses for avoiding important questions?

“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?”1

“Or suppose a king is about to go to war against another king. Won’t he first sit down and consider whether he is able with ten thousand men to oppose the one coming against him with twenty thousand?”2

Just as the Scarcity Mentality can disguise fear and call it prudence, this mentality can disguise extravagance and lack of discipline and call them faith. When that happens, the better proper name for this is “Prodigal Mentality.”

prodigal |ˈprädigəl|
spending money or resources freely and recklessly; wastefully extravagant

So what if we reserved this sort of approach for when it’s truly and unquestionably about faithfulness? When it can’t just be an excuse for prodigal living. Like when it’s about leaving a job that requires us to do evil. Or when we’ve heard a clear call from God, and it has been affirmed by wise and trusted Christian people around us (not to be confused with the people most likely to agree with us.)

[If you really think this applies to your situation for using debt as your primary seminary funding, please at least read “The Modern Pastor and Seminary Debt” and consider it.]

The Real Abundance Mentality

For everything outside those circumstances, I’m going to suggest a different version of Abundance Mentality.

What God has given now is enough for now.

The prayer isn’t, “Oh God, I’m going to do this and trust that you’ll give me enough for it.” But instead, “God give me enough to do what you want.”

And then we faithfully take what God has given and trust that it’s enough to do what God wants.

Don’t confuse this for a passive or small-minded approach, for the dreaded Scarcity Mentality. Dream big!

If you work for a grant-funded organization, be diligent and creative in your grant-writing. If you’re a church depending on people’s contributions, then paint a big vision and encourage them to give. If you’re considering school, apply for scholarships and look for work that will help you pay for it.

Aggressively seek what you need so that you can do what you believe you should do. Especially seek it in prayer.

But if it doesn’t come, might you take that as a sign that you’re misunderstanding the calling? Better to let that be the sign than serious setbacks later.

And don’t confuse this for lack of faith. This can be the hardest version of faith––we don’t get to do what we had our hearts set on because God hasn’t yet provided for it. And so we wait and trust that God’s plan is better than our own.

Faithful with what we have

Be faithful with the few things God has given you now, and God will put you in charge of many things.3

We’re never called in Scripture to be faithful with more than what we have.4 I wonder if this era of easy debt has skewed our thinking about faithfulness––trying to be faithful with things we don’t have in the first place.

So let’s live with neither the fear of the Scarcity Mentality or the recklessness of the Prodigal Mentality. Let’s ask God for his biggest dreams––bigger than what we may ever expect on our own. And let’s ask God to provide for them in his timing. And then let’s trust in God’s abundance––that what he has given today is enough for today, and what he will give tomorrow will be enough for tomorrow.

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