Doing Some Systems Thinking About Money & Other Things

ojaysRemember the O’Jays?

The powerhouse 70’s soul group gave us the hit song “For the Love of Money.” If you don’t remember it, or wonder if you ever heard it, think Donald Trump. It is hard NOT to think about Donald Trump these days. “For the Love of Money” serves as theme music for the real estate mogul’s Apprentice television franchise. The repetitive chorus “money, money, money, money” is memorable and catchy.

Often misinterpreted as a song that celebrates the accumulation of money, it actually has another message entirely. “For the Love of Money” is an unadorned warning about the other, more sordid, side of the accumulation of wealth. It points out what people wind up doing to gain more of the green stuff: cheat, lie, even steal from their mother.

Songwriters Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff gave the O’Jays this striking statement about greed and financial gain. At the time, their song-writing skills were making them quite a lot of “money, money, money, money.” Recent religious converts, Gamble and Huff also were reconciling their spiritual beliefs with their lifestyle. They were curious about money’s impact on their own lives, and how it might ultimately change them. The main intention of the song is clear: Don’t let money consume or define you.

The O’Jays and Gamble and Huff were onto something. What would it be like to be curious about what actually defines us? What do we believe? How do we live like we believe what we say? And how does “money, money, money, money” play a role?

Emotional process theologian and Rabbi Edwin Friedman, the author of Generation to Generation and A Failure of Nerve, often reminded his students that “the issue is never the issue.”

How does that translate to money? There are layers under anything where money is involved. Money is the flash point. Money and stewardship are the focused upon “tip of an iceberg.” What lies beneath the tip of that iceberg? Relationships and the give-and-take between people encompass the larger body of ice that exists under the surface of the water. Because you and I associate money and stewardship processes s with survival or avoidance of pain, it is easy for money and stewardship to be a focus of heightened fear. To observe what lies underneath the surface might just be the beginning of a spiritual awakening.

Dorothy Parker once said that “the cure for boredom is curiosity. There is no cure for curiosity.”
There is nothing boring about congregations and congregational life in the 21st century! The ability to observe what happens in communities of faith around money, stewardship, and mission involves allowing our curiosity to emerge. It involves engaging our thinking brains rather than our reactivity. Curiosity has a motivating power. Can we be curious about the intensity that surrounds a budget shift or a staff reduction? Any chance we can look at something in our own history or the history of the organization that might give a clue about what is happening with me? What would it be like to be curious about my own reactions to a budget that is not supporting something I hold dear or a key mission initiative?

Money and stewardship unleash the power of the automatic. I affectionately call reactive terms “the f words” – fight, flight, freeze, fuze, frenzy, fornicate, feeding and ph-armacology. “The f words” demonstrate the survival buttons that God installed in us. In the event of a threat, either real or imagined, mobilize! Help me feel better right now! And do it in a familiar way. Everyone has a favorite reactive style, and it doesn’t usually fall far from the family tree.

Margaret Marcuson, in her most recent work on money and ministry, talks about the way the automatic reactivities emerge in interesting forms in congregational life: secrecy about the budget and use of money; denial about financial realities; over- or under-estimating giving capacities; regular crises, real or imagined, around finances; embezzlement or mismanagement; resisting necessary expenses like deferred maintenance; reactivity during fund raising; never talking about money; always talking about money; blind trust in the leadership around money; supreme suspicion of leadership around money matters. (Money and Your Ministry, p. 17) We see these forms in every facet of the church of today.

Developing a maturing faith involves the capacity to be aware of one’s own sensitivities to the people and circumstances that surround us and to call forth our best self when those sensitivities are challenged . A maturing faith involves the ability to balance the emotional and intellectual components of our lives. A maturing faith involves awareness of the impact of others on us, but also awareness of the impact that we have on others. Money and stewardship are primary arenas in which our faith can be stretched to encompass a new way of being with ourselves and with others. Maintaining curiosity without letting “the f words” shut us down and limit our ability to stay in the game allows us to learn from this most vital part of our life in faith.

Raised with second generation immigrant parents, my siblings and I had access to resources that were unavailable to our parents. Our opportunities for education and easy “money, money, money, money” were a dream-come-true for our parents and grandparents . The result was so automatic that it could be an emotional systems case study. Our easy access created the tension of associating access to resources as “success” and the opposite as failure. It wasn’t until I faced years of tough struggles in church budgets, building programs, and losses of key stewardship leaders that I had to acknowledge that my automatic reactions did not fit my experience. It also did not fit with my desire to live into a faith defined by the cross, where failure is also the beginning of resurrection and new life. I had to grow up.

Knowing what we believe about money and stewardship is important. Equally important is the ability to maintain our curiosity when what we believe and what we react to just don’t seem to match. Knowing your family’s story about money and stewardship helps to put the automatic into perspective. Lillian Daniel describes her own struggle with how her “money autobiography” collided with her congregation’s attitude toward offerings in “Money Off the Shelf” in This Odd and Wondrous Calling. She demonstrates beautifully that knowing your own story and knowing your congregation’s story are central to responsible and faithful leadership whatever position you occupy in God’s realm.

The O’Jays remind us to observe better and without judgment. If we come to see that where our fears erupt is where a more mature family and a more mature church can emerge. Maturing congregations manage the conflicts, find differences intriguing and a sign of new life, and acknowledge that the grace of God exists in the places where the hidden is revealed.


*A later version of this appeared in “The Lutheran” in May of 2015.

Interested in further reading?

Daniel, Lillian and Martin Copenhaver. This Odd and Wondrous Calling.

Marcuson, Margaret. Money and Your Ministry: Balance the Books While Keeping Your Balance.

Ott, Emlyn A. “The Search for Solidity in an Age of Urgency” in Sources of Authority in the Church: Lutheran Traditions in North American Contexts.