There’s only one way to explain the exciting things that are happening at Faith Lutheran Church, a congregation of 1,800 in Flower Mound, Texas. The congregation has, very simply, taken generosity deep into its heart.
Because of that, along with a practice of tithing, for the past five years, the church has been able to give away 12-14 percent of its income.
Located in an affluent suburb north of Dallas, Faith “sits in a mission field of 400,000 people and only one ELCA church,” Pastor Rusty Sullivan said. When the South Carolina native began his call as pastor of Faith in 2010, the congregation was giving away $14,000 to its social ministry partners.
So three years ago, Faith launched a capital campaign, not to build a building or pay off a debt, but to reposition the church to fully live out its values, vision and mission of “faithfully honor[ing] Jesus by developing disciples who reach others with the light of God’s hope and love.”
The “Faith Without Limits Campaign” began at worship services one Sunday more than three years ago where purple envelopes with various denominations of cash were distributed to every adult and child to give away — with the sole purpose of blessing people in the greater community. It was called the “Blessed to be a Blessing Initiative.” No collections were taken that Sunday, and no pledge cards were passed out.
“I think my council thought I was a little off,” Rusty admitted. “It was a little scary when we did it.”
“And the only thing we asked of them was to go online and tell us [their stories],” Rusty recalled. He told them, “Talk about how God is using you.”
“We gave away over $10,000 overnight because our people ‘got it’ at that moment. They understood that our real purpose as a church is to be generous and not just with money, but generous with everything. Generous with grace, generous with finances, generous with forgiveness. [In] everything we do, we’re meant to be a people of generosity.”
One little girl gave away her “blessing money” to a classmate whose parents were going through a divorce so he could go on a class field trip.
“If you go back and ask our leaders, they say it was the single most significant and uplifting thing we ever did,” he said. “It was immediate and powerful. When our people heard stories like that it made them want to take a next step in their own sense of generosity.”
Clearly, all of this reflects the congregation’s motto: “Faith Changes Everything.”
Last year, Faith gave away over $168,000 in overall mission support, which includes their support of the ELCA and local or regional, national and international ministry partners. Each year, a small team works with Rusty and the church council and makes recommendations for the upcoming year.
This year, Faith’s international partner is the ELCA’s Young Adults in Global Mission (YAGM), which invites young adults ages 21-29 into a transformative, year-long journey in international service.
“We think that YAGM is a great ministry,” Rusty said. “And we know that ministry to and through young adults is really something we must do. I tell our church all the time, our youth are not the future of our ministry, they’re a very real part of our present.” He added, “We have to be equipping, encouraging and empowering them…”
Supporting YAGM was an obvious choice for Faith Lutheran because one of their own young adults was going to serve in Africa — Rusty and wife Julie’s daughter and eldest child, Savanna. Not long after Savanna, 23, graduated from Clemson University with a degree in biology and a minor in philosophy in December 2014, she approached her parents with her plan to spend a year serving through YAGM.
“She’d been talking about it for years,” said Rusty. “It didn’t surprise [Julie] or me. We expected it was coming and we encouraged it.”
It was Savanna’s lifelong dream to live and serve in sub-Saharan Africa. “There was a reason for that,” Rusty explained. “Her mother was born in Africa, in Salisbury, Rhodesia, which is now Harare, Zimbabwe.” Savanna was also deeply inspired by her dad’s faith and spirit of generosity.
A veteran camp counselor, “[Savanna] was always in the camp ministry and I think that also began to fuel the fire of her ministry,” Rusty explained. “She’s always had kind-of an adventuresome spirit and always wanted to do something on a more global level somewhere beyond the confines of what she knows to be safe.”
Rusty, explaining that Savanna and each YAGM participant had to raise $4,000 to be a part of the program, said, “We realized that there are young adults out there that might want to be in global mission whose church might not have the resources to do that and we didn’t want that to be a show stopper for anyone. So we committed $12,000. I told the folks at YAGM, ‘This other $8,000, apply it any way you want to. We just wanna help.’”
“What we’re saying is: We don’t put labels and designations on our gifts,” Rusty explained. “We want to let the Spirit guide the gifts and ultimately impact the people and the lives it’s supposed to impact.”
On August 25, the day she left for Rwanda and the family was struggling to say “Goodbye,” Rusty told her, “If you’re ever going to do anything important in the world, you have to start by being courageous enough to walk out the door!”
Today, Savanna — called “Little Rusty” by those close to her — is “out the door,” teaching at Rwamagana Lutheran School, where she’s working on science curriculum development and teaching music, among other things.
She said, “Without churches like Faith, my dream of living alongside and loving the people of Rwanda would still be just that — a dream. Our world is beautiful and broken, and a program like YAGM affords young people the unique chance to encounter, wrestle with, and find God in the circumstances and the faces of their neighbors around the globe.” (You can read more about Savanna’s experiences in Rwanda in her blog “The Science of Service.” Perhaps providentially, her October 24 post is about generosity.)
So far, Rusty says Savanna is awed, inspired and moved by her experiences in Rwanda, adding, “The greatest gifts God has to offer through Savanna will be on the other side of the experience, but it’s how God will shape her through this experience and then use her beyond it, which for me, is one of the most exciting things.”