A priest and performer considers religion, the arts, and the often thin space between sacred and secular, church and culture, pulpit and pew.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Rescuing Stewardship – Beyond Giving to the Church

Several years ago I suggested to our parish finance committee that rather than put together our parish budget after the annual financial pledges are in, which has been the parish’s historical approach to budgeting, we instead build a “dream” budget first and ask parishioners to support it. A member of the committee responded gruffly, “That’s not stewardship, that’s fundraising; it’s giving to a budget, not to God. Stewardship isn’t fundraising.” Well, of course it isn’t. Who says it is? Most of us, actually – every time we refer to what happens in October and November in our parishes.

Our definition of stewardship is too narrow. Within those narrow confines, we have become comfortable with the concept of the annual exercise of pledging “time, talent, and treasure” (would someone please come up with another trinity of terms for those?!) to the church. If we come to a better understanding of true stewardship, then far from being comfortable we will live more fully into the often unsettling challenges that true stewardship offers.
Stewardship is not an activity done in church. Stewardship is a spiritual practice which, while not exclusive to Christianity, is nevertheless an ongoing part of life as a member of the body of Christ, the community of the baptized both in and out of the institution that we call the church (yes, in spite of emergence and postmodernism, it’s still an institution!). A friend once defined stewardship as “what you do with what you have, every minute of every day.” He was right. And yet our vision of stewardship has become narrow and limited in its focus. I think we all know this, deep down, but we tend to gloss over it - especially every autumn.

What’s wrong with calling our annual pledging efforts Stewardship? For starters, it allows us to close the file on stewardship once we’ve filled out and signed our pledge forms. The fulfillment of those pledges will no doubt remind us of our promises; these are important contributions to our faith communities and they do constitute our ministries – but they only constitute a portion of what it means to be true stewards of God’s abundant creation and gifts.
Rather than either disparaging fundraising as too secular (and let's face it, how many of us have special "fundraising" activities during the remainder of the year?) let’s just admit that it is what we do and embrace it as needful. We need money to fund ministries – and also to pay salaries, utility bills, landscaping crews, etc. This is not a substitute for the actual practice of stewardship but is a necessity as long as congregations are housed in buildings, employ and support clergy and lay staff, and sponsor programs that require material resources. That is, in fact, “giving to a budget”, regardless of whether that budget is created before or after the financial pledges come in.  And we do need people with specific gifts and skills, (and often, simple willingness), to participate in ministries and programs that allow us to be who we believe we must be as a Christian community. So, let’s make sure that our budgets and requests for volunteers reflect God’s mission as we have discerned it for ourselves and our community, and helps us obtain and achieve what we must do to carry out that mission.
But stewardship is about much more that giving to an institution or even to a specific community that we are attached to, fond of, or dependent on. So I’m encouraging my parish to make an intentional effort to think more expansively about the true nature of stewardship. For starters, I say, let’s never, ever call our annual pitch for funding for next year’s budget, or our efforts to get volunteers to assume the many responsibilities that we’ve grafted onto communal Christian life in the last century or so, no matter how necessary or beloved they may be, by the name Stewardship Campaign or drive or effort. That will take some discipline – OK, it will take lots of discipline! Instead, I hope we can begin to recognize that stewardship is nothing more and nothing less than our constant practice of honoring God by the right use of all of God’s gifts, in and out of church. Let’s not use that beautiful word to describe anything less.


1 comment: