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Thursday, January 31, 2008

Ask the Matriarch — The "Blingdom" of God

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


  1. I think there is some wonderful Matriarch wisdom here!

  2. As I commented to one of my daughters, just because people live in bigger houses or driver snazzier cars does not mean they experience more happiness or are more content. My experience shows me otherwise.

    What is a constant challenge for me is to explain and reinforce the concept of Francis of Assisi: "it is in giving that we receive." The most joyful people are those who give, regardless of how much they earn.

    When my time, my possessions and my talents cease to be my own, I stop clinging to them and spend them... happily.


  3. Thanks for this wisdom. I've struggled with a similar situation.

  4. I'm a woman in ministry who is also very affluent (hubby is not in ministry!). Our affluence did not prevent us from losing a child, from real distress involving employment, from the separations from friends and family that numerous relocations have entailed. You can connect with your parishioners through basic human feelings, hopes, and fears.

  5. I've got a very wealthy family in my congregation, but they're also incrediby giving. And, they talk about the fact that they sometimes feel 'guilty' for having money - although I've never known more generous people. And, as someone else has mentioned, their money has not prevented some really sad things happening in their lives.

    One word about the symphony, my sister makes her living playing in one. They need all the support they can get!

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  7. Not wanting to clog the page up here, and in an attempt to get used to blogging, I put my thoughts in my space.

  8. You have great insight, as do those who have shared here. Without duplicating too much..this reminded me of two things, my home church growing up, and my daughters' Montessori school. I could have said much of what you said about priviledge etc. But the truth I learned was, as maggie has shared. Basic joys and sorrows of life are universal, as is the need for faith. And the well-heeled of that school provided the most inclusive, diverse, nurturing place, and took on the most incredible social "ministry" across religious boundaries I have ever experienced. Thanks to my home church I took servant trips that the congregation paid for to do work in the poorest of places, not just sending a check. Having the ability to make change comes in many forms. And while tedious people come in many stripes, so do the gems we remember for a lifetime. Between the lines of conversation, I predict you will be surprised. A good movie to watch is "The Ultimate Gift."

  9. I appreciate all the encouragement here to love and appreciate the wealthy, not condemn them, and see that the wealth doesn't protect them from other griefs and tragedies. But I have a problem with asserting that it is just as hard to be wealthy. Poor and working class people have all the same griefs and tragedies, without the coping help available from wealth, and a lot more caused by class injustice in this country.

    I speak out of a lot of privilege myself--my husband is well employed though my ministry is pretty much volunteer--which I am trying to learn to acknowledge and be converted from. I have lost two children, one tragically, and suffered grave abuse leaving me with severe PTSD--and these things have been substantially eased by having resources for therapy, health care, time off paid work, etc. People who are poor don't need pity but they do need justice and the acknowledgement that society and church alike are far from it. And race doesn't reduce to class but is very related since people of color are disproportionately poor, so failure to address classism also goes with failure to address racism.

    There is a fantastic series of posts on classism, esp. in church and the ordination process, at
    right now which I really recommend.

  10. Great question ... and some terrific thoughts here in the answers.

    We are to love all - even the rich - but it ain't always easy at either end of the spectrum .. why? because they ain't like us!

    I remember CH's "Miss Snotleigh or was it Bentleigh and we all laughed ... but it is a challenge to really bring the Gospel to all isn't it?

    thanks for such an insightful question and challenging thoughts too.

    Blessed weekend!

  11. Oh thank you for this topic...My new job is in two contrasting parishes, one definitely millionaires' row, the other mostly council housing, but on the interview day I felt that there were huge unspoken griefs and disappointments in the wealthier community, while the other one, though struggling on many levels seemed more integrated and comfortable with itself. I wonder if that makes sense?
    My challenge, though, will be to help both congregations understand that they can give...when I asked a mission focussed question, the silence by way of reply was deafening. Interesting times to come, I think


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