A Joyful Journey

Bishop David A. Bard talks about the kind of generosity that begins with the lavish love of God, not with our wallets, check books or credit cards …

If you have not already heard, The United Methodist Church, at its last General Conference in 2016, added a continuing education and evaluation requirement for clergy. “Every clergyperson shall also engage in a six-month process of personal and professional assessment and development every eight years…. The process shall include both a formal review and an in-depth renewal opportunity.” (The Book of Discipline, ¶349.3).

The Book of Discipline leaves design of the process to Cabinets (bishop and district superintendents) and Boards of Ordained Ministry. Our Michigan Conference has a wonderful team working to develop our eight-year assessment process and you will be hearing more about it in the coming months.

As a bishop, my evaluation process is distinct and more frequent. The Jurisdictional Committee on the Episcopacy is responsible for evaluating bishops, in cooperation with annual conference Committees on the Episcopacy. In the North Central Jurisdiction, of which our conference is a part, we have two evaluations done each four-year assignment period. The evaluation tool is designed by the Jurisdiction, sent to a representative group of leaders from across the conference, and feedback comes to me through both the annual conference and the jurisdiction. At a recent meeting of our conference Committee on the Episcopacy, my evaluation was discussed, and I appreciate the feedback.

One of the questions asked was about whether the bishop teaches generosity, including the full payment of ministry shares. All who saw the response to this question on my evaluation noted the significant number of people who answered, “Don’t know.” I would like to increase the number of people who can answer the question differently the next time!

When I preach or am present in our local churches, I do not consider it my number one priority to speak about or preach about connectional giving and ministry shares. If someone were to ask me to do so, I would do so gladly. However, my thinking is that if this seems to be the topic I speak about most, I could easily be viewed as a typical institutional functionary caring more for the support of the structure of the denomination than about the local churches, people and ministries. That is not who I am.

An adequate understanding of Christian generosity begins with God.

Let me say two other things, here, though. I do not think there is a large chasm between local churches, local ministries, and the denominational structure. We work together in order to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. Our denominational Book of Discipline affirms that “local churches and extension ministries of the Church provide the most significant arenas through which disciple-making occurs” (¶120). Our structures exist to help local ministry settings be their best, and to provide opportunities to connect those local setting with wider mission and ministry. I recognize that there are sometimes tensions between local ministry settings and the wider denomination, but we work together for the mission of the church. If the primary message I give is only about the wider denomination, it may seem unbalanced.

The other thing I want to say, however, is that I am a strong supporter of the full payment of ministry shares. In the church where I was last a pastor, just before being elected bishop, we paid 100% of our ministry shares for ten of my eleven years there. In my second year at the church, we confronted some unique challenges and were not able to pay at 100%, but I worked with the church leadership to make changes so we could return to that place.

Generosity is about so much more than ministry shares. Generosity is about so much more than financial giving. I would say I have a generous view of generosity, believing it to be an idea of great significance in our journey with Jesus. To my mind, an adequate understanding of Christian generosity does not begin with our wallets, check books, or credit cards. An adequate understanding of Christian generosity begins with God.

Early in Ephesians, the writer affirms that in Jesus Christ, God has redeemed us and forgiven us, “according to the riches of his grace that he lavished on us” (Ephesians 1:7). God is generous toward us. God loves us wildly, lavishly, with abandon. God’s love is deep and wide – “God so loved the world!” Our own generosity flows best when we are grasped by this wild, lavish love of God in the depth of our hearts and souls.

We give because we want to make a difference. Yet when we give, we also continue to receive.

When I preach and teach about the wild and lavish love of God, that is part of generosity. We give because we know that lavish love of God. We give because we want to participate in God’s generous self-giving love, making a difference in the lives of others. There is something remarkable about this. We give because we have received love and grace. We give because we want to make a difference. Yet when we give, we also continue to receive.

In a recent book, The Paradox of Generosity, Christian Smith and Hilary Davidson, report on a five-year study on giving and generosity. The study found that generosity is highly correlated with well-being, health and happiness. Reward centers in our brains light up when we are generous. The authors write: “By failing to care for others, we do not properly take care of ourselves. It is no coincidence that the word ‘miser’ is etymologically related to the word ‘miserable’.”

The words of poet David Whyte come to mind. “To give well, appropriately and often is to establish a beautiful symmetry between the urgency within us that wishes to be generous, and the part of the world that is suddenly surprised and happy to receive.” This is about more than financial generosity, though it is not about less than financial generosity. It is also about the giving of our time, attention, energy and intellect.

Among the most important forms of generosity needed in our time is generosity of spirit.

There is one other word about generosity that I need to share. Among the most important forms of generosity needed in our time is generosity of spirit. By generosity of spirit I mean an approach to the world that is open, curious, wondering, compassionate. It is a willingness to listen to others, to want to understand their thinking and their experience. Generosity of spirit does not entail the abandonment of our critical thinking and analytic skills, but it does not confuse critical thinking with criticism thinking or analysis with cynicism. Generosity of spirit is also rooted in our understanding of the wild and lavish love and grace of God. Generosity of spirit flows best when we are grasped by this wild, lavish love of God in the depth of our hearts and souls. We begin by seeing others as wonderful and beautiful people loved by God, people who also know some of the hurts of life and carry pain and wounds.

In a way, my generous concept of generosity means that the whole of the gospel could be summarized in its terms. A generous God, a God who loves with wild abandon, and whose grace is lavish, so lavish that he came to us in Jesus to heal, free and save, continues that work of healing and freeing and saving as God’s Spirit continues to shape us into becoming a more generous people – people generous with our time, our talent, our energy, our intellect, and our resources.