Developing a Culture of Contentment

Jeff Manion is a risk taker. He became pastor of Ada Bible Church near Grand Rapids, Michigan, when it had 25 people, and during his first seven years, he had to overcome three stalled building programs so the congregation could move into its first decent building. Now, he's been with the church for 30 years, and it has grown significantly both in numbers and in the risks it's been willing to take. On the topic of money, he's pushed himself from an apologetic and timid preacher to someone who looks forward to covering such themes as earning, saving, borrowing, and giving generously.

It may surprise you, then, to learn that Manion's new book is about contentment. How can a man whose ministry has been characterized by vision and progress champion contentment? Marshall Shelley and Paul Pastor sat down with Manion to discuss the difference between institutional and personal satisfaction, what it takes to build a church culture of generosity, and why "contentment" isn't the same thing as "lack of ambition."

Your latest book explores contentment. What does contentment look like in ministry, specifically with money?

It means that people live simply, live on less than they can afford to live on. This provides financial margin to give money away. It means that all of us in our church spend less than we make so our resources are available to the kingdom of God. It means people are content with less so they can give more.

By contentment in ministry, I don't mean lack of vision, lack of discipline, or lack of initiative. I don't mean I'm content with a bad situation remaining bad. I don't mean laziness or complacency. The apostle Paul said, "I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances." Yet I would not call Paul unmotivated. He had a well-tuned sense of vision. He lived a missional life.

Biblical contentment means taking appropriate risk and trusting God for the outcome. How can you dream big without leading your people into suffocating debt? "We want to step out in faith—reasonably." That statement sounds like a contradiction, but it doesn't have to be. You don't want goals so low that people aren't stretched, but you don't want to aim so high that you end up in financial problems. Ask yourself, Where is the risk so pathetic that I'm not challenging people? Where is the risk too much, placing debilitating financial strain on my organization?

What's an appropriate risk your church has taken?

In 2000, we purchased 60 acres in the country to build a new facility to house our 1,000-person congregation. It was our first multimillion dollar project. Less than half of the money had been given, and we had to decide whether or not to pull the trigger on the project. I found myself in the longest board meeting of my life. Do we build only half the building? Do we postpone it? Are we leading our congregation into financial ruin?

The meeting lasted five hours, and we went around and around. Some wanted to know, "Why are we starting construction when we don't have all of the money?" Others wondered, "Why are we building something so small? Shouldn't it be twice this size?"

Eventually Henry, one of our elders, said, "If those of us in this room, the board members, are willing to liquidate our savings, sell our homes, and pull our money out of retirement, we can make that payment indefinitely. Is there any way we will not allow that payment to be made?" He wanted to know if we were "all-in." Henry had been with the church since we had 25 people. He had given his life to this ministry for decades. So for him this wasn't a financial question. It was a question of whether his money was going to be an extension of the life he was already living.

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