Bishop Cedrick Bridgeforth
Two weeks ago, I had the privilege of meeting via Zoom with the Greater Northwest Episcopal Area’s new bishop, Rev. Dr. Cedrick Bridgeforth. Bishop Bridgeforth spoke to me from his home in Los Angeles. He and his spouse are waiting for renovations at the Bishop’s residence in Des Moines, Washington to be completed before they make the move.
We had a spirited conversation. What follows has been edited for clarity and length.
Can you tell us how you got started on your generosity path? Who and/or what had the greatest influence on you?
My maternal grandmother. She had a sixth-grade education but she was one of the most generous people I knew in my entire life. She gave away everything.
Everything she ever got she gave away to somebody or something. That was just her way. I thought she was a very wealthy woman. People were always asking her for money or food and she had it.
Even when we went to church on Sundays or Wednesday nights or Saturdays, she would always stop and ask us, “Where is your offering?” You had to present your offering before you left the house. I grew up understanding that that was just how you lived.
I carried that forward when I left home and went off to basic training [the Bishop is a U.S. Air Force veteran] and got my first little paycheck. I called home to ask my mom, “How do I send money to the church?” I knew I was supposed to give money to the church.
I grew up believing that my grandmother was this wealthy woman. And she was. She was rich. She was wealthy in all the right ways.
What is your understanding of generosity as a spiritual discipline? How should it play itself out in “real life”?
Giving is a spiritual discipline. Generosity is an expression of that.
I believe it is pertinent to our spiritual wellness and development as is prayer, as is meditation, as is holy conferencing. We don’t talk about it enough and in those ways enough.
We pray and we give. We sing and we give. We serve and we give.
Giving is an expression of grace. It’s the expression of an abundant life we are told to have. We need to be investing in that and living it out.
If you could make it so, how would you change how the church approaches stewardship?
Is there somebody who can help me make it so?! [Laughing heartily.]
It’s helping people see that giving to something other than the church always matters.
When I have been bold enough to step into those spaces and help people see that them giving to the United Negro College Fund, or them giving to their undergraduate institution, or their investing in the neighborhood community center…it’s an expression of their ministry. And the church is another expression but it’s not the only one.
Framing the language of generosity and giving beyond the church context has helped every church context that I’ve served in do better in the area of stewardship.
People didn’t have to feel guilty about it or hide it. They had a greater understanding of what they really had to give – of their time, their money, of other resources they had access to. By helping them see that ministry expression was taking place beyond the church, it helped them become more invested and present within the church because they saw it alongside things they were already doing, not something separate and apart.
What do you think about the 10% tithe?
I’ve evolved. I’ve evolved from “10% is your tithe and anything beyond is your offering.” The world is not ordered this way.
I have now moved to “best effort giving.”
What is your best effort in giving to organizations?
What is your best effort giving of your time?
What is your best effort connecting to others?
Your best effort may not be 10%, it may be 40%.
You make it matter. There’s one school of thought you “give and don’t think about it.” If you don’t think about it, is it because you don’t miss it? It doesn’t matter? Make it matter.
Stewardship is holistic; it’s all that we bear in the service to others.
So many churches are facing substantial financial challenges. What, if any, words of wisdom do you have for them?
Be realistic and thankful at the same time. What I mean by that is take the blinders off what life was like pre-March 2020. Mourn the loss of that. Accept the fact that you needed seven or eight staff members. But in this new iteration, do you still need that? Do you still need exactly what you had? Can you afford to continue to exist as if the previous three years never happened?
Trying to go back to anything is usually not a good thing. Get a realistic perspective of where you are now. Be faithful to who you are now so you can really imagine and dream what the future can be more than just grieving what the past was.
What’s the Institutional Church’s/Conference’s Role?
This is where the Church – the institution – has done congregations a great disservice. We have hinged our effectiveness on the percentage of apportionments paid and their ability to pay a full-time pastor. And whenever the percentage of apportionments dips, we attach that to their ability to be effective or faithful. We as an organization have done a horrible disservice to our local churches.
I believe our local churches can be faithful and can be fruitful as long as they can be connecting in their context and making a difference in people’s lives. And for me, that’s what determines if a church is being effective.
If the congregation has a clear understanding of its mission and is willing to live that out, then it’s an effective ministry.
Our role as an organization is to come alongside them and provide the support that is needed for them to continue to express that mission where God has called them to do that. Instead of that being in reverse: of them being called to fulfill the great mission we have and that’s apportionments and salaries.
For me that’s the reality check for the denomination and organization – turn that thing right-side up and really center the congregation. And then, if you have a group of people gathered who don’t have a sense of mission and are only concerned with survival, then that’s a different conversation.
Even congregations that are trying to re-envision themselves are having a hard time financially.
Whatever banner they fly, this is a great time for each local faith community to get clear about who they are and what they want to accomplish. This is without regard to what they were doing 50-60 years ago. That time has passed.
What can we imagine accomplishing? Everything that’s around us has been stripped away. Everything we were holding on to for dear life…and now we have to reconstruct it for dear life. I think we do that by focusing on who we are and what we have again.
Dream from a very real place.
This is what God is calling us to do for this season. Let’s do that. That is the bold and courageous call that is looming over every single faith community in this country.
We are hard-wired for stories. Do you have a story of generosity that you’d like to share?
This is a very personal one.
I was serving a church and had only been there a few months when my dad died. I was concerned because, clearly, I needed to go back to Alabama and take care of things. This church really didn’t know me but everyone was kind. The SPRC gave me their blessing.
I left to do what I needed to do. When I came back, this person who I had not yet met – who didn’t have the greatest reputation – came to the church office in the middle of the week. “I hear you had a death in the family.” I replied, “Yes, thank you for acknowledging it.”
He then said two things:
One - “I want to pray with you because I know what it was like when my dad died.”
Two - “How much did it cost?”
I was a little dumbfounded. I thanked him for the offer of prayer and sort of waved off his question about the cost of everything.
“No,” he said. “I was sent here to do these two things.”
So, we prayed.
After the prayer was over, he said again, “Now how much did it cost you?” So, I threw out a number for the flight, hotel, and car rental.
“O.K. Did you have funeral expenses?”
“Yes, of course,” I answered.
“Well, how much was that?”
And I gave him a number.
He reached into his pocket and took out a checkbook. He wrote a check for the amount I mentioned plus $2,500 because – as he said – “I don’t think you’re being completely honest about the amount.”
He ended the conversation by saying, “This is what I had to do today. I don’t understand it and you may not either but we will all be the better for my being obedient.”
This wasn’t a man who was at church every week, wasn’t on all the committees, wasn’t the one who people would assume had “free” cash.
It blew me away because here’s the truth of the matter:
I had depleted my savings to do what I had to do and I had not disclosed that to anyone.
You can’t tell me God’s not real and that the Spirit is not moving in the hearts and minds of people we dismiss.
So, when churches say to me “our biggest giver just moved or just died,” remember that the mission is not dependent on one person’s generosity. It is dependent on all of our openness to whatever God needs and wants to do in our midst.
Be open to everybody. Give everybody the opportunity to be generous.
Let them surprise you.