The Problem With Wealth

for the week of November 6, 2000
by Rubel Shelly

When Warren Bailey died July 14, 2000, at age 88, he had no family to mourn his passing. And he wasn't much of a church-going fellow either. To the best of anyone's memory, Mr. Bailey hadn't been to church in at least twenty years.

So there was stunned silence among the assembled parishioners of St. Marys (Georgia) United Methodist Church when Rev. Derek McAleer broke the news that the man who had owned 49 percent of the region's Camden Telephone Company had left the church $60 million in his will. He had made annual gifts to the church for years, but nobody had anticipated such largesse in the businessman's will.

"It's all unreal to me," said the pastor. "This is a number that doesn't have any reality." Hey, I understand that sentiment! Multiples of one hundred are big-dollar amounts to me. Thousands stagger me. Millions? That's unreal! It is the equivalent of St. Marys UMC's $285,000 budget for the next 210 years if nobody else gives a dime.

Mr. Bailey's will included no instructions on how the money was to be used. So the church has set up an advisory board to decide how to handle its newfound and unexpected wealth as good stewards.

Rev. McAleer reports that he has been besieged by calls asking for money. And he admits to a worry that greed could consume his congregation. This was his lament: "How do we remain a Christian church?"

Good question. If we admit the truth of what Jesus said about God and Money (Matthew 6:24) and recall what Paul said about the love of money (1 Timothy 6:10), it becomes clear that the church in St. Marys has not only a potential blessing but also a possible curse in so great a windfall. So many things involving money tend toward hoarding, selfishness, and covetousness. Having money can become either a preoccupation in itself or simply a diversion from what really matters in life.

Hmmm. What should a church do with that kind of money? Give it all away? Eliminate homelessness in the county? Set up a trust fund to educate all the town's children? Set up a drug rehab program for people in the county jail? I'm not sure I know what they should do with so much money. That church has a real challenge on its hands.

While Rev. McAleer and his members are figuring out how to honor Christ with their bulging church treasury, the rest of us need to settle the same issue with our personal funds no matter the size of the bank account involved.

While you may be thinking you'd like to have one church's challenge, perhaps all of us need to realize that we have the personal challenge to be good stewards and to honor God with the bountiful mercies he has put in our possession.

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