The title may sound a bit too catchy, but this week we're learning how dealing with affluence directly can be just as heartbreaking as dealing with poverty, as this seminarian has discovered:
I am a seminarian doing field work in a church located in a very affluent urban neighborhood. I have seen and heard things here I never imagined I'd encounter: children getting picked up from their after school programs in limos, debate over whether to schedule Lenten programs around the curtain time for the opera and the theater, women who are given the gift of a $13,000 channel ring at the birth of a child or a promotion, a children's choir for 5-8 year olds being treated like it means the difference between getting into Harvard or not, etc., etc.
I chose this congregation because they are politically liberal and do lots of good work, but I am really struggling with their affluence. I have always believed that I could love the people that God placed in my path, but now I'm wondering if that is naive. I'm having trouble really caring about these folks and the issues in their lives. I feel like a terrible person and clergymember-in-training. I know that when it comes down to it, these folks are really no different than parishioners at the middle and working class churches I am familiar with. I also know that the ordination vows will ask that I care for all of God's people. Has anyone ever experienced this before, and what do I do about it?
St. Casserole suggests that it can be just as difficult to be affluent as it can be to live in poverty.
First, try not to be so hard on yourself. Second, try not to be so hard on them. It's not easy to be poor, but nor is it easy to be wealthy. Money allows one to choose medical care and live with comfort, but the worries of the poor and the wealthy are not dissimilar. Both groups want meaning and a good life. When it is a struggle to put food on the table one hardly has time or energy to "think green" or reflect on one's spiritual disciplines. A wealthy person must continue to be "wealthy" in order to understand herself. Identity becomes caught up with material goods. The poor do this, too, but in other ways, with other standards. Enough of the sociology lesson.
Your concern about your ability to love and minister to the very wealthy says a great deal to me about your integrity in ministry. Learning to love all those in our path is a life time's work. Anyone who says it is easy is lying. I suggest that you look beyond the material goods into the hearts of the wealthy folks. Like everyone else, they will be hesitant to show you. What if you don't like them or approve of them? If so, since you are a priest/pastor/minister, if you don't like them maybe God doesn't like them either. Listen beyond the lunch plans and tennis games, the trips and new homes until you hear the panic, anxiety and grind of their daily lives. If you are accessible, interested and loving, you may get to know the members. They hardly know what to make of you probably. You've chosen work that will not make you rich. You can't go to work wearing your Grandmother's 5 carat diamond earrings as they can. You don't pay $225 for a hair trim and your sofa didn't cost $7500. They may wonder how you live. Give them the treat of getting to know you and loving you. Both of you will find this fascinating and enriching (in the non-material sense).
Finally, yippee that you are in a church with politically liberal members who do lots of good work! Help them spend that money and their talents to help the community and world. Give them opportunities to do more than write big checks. The Christian understanding of stewardship is a radical and healing response. We address our woundedness as a community and as individuals when we focus ourselves on giving to God. Again, don't beat yourself up on this one. You are in a great place to learn about yourself. I'm excited for you.
Ann shared that she'd been in a place where members of the church either had 3 homes or needed 3 jobs to live there at all.
This such a great question. The core for me is my whole relationship to wealth, personally. Working with the really rich brings everything I have unresolved about class and economic status to the fore. I like to view myself as nonjudgmental, but oh my do the tapes run in the presence of extreme wealth. Looking at the world or even the US - I am very well off but not at the level of this community as related in the question.
Being raised with one side of my family being immigrants and the other "first family," I can fit in most places, but the class stuff is still hard to deal with. One question to myself is "am I more comfortable with people who are more like me or who look up to me?" So first I have to come to terms with my own "demons" around these issues. It is very difficult to minister with this community if I am resentful about what they have and don't seem to be using for the glory of God.
The thing that worked for me when I was the priest at a church in a very wealthy community is to focus on the person and to try to listen to what was on his/her heart and meet them where they are. We can't beat up on them in sermons--after all, the scriptures speak pretty loudly for themselves: just tell how the scripture confront me in my faith journey rather than "you should be......". Offer praise for the things they are doing and encouragement to step out in faith even more.
For every visible sign of wealth there are are many who think they don't measure up or that they are only loved for what they have materially.
And since this is a liberal congregation, you do have an opportunity. Focus on empowering these people for good. Their resources are not merely financial, but they also have influence and connections. The gospel mandate is for grace, justice and compassion. People with resources can often be converted to those issues when they can use that influence to enact change.
If nothing else you will learn more about yourself and be stretched - before settling into a more comfortable venue.
How do you empower the affluent to do good? Is there a particular ministry that you've found really helps engage these folks on the spiritual level? Share your thoughts in the comments.
And with lent coming, we invite your questions on ministry for upcoming columns. Send them to firstname.lastname@example.org.