In the iconic movie, The Man Who Knew Too Much, Doris Day asks about the future in the context of several pivotal relational moments. To each question, the refrain asserts:
Que sera, sera
Whatever will be, will be
The future's not ours to see
Que sera, sera.
Indeed, the future is not ours to see. That said, we dedicate a good deal of our lives to planning for it--for ourselves, for our children, for generations to come.
The Iroquois people practice seven generation stewardship. The concept originated with the Great Law of the Iroquois and urges the current generation to live and work for the wellbeing of those 140 years into the future. They ask, "Will the decisions I make today benefit our children in seven generations?" What does it mean, in the context of church today, to live and work for the benefit of those seven generations into the future?
It requires taking seriously that church will look nothing like it does today. Current trends tell us that "church" is likely to function as neighborhood (however that is defined) movements and initiatives. Churches as physical structures, dedicated primarily to the purpose of worship on a Sunday morning and a particular congregation's activities in between, are likely to be few and far between. The physical structures that do exist may have a very different relationship with their congregations than those in the past.
What does this mean? It means churches today either are or will soon be facing questions of sustainability. The model of church from seven generations ago does not and cannot work today. A CPR consultant reflects: "Churches are struggling almost exclusively with two questions: What can we cut? and Where can we get more money?"
These questions imply that churches would like to figure out how to maintain, in order to keep doing as we always have. Just as I do not worship as my ancestors, who settled in the area now known as Farmington in Connecticut, the traditions of my spiritual life will not work for my great-great-great-great-great grandchildren (please take this seriously). And as a woman of faith, I would be appalled if it did.
The Spirit of Life we call the Still-Speaking God entrusted us with bounties and resources to use for the common good. In considering what this means today and in anticipating the "seven generation stewardship" concept, we are called to radically plan for a future we will never see and cannot imagine." Kahlil Gibran, in his book The Prophet, speaks through Almitra to say of children, "Your children are not your children. They are the sons and daughters of life's longing for itself.... You can try to be like them, but you cannot make them just like you, for their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams."
So how do we plan for a future we will never see and cannot imagine? Every time we ask someone to entrust assets to a church, we ask them to do that. Estate planning. We do not steward that money very well, however, hoarding it like the "wicked servant" in the story of the talents. I once heard a Judicatory minister in the United Church of Christ say to a Finance Committee of a local church, "If I give you money to do God's work in the world in my name after I die, and once you receive it, you put it in an investment account somewhere, I will come back and take it away from you!" I fear the point was lost in the ensuing laughter.
In this generation, some churches are already having to face issues, not just of sustainability, but consequentially, of viability. This struggle is more likely coming to a church near you in the reasonably near future. How will your congregation apply the principles of seven generation stewardship?
I would submit for your consideration that sometimes the answer will have to be, "By becoming a Legacy Church." Loving God, loving one another, and taking seriously the biblical concept of stewardship means that our resources are not our resources any more than our children are our children. They all--the children and the resources--are meant to dwell in the house of tomorrow. What will our legacy be to those we will never see, living in a world we cannot visit, even in our dreams?
It means leaving the resources to the people of the future so they can live in and respond as people of faith to the dynamics that will form their missions--entrusting precious resources, a la Genesis.
Sometimes this will mean the most faithful thing a congregation can do is stop using that building solely for themselves, their programs, their vision of what the future should be. The building will need to be sold, converted, perhaps to meet a community need. (My favorite vision is for churches to become year-round community CSAs, with the south wall converted to a greenhouse.) Then any assets will either be given to another form of church, or to the judicatory or national body that is most living into the future.
What will your legacy be?
The Rev. Dr. Claire Bamberg has served UCC and UUA churches as a redevelopment, transitional, interim and settled minister in several states. Claire is also a licensed mental health practitioner and certified mediator, and has founded and run two pastoral counseling centers, respectively, and currently serves in her ninth year as settled minister in Plainville, Connecticut. An expert in human development and systems theory, she is passionate about empowering individuals and systems to discover and claim their best "selves." She brings that passion to bear in her role with CPR as the Director of Coaching. Claire holds her M.Div from Harvard Divinity School and her Doctorate in Ministry from CTS (IN).