Mikestrathdee’s Blog


Tending the Body – Generosity Across the Generations

Published in the Summer 2014 edition of Leader Magazine
When I was a boy, finding ways to earn money was easy. By age 10 I was selling greeting cards and TV Guides, then delivering the morning paper. In my teen years, even for a smaller-than-average kid, there were no end of opportunities – mowing lawns, scooping ice cream and stacking shelves at our small town store.
I had to work my way through university, helped by several part-time jobs and small student loans that were repaid within a couple of years. Debt wasn’t a huge issue, as I mostly just spent what I could afford.
Decades later, the world that my daughters face is considerably different. Jobs are scarcer. Education costs have soared at a rate many times the increases in what can be earned from part-time and summer jobs.
Credit is easy to get, but the debts that accompany its use are harder to repay. Being in debt is the norm. Our children and young people are overwhelmed with choices and opportunities to spend far beyond what we or our parents ever had. Unless a person chooses early on to make giving a part of their life pattern, there will always be excuses why not.
We dare not allow our churches to be silent on the connection between our use of material things and our spiritual walk. A giving God created us to reflect and pass on God’s generosity. That’s a tough sell in our culture.
Author Nathan Dungan says many youth will encounter as many as 5,000 advertising images in a day encouraging them to spend (ignoring two other important purposes God intends for material possessions– sharing and saving).
Irregular and incomplete messages about money are too often the norm in church settings. In many congregations, there are year-end bulletin appeals. There are pleas from the front of the sanctuary to give more to close the gap between church income and what is needed to meet the budget.
Where are the other messages we all need to hear about money, regardless of our age? We all need examples of how to live contentedly, within our means. We need to hear warnings about the cost of debt, spiritual and otherwise, and the trade-offs we need to make.
The question of how to provide counter-cultural opportunities, to help to form and grow the generosity impulse in children and young people, is a major issue for the long-term health of the church and the spiritual growth of future generations.
We need to wrestle with what the gaps are in helping young people to gain a holistic appreciation of dealing with money. Then we need to reflect on how we fill those gaps.
Some congregations do a good job of involving young children in the offering. Having a separate box or other container into which children can bring coins is a helpful practice, as is designating a special project for that offering.
What happens when children graduate to junior youth and beyond? Where are the forums for conversation, for modeling giving as spiritual protection against consumerism? When are our young people invited to regularly give, to view the offering as a spiritual act?
Mennonite Foundation of Canada has had considerable success in starting conversations about holistic use of money with a Timbit Economics/ Lifestyle Choices game. This game allows people to have fun contemplating choices around food, clothing, lodging, transportation, leisure, charitable giving and taxes, using donut holes as a form of proxy currency that can be eaten at the end of the exercise. You can get details about how to play the game at this web link:
http://www.mennofoundation.ca/downloads/timbit-economics.pdf
The game is most often done with high school or young adult groups, but works well as an intergenerational activity. It is best suited for groups of between 20 and 50 people, to allow for mixing people up into imaginary households of 5 to 7 people.
If you are seeking multi-week curriculum, Mennonite Foundation has adapted Everence’s Money Matters for Youth publication for the Canadian context. This seven lesson resource, intended for 45-minute Sunday school classes, includes sessions on biblical perspectives on money, budgeting, debt, saving and giving. It includes suggestions for accompanying print, video and music resources.
You can download the PDF file at this address: http://www.mennofoundation.ca/downloads/money-matters-for-youth.pdf
The original Everence version of this study, plus two other studies: Stewardship for Kids and Three Key Questions and Money: What’s God Got To Do With It? (for youth groups) can be found at this link: http://www.everence.com/showitem.aspx?id=12617



Why Business Matters to God – And What Still Needs to Be Fixed
January 9, 2013, 9:50 pm
Filed under: Business, Environment, Generosity, Investing, Theology, Uncategorized, Work

Why Business Matters to God (And What Still Needs to Be Fixed)
Jeff Van Duzer Inter Varsity Press, 2010, 201 pages
For Van Duzer, business is about much more than the bottom line. “Business is intended to serve the common good by providing goods and services that enable the community to flourish and by providing opportunities for individuals to express aspects of their God-given identities through meaningful and creative work,” he writes in Why Business Matters to God.
The author is a lawyer and Dean of the School of Business and Economics at Seattle Pacific University. His keynote address at the opening of the 2012 Mennonite Economic Development Associates (MEDA) convention of in Niagara Falls in November was by far the highlight of the event.
Van Duzer’s reflections on business and why it does matter as part of God’s redemptive plan for humanity encompass the scope of the biblical narrative – creation, fall, redemption and consummation. His incisive analysis will give pause to entrepreneurs and church leaders alike, for a variety of reasons. He persuasively explains why the cherished notion of the free market, for instance, is a post-fall construction, given its dependence on scarcity. His analysis touches on the role of a providing a living wage and care of the environment in conducting business, among other considerations. “Business must concern itself with redemptive as well as creative work.’’
The even-handed approach that he brings to this work is shown by the fact that early reviewers – business people and theologians, all found something different to pick at. “Business associates criticized the text as being too negative about business… My theology friends, however, argued just the opposite.”
I often read while traveling, but have never been asked by strangers about what I am reading. This book elicited questions from several people curious about its message. Well worth taking in at several sittings and pondering at length.



Full-time pastors on the decrease – What can congregations do to reduce turnover and attract strong leaders? -published in Sept. 2011 Christian Week Ontario
September 26, 2011, 2:29 pm
Filed under: Charitable Giving, Communication, Financial Management, Generosity, Investing, Work

Several media outlets had a field day this summer after learning that top staff at some Canadian charities earned six-figure salaries last year.

No effort was made to provide context in terms of the responsibilities and workloads of those people, nor how they compare with private sector counterparts.

They also focused on a small minority. The vast majority of registered charities in Canada operate with budgets equal to or less than the salaries paid to CEOS, presidents and fundraisers at the few large institutions whose Canada Revenue Agency filings formed the basis of the stories.
Reading the story, my thoughts went in a completely different direction than worrying about what the movers and shakers are earning.

I started wondering about part-time pastors.

Our church recently said goodbye to a talented young man who was a part-time associate pastor for an all-too-brief four years. I can’t blame him, as a recently married 20-something, for looking to focus on one job. He has already started a new full-time role with a relief and development charity that he was working for part-time alongside his pastoral work. Their gain is our loss.

His predecessors served a single term in the same position at our church. That says more about the demands of the job than any of the people involved.

Over lunch, Darren reflected on the challenges of juggling a couple jobs, and told me that churches need to offer as close to full-time as possible to minimize turnover and avoid burning out staff.

Unfortunately, the trend is in the opposite direction. Research by Rick Hiemstra of the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada found that between 2003 and 2009, Canadian evangelical churches, both urban and rural:

  • tended to reduce their full-time staffing complements.
  • tended to add part-time staff.
  • converted some full-time positions to part-time ones.

Hiemstra studied tax filings by more than 5,400 congregations. He found that 50 per cent more congregations had no full-time staff in 2009 than was the case in 2003, even though congregational income generally rose over that time period.

“It is conceivable, if current trends continue, that a decade from now half of rural congregations will be without full-time staff, and most will be reduced to just one,” Hiemstra wrote.

Some of the change can be explained by churches moving from hiring full-time generalists to hiring part-time specialists, recognizing that it is a rare individual who has all of the gifts that a congregation is seeking. But Hiemstra also notes that “rural congregations appear to be having trouble attracting and retaining staff.”

As a father of adolescent children, I’m gradually cluing in to the primary importance of lasting relationships in faith formation. When I asked Darren what it might take to improve the chances that his successor will stick around longer, he suggested churches may have to stop looking to “20-somethings” to fill youth and young adult pastoral positions. The average university grad will change jobs a couple times before turning 30, so churches should be seeking out older candidates, he said.

But that would involve paying more, a tough sell in today’s climate.



Usufruct
January 21, 2011, 10:12 pm
Filed under: Generosity, Investing, Work

Think much about use of fruit?  – published in Canadian Mennonite

In January, Beryl Jantzi, a U.S. stewardship educator, told a gathering of pastors at the Mennonite seminary in Indiana that they should spend some time pondering the concept of Usufruct.

