Bishop James Swanson, resident bishop of Holston Conference, will not be intimidated by the news.
While the country’s economic outlook has many people running scared, this United Methodist leader is stepping up. He’s rallying the troops of his 906 Holston churches to seize the opportunity before them.
“This is a great time to be the church,” he said on a recent weekday morning in his Alcoa office. “Yes, it is a tough time, but your confidence shouldn’t have been in the economy anyway.
“Maybe this is a gift from God to help us get our priorities straight and to help us understand: We have a responsibility to give back to God, because God has been so good to us.”
In a candid interview for The Call, Bishop Swanson spoke of how Christians should be the body of Christ for their suffering communities. They should not respond with panic and fear as others will do, but “speak a word of hope and confidence.”
The bishop said he wanted to reach out to Holston members with this message: “Our hope is not in money. Our hope is in God.”
“The church has got to understand that we’re not a business. We’re a movement,” he said. “We are the hands, feet, arms, smiles, hugs, heart, and brain of God in this world. And if we don’t act like the church, especially when they really need us, then what will become of this world?”
“This is not the time to go fishing,” Bishop Swanson said, referring to John 21 and also to his sermon from “Clergy Gathering.”
During the Oct. 21 meeting, Swanson told clergy, “This is not the time for us to go fishing. This is not the time to retreat from God’s vision, to retreat from the work that God has put in front of us.”
Giving back to God
While talking in his office, Swanson referred to the conference “Offer Them Christ” directive. “This is exactly what this is,” he said. “This is our opportunity to offer them Christ.”
He also cited statistics showing that giving in Holston Conference is already low for the year, and United Methodists in general do not give close to the Biblical standard of 10 percent of their incomes to the church.
As of Sept. 30, apportionment giving for the conference budget was $200,000 shorter than it was for the same period in 2007, according to the treasurer’s office.
A 2007 General Council on Finance and Administration report also showed that United Methodists collectively give between 1 and 2 percent of their total incomes. These percentages are among the lowest in U.S. denominations, according to the report.
“For us to quit giving to God when times are tough indicates that we were only giving out of surplus rather than out of regular, faithful giving,” Swanson said. “To put God on the back burner – when he has never put us on the back burner – is the height of ingratitude.”
Church treasurers expect that a large portion of the church’s annual giving will be received in December. The indication is that many members either neglect to give throughout the year, or they’re basing gifts on end-of-year tax deductions, Swanson said.
“Now I appreciate that in this country, you get a tax deduction for giving to the church,” he said. “But that’s not how you ought to be giving to God. I challenge our members to see giving as part of the total response to God in their relationships with God.”
In good company
Swanson spoke of the importance of community during tough times (an emphasis he also made in his October newspaper column simply titled, Community”).
“It’s almost as if, in America, we have a disdain for needing each other,” he said. “We have a fear of – not of being impoverished – but a fear that our neighbors might find out we need them.
“Yet, when I go to the small churches in Holston, their strength is that they bond together, and they do need each other. And what is the church for, anyway?” he said. “Isn’t the church about forming a community with each other? God never intended us to be solo in our lives -- these rugged, bourgeois individuals. He always intended for us to be in community.”
Jesus was born into a family, Swanson said, and the first thing he did, when he left his family, was to form a new community. “He was the savior of the world, and his best days were spent in the company of 12 men.”
Swanson said he hoped that lay people will take the lead in forming communities as the nation recovers from financial turmoil – especially in supporting their own pastors.
“My pastors are hurting out there, and I want them to know they’re not by themselves.”
Lay people sometimes know best what it means to be the church, the bishop said, because they personally have experienced the love of the church during struggles such as a spouse’s death or health crisis.
“I want our lay people to rally around our pastors and give them the support they have known during their own tough times.”
“I don’t want to see the church try to run on secular ethics,” he said. “The church should only be interested in God-sized visions. If you don’t need God to do it, then why even attempt it?
“Make space for God to come in – to clearly show his powerful ability to extend our reach beyond our own limits and abilities,” Swanson said.
Then, he said, the rest of the world will look over and say, “Now that is why I want to be part of the church, because I know they couldn’t do that on their own."