Generosity Shouldn’t Be This Surprising

Posted: September 6, 2011 
Filed under: Deep Thoughts with Pastor Jeff, Denton Family, Leadership, Money, Pastor Jeff, Spiritual
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The office of Superintendent of the Fresno Country School District in California is an elected office. This makes current superintendent Larry Powell both an educator and a politician. Considering all the complaints in our society right now directed toward both educators and politicians, that puts Mr. Powell in the crosshair for a lot of criticism. However, he did something this fall that has won him supporters far beyond just the voters who’ve put him in a second term of office. He’s giving his salary back.

Not all of his salary, but most of the $319,241 set as his salary this year is going back to the schools he loves. After discussing it with his wife, Mr. Powell decided to give back $288,241 of that amount in cash and benefits, leaving him with only a $31,000 salary this year. That’s $10,000 LESS than the salary for a first year teacher in the Fresno County district! Over the rest of his three year term, Powell is giving back over $800,000 to the district.

In case you think Powell is a lightweight guy, in his position as superintendent he oversees 195,000 students in 325 schools. His salary was in line with other districts of this size. No one was accusing him of being overpaid. (Well, I’m sure someone was complaining. There’s always someone complaining.) So, why did he do it?

Powell says his motivation came after seeing the corruption of local elected officials, specifically a rampant scandal that rocked the city of Bell, California, where officials were ripping off taxpayers to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars a year per city council member and several city employees. (See more about that story at this link.) Powell says he and his wife discussed what they could do to restore the public’s confidence in government. Giving back was their solution.

But, it wasn’t about the publicity. In fact, no one even knew what had happened until four days after the school board meeting where Powell’s request was shared and approved by the council. District offices report that initial calls suspected some kind of back-room ripoff deal to benefit Powell or board members. As word spread and details were dug through, people began realizing the generosity of the superintendent.

What struck me about this story isn’t that a local politician would give back. Especially given that he’d started out as a high school civics teacher and has been involved in education throughout his professional career – both at the high school and university level. However, you don’t get to this level of generosity overnight. It would be highly unusual for someone to just wake up one morning and decide to give 90% of your income away. This kind of generosity is the result of someone who has cultivated a heart of giving over a lifetime.

You’ll probably not decide one day that you’ve earned enough and are secure enough financially to start giving away almost all your income. Especially not when you’re 63 and approaching retirement, like Powell and his wife, Dot. No, that kind of giving comes from a heart that’s been cultivated in generosity over time. This is one of the reasons we began teaching our children about giving before they were old enough to sign up for their own savings accounts. If you’re raised on the idea that giving is natural and part of life, you won’t know anything different. It was a lesson Deana and I had to struggle and learn over the years. Not that our parents weren’t generous, but we had to learn it for ourselves. We’ve been intentional about teaching our kids to set some aside to give away every time they receive.

The lesson continues. Deciding to give away 90% of MY income seems unreasonable at this point. But, adding another 1% to the amount we give away each year isn’t so overwhelming. Adding small amounts like that every year can get you eventually to the point where you’re giving away more than you ever expected. It’s an attitude of the heart. I’m still amazed at people we’ve visited in foreign countries who had much less than we did, but were willing to spend their last dollar on something for us; or in one case, to give us the chicken that was their family meal for the week. It’s humbling to be with people who find great happiness in such generosity.

So, does it surprise you that Larry Powell is called Reverend Superintendent around the Fresno County district offices? A man who had polio at the age of 15 months and has spent his life with a disability, learned to never let his lack of something stop him. He still holds athletic records at his own high school for pullups and the rope climb. He’s been an accomplished wrestler, golfer, gymnast, and swimmer. He’s a minister, motivational speaker, and songwriter. And, I believe, the reason he’s been so blessed in this life is because he’s always been willing to give back. (Here’s the link to Mr. Powell’s bio on the school district website.)

The moral of the story isn’t whether we can find other leaders and politicians willing to sacrifice on behalf of those they purport to serve. (Although, that would be a nice side-benefit!) Instead, the application is for you and me! What would it take for us to be more generous?

The Unexamined Life and All…

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