Usufruct is the legal right to use and derive profit from something that belongs to another person, so long as the property is not damaged. The concept dates back to Roman times.

The word doesn’t appear in the Bible. But it has great application to a Christian world view. Spend some time with it and you will come to realize that there is a really rich vein to be mined.

Usufruct comes from the Latin expression usus et fructus, meaning using and enjoyment. We can also think of “use of fruit.” How do we use the fruits of our life for our enjoyment, in ways that honor God and aren’t damaging to God’s property? We’re called to do both, to enjoy what we have been given, in ways that honor God and aren’t damaging to God’s property. And God’s property is everything we have been given.

As we accept God’s lordship and ownership of all, the conduct of our lives becomes pretty relevant to a discussion of use of fruit.

In the Old Testament book of Leviticus, God told Moses that people working the land need to leave some of the harvest for the less fortunate. “Now when you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very corners of your fields, nor shall you gather the gleanings of your harvest.” Lev 19: v 9

The media and culture of our world encourage us to harvest right to the edge of the field, and often beyond, unfortunately.

We live in a country where the average person spends $1.47 for every dollar they earn, where a staggering proportion of the trillion dollar debt Canadians owe was put on credit cards for things that have no lasting temporal, let alone eternal, value.

Leaving anything around the edges, let alone for anyone else’s benefit, is a pretty countercultural concept.

Part of me really is attracted by the arguments in Richard Swenson’s book “Margin.” Swenson stresses the need to leave space, or margin, in four areas of our lives: finances, physical energy, emotional energy and time. Part of that involves the word “NO.” If we are given 100 choices of good things but can only do, or buy, 10 of them, we have to say no 90 times, or lose out on the 10 best.

It’s also a question of will, of being committed to under scheduling our lives and budgets, to “leaving room to respond to the unexpected that God sends our way,” in Swenson’s words.

Swenson’s book has been around for decades. The cover on the edition I bought a few years back was incredibly compelling. It pictured an expired parking meter, a sad metaphor for how our society often lives.

To live in the heart of God, to experience or grow into a life of Faithful, Joyful Giving that we are called to, means that we have to do the hard work of thinking about and working at things that aren’t so common. To live with margin in our lives, to be ever conscious of our responsibility to carefully steward the fruit that God has provided.

Things like not harvesting to the edge of the field of our lives – leaving some reserves of time, energy and money so we can respond to God’s call in our life. Things like margin and Usufruct – use of fruit.



Working towards meaning – Jan 2009 Canadian Mennonite
January 8, 2009, 3:31 am
Filed under: Financial Management, Investing, retirement, Work

God, Money and Me

Working our way towards meaning

“What’s your theology of work?” the seminar leader asked his audience. And how, he wanted to know, does that view of work get expressed in dinnertime conversations at home? If families don’t teach a proper theology of work, their children could grow up viewing work as drudgery, something to be avoided, he said.

John Beckett, in the book Mastering Monday: A Guide to Integrating Faith and Work, points out that Adam and Eve’s early work was a source of pleasure, “a reflection of the Father’s own creativity and diligence.” Far too often, he writes, we take a completely different view of work, which is why 9 a.m. Monday morning is the peak period for heart attacks.

Part of whether we can say, “Thank God it’s Monday” with the same enthusiasm we embrace the weekend, may depend on whether we have a Genesis 2 or a Genesis 3 view of our labour. Do we view it as a creative and fulfilling act or as cursed drudgery that is at best a means to an end?

Often conversations about work move to plans for a time when current efforts give way to other pursuits. When people express concern to me about how the recent stock market drop has ravaged their retirement savings, I joke that my RRSP puts me on the “Freedom 85” plan.

There is no denying the difficulties that recent events have caused for millions of people who are already retired or contemplating retirement. One recent report suggested that many folks will have to postpone retirement by six or seven years.

[I]t is difficult to find support in the Bible for our modern notion of retirement.

