By Larry Ross
president, A. Larry Ross Communications
“No soup for you!” bellowed the Soup Nazi, the legendary character from the popular 1990s NBC sitcom, “Seinfeld,” who became a cultural phenomenon – now immortalized in YouTube infamy – nicknamed for his predictable admonishment denying the order of patrons who didn’t meet his protocol demands while ordering his celebrated potage.
This past week, Rick Warren, renowned pastor of Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, Calif., faced a similar dilemma of having to turn away people in the community in need of assistance – not because of any capricious regimen, but due to limited resources at the close of the last decade.
In the context of the current recession, 2009 was a tough year for many families, causing more people to turn to churches for assistance, be it spiritual, physical emotional – even financial. With more than 10 percent of its members out of work, the needs of congregation and community put Saddleback in a “more bricks, less straw” ministry position. Simultaneous financial cutbacks and ministry expansion of services demanded that all staff and programs provide more assistance with fewer resources.
While experiencing banner ministry impact, including monthly food assistance to 2,000 local families, the Southern California mega-church had been essentially on budget for the first half of its fiscal year, until this past week. But despite 10 overflow Christmas Eve services, the seasonal offering benefiting many of the church’s benevolence outreaches was down significantly; and the timing of Christmas on Friday affected attendance and giving on the final weekend of the year.
During a season in which many individuals and organizations found themselves picking up the pieces and looking toward 2010, Saddleback is not the only local church experiencing a shortfall in giving, but it has been a faithful steward of its ministry resources. But interesting times, such as our present economy, present unique challenges, prompting an unprecedented appeal by Pastor Warren, giving his congregation an opportunity to function as the Church.
Through a special edition of his weekly congregational Intranet letter Dec. 30, Warren asked individuals in the congregation who haven’t been hit by the current recession to step up and help others who have. Beginning with a “Dear Saddleback Family” salutation, his pastoral missive contained inside information intended for members and regular attenders who consider Saddleback their church home.
Warren challenged the congregation to help offset a $900,000 shortfall from the final week offerings that help fund year-end benevolence ministry prior to the start of 2010, which would allow Saddleback to continue to minister and meet the needs of not just Orange County, but Southern California, the nation – and the world, through the PEACE Plan.
Within an hour of hitting “send,” gifts began to roll in and didn’t stop through the weekend, resulting in a total of $2.5 million in contributions – including more than $100,000 received in the mail Monday following the postal holiday.
Warren commended the membership for their ongoing faithfulness, confirming the total represented a record cash offering on the basis of a letter for any church. He further noted that he wasn’t surprised by the response, as Saddleback is known for radical generosity, following single offerings totaling $1.6 million and $1.7 million respectively to help victims of the Asian tsunami and Hurricane Katrina.
Obviously, Saddleback was not alone in a year-end appeal to its congregation. Nor is it exclusive in not asking outsiders to donate, providing a disclaimer from the platform and reinforced with a bulletin notice that visitors who are not members or regular attenders are considered guests, and should not feel compelled to give.
The same is true for a pastoral family letter on the Internet – it is an appeal intended only for members, providing them an opportunity to minister through giving; anyone else is just reading their mail – which is a virtual equivalent to theplate passing them in the pew. So why was Pastor Warren’s letter controversial?
Early media reports implied Saddleback was “going out of business” or in danger of “closing its doors.” Other stories accused Warren of “buy this or the dog gets it” manipulation. Perhaps it had to do with the size of the church or the extent of hisglobal influence.
And yet, the Salvation Army is significantly bigger in scope and reach than Saddleback, yet none of us assume that notable organization is going out of business when we see a bell-ringer at Walmart during the holidays. Instead, we toss a bill into the Red Kettle and thank God they are there to provide a channel of love and compassion for us to lend a helping hand to those in need.
The Bible describes the Church as the “Body of Christ;” when one part hurts, the entire community is affected. But like the Good Samaritan in the New Testament parable, when it comes to meeting felt needs, it is no respecter of persons. Except for limitations of resources, no one is ever turned away based on criteria of color or creed.
As 19th Century missionary Hudson Taylor opined, “God’s work done God’s way never lacks God’s supply.” Indeed, I am grateful to the big hearts and helping hands of the members of Saddleback, who once again rose to the challenge when presented with a need.
As a result, Pastor Warren and the volunteers who fill the church’s food pantries and serve in the kitchens at this critical time of the year don’t have to pronounce, “No soup for you!” Instead, countless individuals and families can reply, “Soup, grazie!” because of radical generosity in Jesus’ name. Yeah God.
Larry Ross is president of A. Larry Ross Communications.