November 10, 2017

I Don't Like Stewardship Time but Maybe Not for the Reasons You Might Think

In the middle of my first ‘stewardship’ season as a new rector, now ten years ago, I was doing everything by the book and already feeling overwhelmed and unenthused. The congregational leaders appeared only mildly interested in doing a pledge drive. And yet it’s drilled into us, in most every way, that the fall is the time to do stewardship, be intentional, make sure you make the proper ask, but of course couch it in terms of God’s larger mission because you’re not just asking people to pay the church’s salaries and light bills – oh, and remember to do stewardship year-‘round so it’s not only an annual request for generous pledges.

At a local clergy meeting that fall, the wiser, more senior rector of a neighbor parish said to me, “I simply hate this time of year.”

I’ve never forgotten her words. I thought my feelings were just first year jitters. I thought I’d learn how to develop the perfect stewardship program, and in a few years we’d be up and running with a smooth, well-worn system. I thought my congregation’s early resistance would soon go away, as they would surely begin to see that money follows mission – success follows success, right?, so if we put our hearts and energy into a compelling ministry-driven mission the money and, more deeply, the desire to give more would surely follow. Maybe I thought that my neighbor rector wasn’t trying hard enough, or didn’t have the heart for it.

Now a decade later, I’ll be honest: I, too, don’t like stewardship season. But it’s not for the reasons you might think.

There are lots of roles in ministry I enjoy, and asking people for money is something I’m perfectly comfortable with doing. It’s not my favorite, mind you. I prefer real ministry – leading bible study or small group, summer camp or Sunday School, meaningful worship and preaching. But I’ve also come to enjoy analyzing financial trends, digging deep into financial statements. Plus, I feel called to develop more robust ways to ask people to contribute significantly of their talent, their time and, oh, yeah – their treasure. I’m the first to admit that stewardship, as an idea and as an autumnal practice, is important, imperative, and a significant, albeit lagging indicator of our year-‘round commitment to something bigger than ourselves.

I have no problem asking people to be generous in their contributions to the church. I’ve tried all kinds of different stewardship systems – some of which I’ve written about extensively via ECF Vital Practices. I expect people to invest deeply and commit generously to the Body of Christ.

But this is where matters fall short for me; this is the point at which I wind up feeling like I, too, also dislike stewardship season. Too much of what I hear from recognized thought-leaders around the church and within our Episcopal Church tend to approach this season as a short-term necessity and potential quick fix, as if we’re all (like my former colleague said ten years ago) just trying to get through this painful process and get as much as we can now, no matter the long-term costs or benefits or risks. Colloquially, it feels like we’re trying to squeeze blood out of a turnip.

When people invest in the church, I feel like the bar has just gone up. Statistically, we know where The Episcopal Church is and where we are, in general, heading. We know about our generational make-up and the reality of our diversity, or lack thereof. We know about our giving percentages, and we know how deeply and profoundly an increasingly smaller number of people are committed to the ‘survival’ of this branch of Christendom. Any church leader, clergy or lay, can feel the pressing weight of our heavy institutional model. And yet people are giving, and new people are giving – though not enough to stem the tide of decline, and nowhere near the giving capacity of those in similar life circumstances in previous generations.

I don’t like ‘stewardship season’ because it feels like a missed opportunity to have a big, amazing conversation about what we do have, and how we could re-organize and renew as church. But, no, barely skin deep under our talk of “generosity” and “abundance” is a palpable narrative of decline, scarcity, survival, and death. Stewardship time thus becomes one more deeply unpleasant thing we have to do – somewhere on the spectrum near root canal. Like hoping we’ll keep enough people happy and balance the equations to stretch it out a bit longer. It’s this short-term thinking and ‘quick fix’ mentality that bothers me. Are we really so beholden to our truly short-term investment strategy? Are we so afraid to ask the bigger questions about other ways to organize, deploy assets, coalesce strengths, and mitigate obvious weakness?

If there’s any time to ask these deeper questions, it’d precisely be when we’re asking people to invest their time, talent, and – oh, yeah – treasure.