At the same time, I wonder if our expectations of being entitled to get out of the work force to a life of leisure as early as possible are also a problem. In a previous career writing for a daily newspaper, I was saddened to learn of former co-workers who died soon after leaving their jobs. Deadline stress, poor lifestyle choices and working night shifts may have been contributing factors. I’ve also read of people in a variety of other industries dropping dead shortly after getting their gold watch. In some cases, they had so much of their identity tied up in doing, that they lacked purpose beyond the workplace.

More fortunate are those who find themselves so bored after a few months of leisure that they seek out a new, often slower-paced, career.

In his best-selling book, The Number: A Completely Different Way To Think About The Rest of Your Life, Lee Eisenberg cites a study about attitudes towards work. “Nearly 70 percent of pre-retirees said they plan to work at least part-time in their ‘retirement’ years, or plan never to retire at all.” For some, the decision is based on financial necessity. Yet more than two-thirds of respondents to a national survey cited work as being the way a person “stays active, remains useful and has fun.”

And it is difficult to find support in the Bible for our modern notion of retirement. God put Adam in charge of naming things in the Garden of Eden so he would have purpose and meaning in his life. How does that understanding of work mesh with your plans for what could be the last quarter of your life?

Eisenberg talks about “downshifting” being a healthier alternative to giving up employment altogether. For him, “revolving retirement” involves short-term jobs, new fields of endeavour and ongoing efforts to bring money and meaning into alignment. That sounds good to me.



In Praise of smaller tax refunds
January 1, 2009, 5:35 pm
Filed under: Financial Management, Investing, Work

Figuring out what to do with their income tax refund is an annual spring ritual for Canadians.
In 2006, the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA), our national tax collector, said that about 24.1 million tax returns were filed, of which almost 15.7 million individuals received refunds. The average refund was more than $1,300.
For some, tax refunds provide the means to top up children’s education plans or retirement savings. Others make an extra payment on outstanding debt, launch into this year’s home renovation project or plan their family vacation.
In the pre-parenting stage of life, tax refund time was one of a couple times a year that Carolyn and I would sift through appeal letters from charities and make decisions about one-time gifts. That may have been a response to hearing from a charity whose workers had to raise all of their own support tell me that spring was often the leanest period of the year for gifts.
Eastern Mennonite University had a great challenge in a recent ad. The headline, “Buy something or change lives?” asked people to consider investing their refund in kingdom work by helping students attend college.
Predictably, others are ready to pounce on our inclination to spend rather than share or save. Several American retail chains have a promotion to get people to spend their refunds right away. Kroger’s grocery stores, Kmart, Lands’ End and Sears offer to add 10 per cent to a tax refund, provided the entire refund is used to buy a gift card at their store.
Sometimes when I’m speaking to churches, I see if anyone is listening by suggesting that we shouldn’t get tax refunds. Christians who give regularly and substantially to the work of their congregation should not be receiving tax refunds—not big ones, in any event. It’s bad planning, unless your personal sense of patriotism and philanthropy extends to giving the government an interest-free loan every year.
While some people truly look forward to getting a big cheque or electronic transfer into their account, many people would be better off with a bit of extra cash flow every pay period throughout the year.
The federal government lets taxpayers request that their employer take less tax off their pay cheque if their situation indicates they will likely be getting a refund. You can get the “Request to Reduce Tax Deductions at Source” form from the CRA website (cra-arc.gc.ca) or your closest CRA office. The form must be completed each year, but only takes a few minutes to fill out. CRA will send back a letter within eight weeks indicating if your request is approved, and telling your employer how much less tax can be deducted from your pay at source.
Things that CRA will take into consideration in granting the request include regular RRSP contributions (other than payroll plans), childcare expenses, employment expenses, interest expenses and carrying charges on investment loans. Charitable donations are mentioned under the “other” category.
Curiously, our federal tax collectors, who keep statistics on everything under the sun, say they don’t keep records on how many Canadians apply to have less tax deducted at source. Nor do they do much to promote this concept.
But in the spirit of doing all we can with what we have, it’s worth exploring.
Mike Strathdee, CFP, is a stewardship consultant at the Kitchener, Ont., office of Mennonite Foundation of Canada (MFC).