Standing in the Gift StreamFor the past several years, Harvest Time has operated inside of a “gift economy” model, offering all of our programs as a gift and inviting people to make gifts to Harvest Time as they were led. Taking our inspiration from Mary of Bethany’s extravagant gift to Jesus, we have believed that there was something very powerful about starting a conversation about money and faith with the offering of gift. Among other things, we found that the experience of receiving a gift underscored the reality that everything we have is gift and helped to open the door to an entirely different economic paradigm. It has also been a transformative practice for us as an organization to place our trust in God’s ability to inspire people to make gifts to support our work.

Over the past couple of years, the reality is we have been unable to meet our organizational needs through our current practice. While we have several friends who make consistent gifts to this ministry, and while our board and staff have stepped into fundraising outreach in courageous ways, so far we have been unable to create a gift stream into the organization that sustains what we need to do our work well and pay our staff salaries that provide for their needs. The result has been that during the past couple of years, we have had no choice left but to reduce staff salaries. This does not sit well with us because our commitment is to provide salaries that take seriously the realities of living in the Bay Area (if you would like to learn more about our philosophy of how we think about staff provision, please ask me, as this is something we have worked hard on and I am very proud of our vision). And, of course, having an unpredictable income that is also less than reasonable expenses is not sustainable personally or organizationally.

In September, I had the opportunity to pray about this reality at the monastery.  On long walks up and down the monastery driveway, I found myself thinking about Martin Ping, a farmer I met recently who is part of an amazing community, Hawthorne Valley Farm, in Ghent, NY. On a recent visit, Martin and I were talking about our respective experiences of trusting the Spirit to meet our needs. Martin put his philosophy and experiences this way, “I focus on caring for others’ needs and I am taken care of.”

Martin’s words kept echoing in my mind when I was at the monastery because they resonated with some fundamental assumption that I have about the way that money should circulate. I have long been attracted to the vision of the early Christian community in Acts of the Apostles and its practice of sharing and caring for its members’ needs. This is why I was so troubled in my early adulthood when I witnessed profound economic disparity each week when I traveled from the neighborhood where I went to school and the neighborhood where I worked with women who were pregnant and homeless.   The pain I felt in seeing the vast contrast between wealth and poverty sent me on a search to see if I could find a different way that money could move through my life and through economic systems so that everyone could have enough. That search led me to Harvest Time.

Community Supported Ministry

Over the years, in community with many of you, I have learned about ways that money can flow bringing life to all. I am particularly inspired by the variety and creativity of models that are emerging as the current economic system’s limitations are increasingly apparent.

One economic model that I find particularly fascinating and hopeful is Community Supported Agriculture (CSA). The CSA model is a form of agricultural life in which members of a community who value local, organic food make a commitment to support a local farm by contributing “shares” to cover the annual operations of the farm. Community Members do not purchase a set amount of produce for a price the way we do at a store or farmer’s market, but instead make a commitment to pay a certain amount weekly or annually, thus ensuring that the farmer has what he or she needs to plant and harvest crops, and to rest and prepare for the next season during the winter. In return, members receive a box of food a week during the harvesting season. In years where the harvest is good, all members share in the bounty and joy of the abundant harvest. In years where the harvest is scarce, all members share the pain of that.

We have been talking about the CSA model quite a bit at recent Harvest Time board meetings as we have been listening for guidance about ways to strengthen our finances. There is much about the CSA model that resonates with our values. First, it puts the mission of the endeavor, responsibility for creating it, and the risks of bearing it into community. This, of course, is very consistent with what we have learned about the power of spiritual community. In addition, the CSA model takes the conversation of the value of the endeavor out of a price-setting mindset (I give you this/I get this back) or an investment mindset (if I give you this, I expect this return) into a conversation about what we want to see happen in our world and what we can do together to make that happen. That is, the CSA model rests on a philosophy of co-creation and participation. Third, the CSA model makes the financial needs of the organization transparent so that each member of the community can discern the level of their giving in relation to actual budget needs and in community. Finally, the well being of the enterprise rests not on what happens in any one year, but on the health of the community that holds it, thus enabling longer term planning and stability for the mission.

That is what I kept thinking about on those walks up and down the monastery’s driveway in September. At that time, I was preparing to reduce staff salaries, including my own, by 50%. If our programs were not blossoming, I might have wondered whether this was a sign that it was time to shut our doors and find a new job. But our fall programs and conference call conversations have been very vibrant. We had a powerful book reading and dinner gathering September. We have a circle gathering by phone to talk about investing as a spiritual practice. We have a full fall introductory retreat. And we are preparing for three of our circles to meet for retreat in the spring, including one new circle that is looking at wealth from a generational perspective. Our programs are full of life and interest in our ministry seems to be growing. Closing does not seem to be the point of this financial challenge.

I kept listening.

“What if we thought of Harvest Time as ‘Community Supported Ministry?” I wondered. If that were our understanding, we would see this ministry as a co-creation between the board, staff and the people who make financial gifts; gifts would be understood as participation in something we are creating together.

There would also be a shift in how we request gifts. In a CSM model, the board and staff’s job would be to prepare clear offerings for the year and develop a budget that supports those. We would then gather with the community of people who find life inside of those offerings to invite all of our support so that we can continue to offer the gift of Harvest Time. Conversation about our gifts to Harvest Time would thus move from one on one “asks” to reflection inside of the circle that participates in Harvest Time’s mission by offering financial gifts.

In some ways, this is what we have already been doing. That is, I already am in close conversation with many of you about what is happening at Harvest Time; many of you already step in in a variety of ways when challenges come up to help us move through them; and we already practice financial transparency about our budget.

But something at the heart of Harvest Time would be radically different. Rather than sitting in the hands of a few staff or board members, we would understand that the mission of Harvest Time is in the care of the community that derives life from the ministry. All of us who are that community would then determine our giving level in relation to what the ministry needs to do its work well.  It would be a shift to understanding ourselves as part of a community that is creating something that all of us want to see in our lives and the church: authentic and transformative reflection on stewardship.

I shared this idea with my friend Dave and he wanted to know, “What would be inside of your “box” of offerings?” I liked Dave’s question because it underscored the importance of reciprocity of gift in contrast to more typical consumer demand.

My answer was all the things that Harvest Time offers now as gift: retreats, one on one spiritual companionship whenever we need it, conference calls on specific topics related to money and faith, meaningful reflections on money and faith, the opportunity to develop spiritual friendships with other Christians reflecting on money, formation in spiritual practices that lead to transformation with money AND the knowledge that there is a community of Christians who are working with money at a very deep level, hopefully making it easier for the rest of the church to do the same.

The Importance of Transformative Relationships

The first time I met Martin, the farmer I talked about earlier, was on a retreat focused on money and spirit. On the final morning of the retreat, we shared a cup of coffee on a lawn overlooking the Catskills.     Much of that time was spent in silence, enjoying the beauty of the earth. At one point, Martin asked me about my work. “I work with Christian people of wealth who are engaging with money as a doorway to spiritual transformation.”

“How many people are in your network?” Martin asked.

“We have about 300 people on our mailing list, but at any one time only about 20 to 30 are actively engaged in our programs in a way that leads to the deeper transformation. Not many,” I concluded.

“Do they change what they do with money?”

“Yes.” “Do they change their inner relationship with money?”

“Yes.”

“Wow,” he said. “That’s wonderful. How long does it take?”

“A long time,” I said. “About 5 to 10 years. Maybe longer.”

“That’s lightening speed, earth time,” Martin responded, gesturing to the Catskills in the distance.

Martin’s response made me smile. In this world of efficiency, productivity and scalability, I sometimes find myself thinking that what we do at Harvest Time is very small. But looking at what this community is about from Martin’s perspective reminded me that the change that our world needs begins in the depths of the human heart and in the lives of people willing to shift at a core level. It also reminded me of the power of the “ripple effect” in the lives of those genuinely transformed.

That is connected to the final thing that I love about CSA’s. CSA’s are not about taking things to scale, but about relationship and community. As I reflect on what we are up to at Harvest Time, profound inner and outer transformation of the flow of money, I am aware that relationship and community are the best context for that shift to happen. That is, I don’t know that it will ever make sense for us to be a big organization. So we do need to find a way to reach financial sustainability inside of a small community. A CSM option seems to me to be a viable way for Harvest Time’s needs to be shared by a relatively small group of people.

Finally, on my aforementioned trip to the monastery, one of the monks defined blessing as this: “I give some of my life that you might live.” I cannot end this reflection without a deep bow of gratitude to those who have already blessed this ministry by making financial gifts, allowing it to be a source of life in the world.

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