Living in Chicken Coops: A Guide to Producing Generous People

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By Derek Penwell

I found myself thinking about my grandfather the other day. Actually, I find myself thinking about him a lot. He’s been gone a little over ten years now.

Theodore Roosevelt Murray left a mark on the world as big as his name. A former Marine who fought in World War II, he faced life leading with his chin. Growing up, I thought that if for some reason grandpa had to face off against John Wayne … John Wayne was going to be in a world of hurt. Tough guy. Man’s man.

When traveling, he often slept on picnic tables in rest areas and cooked hot dogs on the engine block of his old blue Ford station wagon. He had fists like anvils and a glare that reduced grown men to stammering incoherence.

But the other side of my grandfather that impressed me even more was his faith. Ted Murray was devout. He not only cared deeply about his faith, he actually lived his life as though his faith mattered more than anything else in the world. Sell everything you own and give it to the poor?

Yeah. He and my grandmother did that. Without knowing any Spanish, they packed up a few things and drove down to Mexico to build a home to raise abandoned children. And the year that it took them to build that children’s home they spent living in a renovated chicken coop.

And raise children they did—over two hundred children in the almost forty years they lived in Mexico. At one point in the mid-70s my grandparents, with the help of an older Mexican widow, whom everyone called “the Tía,” they had fifty-five children under one roof, ranging in age from two to eighteen years-old.

But my grandparents’ willingness to give it all away was only part of what made them good at giving to others. They were also good receivers. As a missionary, doing what he believed to be God’s work, my grandfather was fond of saying that he never asked for a dime … but he never turned one down either.

In my experience people who are the most willing to give are also the least willing to have someone give to them. Giving can often be just as much about meeting my own need to give as about the other person’s needs to whom I’m giving.

And refusing the gifts of others because you’ve convinced yourself you don’t need them does two things: 1) it reinforces your superiority, while at the same time 2) stealing a chance for another person to exercise the beauty of generosity. My grandfather and grandmother made space for other people to learn to give. That takes a great deal of humility, while at the same time demonstrating an amazing confidence.

The other thing my grandparents’ generosity did was to provide an example for me and, I suspect, just about everyone who knew them. Their willingness to sacrifice everything for others made a powerful impression. And though I’m not nearly the man of faith my grandfather was, thanks to him, I at least have a picture of what a generous life—a life lived for others, might look like.

As I say, I was thinking about my grandfather the other day. He came to my mind after the church I serve (Douglass Blvd. Christian Church—i.e., DBCC) unanimously approved my sabbatical for next year. The fact that they approved the sabbatical … unanimously … was, of course, a big deal. But just as importantly was the response of the people to me:

  • “This sounds like a great opportunity for you … and for us.” (Spoken sincerely, not smart-alecky)
  • “You deserve it.”
  • “How can I help you or the church in preparing for this?”
  • “We’ll miss you, but more than that, we hope this a wonderful experience for you.”

Know what I didn’t hear, but I know some pastors do?

  • “Wish I could get 3 month paid vacation. Must be nice.” (Spoken with the requisite amount of sarcasm)
  • “What do you need a break for? You only work one day a week.”
  • “That’s going to require a whole bunch of extra work from us.”
  • “This isn’t a chance to go out shopping for another church, is it?”

Notice in the two different set of possible responses who occupies the greatest area of concern by the speaker. The way the congregation I serve responded was an expression of their love for me, and for my continued health and renewal.

The second set of responses is an expression of fear—fear about how I/we will be affected.

Given a choice, where would you want to work? Yeah, me too.

And not just because the congregation I serve is thoughtful and kind to me. I’m proud to serve there because, by it’s example, it’s a place capable of producing generous people. You don’t produce generous people by setting an example of self-absorption.

Case in point: DBCC just received money from the sale of some property (a cool thing in itself that would take another article). Now, this money wound up being, for a time, money we didn’t have much hope of ever seeing (government funding on a local, state, and national level = uncertainty). But, lo and behold, the money did indeed come to us.

What’s the first reaction when a church receives a small windfall?

“Put it in the endowment! We never know when we might need it down the road.”

“Fix the roof! We’re going to need to do it before too long.”

Natural, right? And not necessarily bad sentiments either. It’s good to plan ahead, be good stewards of what you have.

But the first reaction by one of the elders at the church I’m at was this: “We need to make a sizable investment in mission and ministry with this money. We can argue how much and to what kinds of organizations—but if we argue about whether we need to give a significant chunk of this away, then we’ve got big problems as a church.”

I’ve been in congregations where the conversation following such a proposal would have gone completely in the crapper. Right? You know what I’m talking about:

“Well, that sounds really nice, but we’ve got to deal with reality.”

“We’re not getting any younger.”

“The building isn’t going to repair itself.”

“We need to hang onto it, in case we need it.”

Look, I’m not going to lie to you. We had all of those things. And they all have wisdom in them. However, what made this conversation so different from other conversations in church I’ve had, what made this conversation so amazingly interesting was the “but” …

“We need to plan ahead, keep up with repairs … but he’s right. We should do something really great with a good portion of the money. We should do something that both expresses our values and allows our congregation to partner with other organizations not just in checkbook altruism, but in real get-your-hands-and-dirty-disrupt-our-world kinds of ministry.”

Then somebody else chimed in: “That’s right. Every November we go to the congregation and we ask them for money. We say, ‘Trust God to take care of your needs, and give something to us. How can we do that with a straight face to individuals, if we’re not willing as a community to trust God to take care of our needs as a church, and give some of what we have away?’”

If the church belongs to God, why not let God take a little of the responsibility for keeping the doors open or fixing the roof?

I think I know why: We’re afraid that God might have something else in store for the future that doesn’t include the stuff we care about in the same form in which we care about it. Maybe God doesn’t want us around. Maybe God doesn’t want us worshiping in a building where the maintenance of the roof is our responsibility.

Or maybe God does. Who knows?

But here’s the thing: Our job, first and foremost—before we save for the future, before we fix the roof, before we figure out some magical way to attract twenty new young families from out in the suburbs—is to equip followers of Jesus for the reign of God.

And if we’re going to equip people to follow Jesus for the reign of God, we’re going to have to get serious about teaching them to be generous in the way that Jesus was generous—what with giving his life away and all.

And if we’re going to teach followers of Jesus to be generous in the way that Jesus was generous, our congregations are going to have to start setting an example … and quit acting as if God can’t make it work, if we don’t get everything in order.

Congregations that want to produce courageously generous people, are going to have to start showing us what it looks like to be courageously generous.

You don’t necessarily have to live in a chicken coop. Or maybe you do. I suspect God will let us know.

via Articles – [D]mergent

This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , by Derek Penwell. Bookmark the permalink.

About Derek Penwell

Derek Penwell is an author, editor, speaker, and activist. He is the senior minister of Douglass Boulevard Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Louisville, Kentucky and a former lecturer at the University of Louisville in Religious Studies and Humanities. He has a Ph.D. in humanities from the University of Louisville. He is the author of The Mainliner’s Survival Guide to the Post-Denominational World, from Chalice Press, about how mainline denominations can avoid despair in an emerging world. He currently edits a blog on emergence Christianity,, and blogs at his own site at

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