Tuesday, August 24, 2010


I've been thinking lately about the reasons why we do stewardship. King of Kings, where I'm serving on internship, is (like many churches) gearing up for a fall stewardship campaign. They are excited and energized about bringing in new and creative approaches to stewardship. Watching and listening to the dialogue here has gotten me thinking more about stewardship in general.

First, a word about the word itself: stewardship. It seems to have two basic meanings, at least in church conversations. On the one hand, "stewardship" is the process of being a steward, of caring for something that belongs to another. In a theological context, the "owner" is usually God; we are stewards of God's creation, God's resources, God's gifts of life and abilities. On the other hand, "stewardship" means the fundraising of the church. Hence there are stewardship committees and stewardship drives, aimed at getting members to pledge (and then, hopefully, give) money.

So I've been thinking about why we do stewardship, mostly in the latter sense of the term. Why do we ask people to pledge money to the church? The question seems pertinent. If we cannot articulate a reason for giving, then how can we expect anyone to give? For those suffering economically, giving to a church may be too great a burden. For those who have money to give, why would they give to a church instead of a charity? I think charities do a much better job than most churches at answering the why question. I'll give an example: I frequently give money to Heifer International. In response, Heifer sends me mailings that describe specific projects they are doing around the world, even naming specific families that have been helped. That makes me feel like my money is doing something worthwhile, and I'll go back to Heifer next time I have money to give.

What about churches? Why do churches do stewardship? I've thought of four reasons; perhaps you can think of others. First, a church does stewardship to fund its budget. That seems to be the most frequently cited reason for stewardship. Here at King of Kings, as I experienced at my home congregation, a member of the stewardship team has stood up and said, "Here's our budget, and here is the shortfall we're experiencing, so please give what you pledged so we can keep paying the bills." I want to be clear: there is nothing wrong with this reason in and of itself. Churches need to pay the bills. My mother served as the church treasurer at my home congregation for many years, and faced the unenviable and unpopular task of telling the council when the bills were in danger of not being payed. If the church doesn't have a budget, the church building is not going to be lit or heated or cooled, the staff is not going to be paid, and the church as an institution will not be able to function. All of that being said, I think it is quite valid to be concerned if this reason is the only reason for doing stewardship, or the primary reason for doing stewardship. It's certainly not going to inspire or motivate people to be involved. They have their own bills to pay; paying the church's bills is not a very meaningful goal.

Second, a church does stewardship to support its ministries. Now the focus is not on the church building or the church institution, but on the meaningful work the church is doing. Perhaps the church has a food pantry, or supports one in the community. Perhaps the church has a ministry to the homeless. Perhaps the church has a preschool. This reason focuses on the ministry of the church, the church as the hands and feet of Jesus in the world.

The third reason is similar to the second: a church does stewardship to support the ministries of the wider church. In the ELCA, a portion of the money each congregation receives goes to the synod. A portion of the synod's money, in turn, goes to the churchwide organization. The money coming from congregations helps to support organizations like Lutheran World Relief, or the ELCA World Hunger Appeal. These ministries have a far wider reach than that of an individual congregation. After the earthquake in Haiti, I read about how Lutheran World Relief was able to be on the ground providing aid very quickly - because they already had the organization and resources in place before the disaster happened. They didn't have to start from scratch in order to help the people affected by the disaster.

The fourth reason is one that I have been considering in the context of the Luke 14 text I'm studying for my next sermon (see my other posts for more on that). I think we do stewardship also for a personal reason. Stewardship in this sense is a spiritual practice, a way of deepening faith and becoming better disciples of Christ. It's not something we do to earn God's love or acceptance. But it is a way of reflecting on the blessings we have received from God, some of them concrete and economic. It is a way of considering the needs of others in relation to ourselves. It is a way of placing trust in God - as my stewardship professor pointed out, the whole point of giving "first fruits" is that you have no guarantee you will get "second fruits." It forces us to step beyond the instinctive drive for self-preservation, of holding on to what we can get because the future is uncertain.

So far at King of Kings, I have heard a lot of the first three reasons, but not very much of the fourth. As I mentioned, they are concerned (like most churches) with the budget; at the same time, they have a strong mission focus and understand their relationship to the ministry of the wider church. However, that personal component of stewardship, what I'm viewing as a spiritual practice, does not seem to be part of the dialogue (judging only from what I've heard and seen so far). I hope to lift it up in this sermon I'm preaching on September 5. Perhaps it will help to deepen the understanding of what "stewardship" means.

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