by Jonathan New
Those who think stewardship is about money have it wrong; stewardship is, primarily, about people. That’s just one of the many stewardship lessons I learned from a man who I consider a stewardship master – Rufus Cushman.
Rufus, who died this week at age 88, will be remembered by many of us in the Massachusetts Conference and beyond for keeping stewardship real and people at the heart of it. A former insurance man and son of a banker, he was comfortable with money. More importantly, he knew what the proper use of it could accomplish – a difference in the lives of people. A long-time member of First Church in Longmeadow, he served through the better part of the 1990s as the Massachusetts Conference’s Director of Planned Giving, continued for another decade as a Stewardship Associate, and was a founding member of the Northeast Ecumenical Stewardship Council. His travels through the Conference brought a person of sharp acumen yet kindness and deep faith to this ministry many often associate most with dollars and cents.
I first met Rufus in the mid-70s when I was a boy and he and his wife, Connie, were forging a friendship with my parents. Even then I knew Rufus to be an unusual adult. Unlike most others, he took an interest in me. Over time, as I followed my father into ordained ministry, he continued to take an interest. He also manifested what I now see is one of the most important dimensions of stewardship – recognizing gifts. Rufus saw things in me, often things I couldn’t see myself. Over the years, I had occasion in many situations to witness how he recognized the gifts of others, lifted these up, and encouraged us to get them working for Jesus. Stewardship is about people – their giftedness and how these gifts might bless others.
A layman, he was chagrined that we clergy were so reticent about money talk. He’d remind me that Jesus talked about money – a lot! Donning that broad smile he’d raise his eyebrows high and ask, “Well, don’t you ministers follow Jesus?” Chuckling, he’d sometimes add, “I’m not so sure!” He was joking but, underneath, he meant it. He was pragmatic enough to know that it takes courage for pastors to talk about money, but he felt that if it was good enough for Jesus it ought to be good enough for us. Stewardship is about people – whether those of us in a position to influence people’s generosity will use it or not to advance God’s mission in the world.
Rufus was a constant reminder for me that each of us has the power to bring God’s realm of love closer, particularly for those who need to know that love most. This awareness might have been burdensome, but it seemed to lighten Rufus. In worship one early morning at a stewardship conference in Madison, Connecticut, on the shores of Long Island Sound, we sang together: “Christ before us, Christ behind us, Christ under our feet. Christ within us, Christ over us, let all around us be Christ.” I will never forget the look of utter delight on his face as we concluded. Now, Rufus loved singing. But I’m sure that what was filling Rufus that moment was the Spirit of Christ, and the joy of knowing that we can indeed be Christ for others. Stewardship is about people – those who may be blessed by the sharing of our gifts and about the blessing received by us when we open our hearts, hands, and, sometimes, our wallets to others.
Rufus often used to ask, particularly of the clergy he cared about most, “What’s bringing you joy?” It’s my sincere hope that, at his end, Rufus – a legacy man – would also have taken joy in knowing that he left a stewardship legacy behind him. He encouraged countless people to remember their churches and the wider United Church of Christ in their wills and through planned giving instruments. He mentored many of us in the ways of Christian generosity. He showed us what it means to be a follower of Jesus and to love God’s people and good creation the way Jesus did. And, though I’m deeply saddened by his loss, I’m filled with joy, too, at having known and been loved by such a man of grace and spirit.
I commend God’s servant, Rufus, to our memory and bid you join in prayer with me for his wife, Connie, daughter, Jeannie, his extended family, and all others who knew and loved him. A memorial service will be held for Rufus at the Union Church of Proctor, Vermont, on Sunday, October 1, at 2:00 p.m.
Jonathan New, Associate Conference Minister for Stewardship and Financial Development
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