I am deeply appreciative to Hoosier United Methodists, who have cared exceptionally for Jan and me over the 30+ years of my service.
I was a somewhat unusual animal in that I was called into ministry as a fifteen-year-old and never looked back. Jan also was somewhat unusual in having a hunch during her teen years that she would likely marry a United Methodist pastor, even as she pursued a career in nursing or music!
Our home churches, Bluffton First (Greg) and Matthews Epworth (Jan) UMCs, along with family and friends, district and conference personnel, pastors, camp leaders, Annual Conference attendees, peers, professors, (and the list goes on!), all supported us, prayed for us, encouraged us, and guided us as we made transitions to college, seminary, marriage, parenthood and ultimately, pastoral ministry. We could not have done it without these saints. Not only did they pave the way for us, but they instilled within us a courage to dream, a will to thrive, and a practice of being thankful.
It was due to their collective influence that we were able to negotiate seminary on very little means. While living very near the poverty line during those years, as well as into the early years of full-time ministry, we were able to keep perspective because we knew how truly wealthy we were…in spiritual terms of being children of God, as well as in physical terms (I recall reading that those who live at the poverty level in the U.S. are still better off than seventy-five to eighty percent of the world’s population!).
During the first year of full-time ministry in 1985, we were also convicted to put our money where our hearts were. So we began tithing. This decision was not primarily about guilt, though it requires a healthy amount of guilt to be convicted! Nor was it primarily about appearances, though clergy households, for both better and worse are, by nature, modeling the Christian life. Our decision to tithe was not even about whether or not we could afford it. Instead, it was a realization that we could not afford NOT to tithe!
I am, of course, not talking finances, but stewardship. On the one hand, Jan and I were grateful to an awesome God of grace for all the gifts that life in Christ showers upon us. On the other hand, we knew we had to take the leap of faith required to tithe simply, because we were ready to rely solely upon God and upon God alone.
An odd thing happened once we began tithing too. Instead of giving in to a theology of scarcity and bemoaning the fact that “the system” was rewarding my master’s degree with a salary at the poverty level, I began to recognize and appreciate that the good people of the UMC were giving us a means to live (and on only one income at that time!), investing in my retirement years with a generous pension, and providing security for us and our growing family by paying the larger share of our health insurance coverage. Oh…and the run-down parsonage with accompanying utilities was no longer criticized nor taken for granted, but celebrated as spacious, comfortable, and genuinely quite livable!
As our income grew, sometimes modestly, sometimes generously, Jan and I never wanted for anything, save luxury items, newer cars, and more extravagant vacations that tempted. While I have been fortunate to earn at or just above the DAC for several years now, I also have been thankful that the good people of the UMC have been committed to increasing conference minimums from hovering at the poverty level for decades (for a family of four) to right at double the poverty level today. Pension and health benefits have also continued to be very gracious by any standard. Futher, when we factor housing and utility provisions, clergy and clergy families are very well cared for by the generous spirit of our United Methodist Church family.
With additional resources such as Rejuvenate, equitable salaries, cabinet grants, The Com-passion Fund, The UM Foundation of Indiana, seminary scholarships, UM Loans & Scholarships, continuing education grants, etc., we have great opportunity to live out of a theology of gratefulness instead of a theology of scarcity.
This in no way overlooks the reality that there are genuine needs among us. Nor does it undermine our gospel-given mandate to extend care and compassion to those who are most vulnerable, including those who faithfully serve the Church. Neither does looking through the lens of gratitude give us, Hoosier United Methodists, cause to rest on our laurels, risking all the forward strides we have made. Undergraduate and seminary debt, for instance, along with higher health care costs, burden today’s generation of new pastors and families much more heavily than they did Jan and me and our peers. We must continue to find ways to address these issues.
Even still, a theology of gratefulness does invite us to celebrate the faithful stewardship of United Methodists across Indiana…fiscally, yes, but also practically, by so graciously caring for clergy and clergy families. A theology of gratefulness also invites us to consume a healthy dose of reality…that the church’s stewardship in caring for clergy empowers clergy families today in ways that were but dreams thirty years ago, current challenges acknowledged.
We have been, and continue to be, truly blessed.
Greg Rittenhouse is currently pastor of the church in which he grew up, Bluffton First United Methodist Church, and Chair of the Indiana Conference Board of Pensions and Health Insurance. Greg took a $10,000+ cut in salary in 2011 to go on limited itinerancy so that his wife, Jan, could continue teaching music at Jay County High School. They have two married sons, Justin and Joel, and a daughter, Holly, who is a senior at Manchester University.