Liberating Stewardship

By Demi Prentiss, part of the Vestry Papers issue on Wholehearted Stewardship (September 2013)

One of my favorite definitions of stewardship is “Everything we do after we say, ‘I believe.’” For me, stewardship is a whole-life concept, calling for right use of all the resources that God has given us. Healthy stewardship formation, then, obliges congregations to expand their definition to touch on every aspect of faithful living.

Gratitude knows no season. Generosity is a year-round practice for Christians. Yet we’re inclined to define “stewardship” as an annual campaign, and to confine it to a few weeks’ “beg-a-thon,” designed to fund a congregation’s operating budget. When we approach stewardship in this way, we’re not only misunderstanding our Christian vocation – we’re also putting God in a very tiny box, perhaps the better to limit God’s call on our lives.

The Christian vocation of proclaiming and responding to God’s prodigious generosity is a year-round calling. Forming good stewards – whole-life stewards – is an essential job of our congregations, equipping members to live in right relationship with the many resources available to them. Making stewardship a year-round endeavor is a two-pronged undertaking for leaders in congregations, requiring efforts both in formation and in administration and summoning many different gifts from the congregation as a whole.

Stewardship Year Round – Formation

Does your congregation think about and talk about stewardship only during the annual funding campaign? If so, you’re missing year-round opportunities for formation. Each week’s lectionary offers an opportunity for a mention of good stewardship, particularly since our culture has adopted money as the defining currency of relationships of all kinds – personal worth, social standing, educational opportunities, and even, in some families, respect.

Preaching

Nearly any scripture reading can be related to stewardship, and particularly to money – our relationship with it, our use of it, our passion for it. A dominant message of the Hebrew scriptures is the warning against idolatry of all kinds. Our human tendency to raise up objects to worship in place of the Living God is clear evidence of our misunderstanding of the wealth of God’s gifts to us. And chief among those gifts is our being entrusted with the stewardship of all of creation, including ourselves. The Hebrew scriptures tell us, over and over: “God first.” And they promise that, when we exercise good stewardship in our relationship with God – when we reject idolatry and practice “God first” – our lives and our relationships become right-ordered.

In the Gospels, Jesus mentions money frequently, sometimes as a metaphor for our God-given gifts but just as often as the thing itself. Jesus reminds us that our relationship with money can become a proxy for our relationships in general – with God and with others. For example, the rich young ruler, who “goes away sad” when Jesus challenges him to sell all that he has, was possibly not put off by our modern-day fears of homelessness or hunger or a lack of a retirement nest egg. After all, the followers of Jesus seem to have been reasonably provided for. But the young man may well have been unwilling to relinquish the comfort and predictability of relationships mediated by his money.

Teaching

In addition to opportunities for the preacher to call attention to good stewardship each week, every congregation has opportunities – book studies, rector’s forums, Sunday school classes, mission events – to make stewardship a priority “out of season.” If your annual fund campaign is in the fall, consider convening a Lenten (or Epiphany or Eastertide) study with a stewardship theme. Stewardship of creation, of time, of financial resources are all topics that many families – especially young families – value hearing framed in the context of their faith, within their faith community.

New member classes are also an ideal time for the congregation to listen to the expectations that new members have of their church community, and to discuss the congregation’s expectations of its members. In my work with new members, among those expectations I name regular worship, study for personal growth in faith, daily prayer, participation in the governance and ministries of the church, and clear communication of needs and concerns. In addition, I like to offer proportional giving as a tool for deepening financial commitment to God’s work through the church, with the tithe as the biblical standard.

Modeling

Year-round stewardship also means offering a wide variety of opportunities to practice gratitude and generosity. When congregations and their leaders explicitly express thanks to members of the congregation and to the larger community, they model practices that foster good stewardship. Commission a group in your congregation to create thoughtful, innovative ways the congregation can say “thank you.”

Presenting opportunities for giving – not only money but also time and talent – and explicitly acknowledging the responses also sets a norm of generosity. Make sure you offer opportunities not only for making an annual pledge, but also for contributing to specific projects throughout the year.

As your congregation models transparency and responsiveness in its budgeting process, members are further formed in good stewardship. Be sure your treasurer and governing body are mindful of soliciting and listening to input around congregational expenditures and accountability.

There are congregations where formation in good stewardship is so deep and complete that they no longer conduct an annual fund campaign. In my diocese, St. Luke’s Stephenville (TX) is such a congregation. They produce a leaflet that summarizes their culture of stewardship, which they call “abundance stewardship.” Over the course of more than 30 years, this congregation has so embedded the culture of radical generosity in their congregational life that they no longer solicit pledges, relying on the regular sacrificial contributions of their members. Their faith statements give rise to practices of generosity that have reshaped their life together.

Year-Round Stewardship – Administration

The administrative prong of all-season stewardship begins with forming a stewardship team just as soon as the vestry takes office. Such a team becomes a significant partner with the congregation’s leadership in forming a generous congregation.

The stewardship team’s work goes well beyond planning and executing the annual fund campaign. They will also propose and help develop opportunities throughout the year that will help develop good stewards – events varying from days of community service to financial management classes to environmental awareness work. Those opportunities touch on many different areas of our stewardship lives: environmental stewardship, growth in faithfulness, giftedness, financial health, life and faith priorities, strategic planning, congregational ministries, outreach to the community, and more.

The team will also study the congregation’s giving practices and patterns, both to shape formation activities and to engage the congregation in growing as stewards. Their portfolio is limited only by their imaginations and by the congregation’s willingness to follow their lead.

Laurel Johnston, now the executive director of The Episcopal Network for Stewardship (TENS), has developed a checklist and a planning guideline for stewardship teams planning an annual giving campaign, work that is best accomplished over the course of a full year. She advises, “Remember the purpose of an annual giving campaign is not only to raise support to fund the vision and mission of your congregation, but also to help people explore intentional and proportional giving as a spiritual practice that reflects gratitude and generosity for all that has been given. Take time to consider how you can implement any or all of these components that will lay a firm foundation for the success of an annual giving campaign.”

The team’s year-round efforts will not only mean a team and a congregation prepared to engage in thoughtful discernment around stewardship. The 12 months of work will also model for the congregation the deep grounding in stewardship that is our Christian calling. God’s prodigious generosity calls us to respond in kind, intentionally directing our resources to further God’s work in the world.

Demi Prentiss is ministry developer for the Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth. For 25 years she has worked in national, diocesan, and congregational settings equipping and supporting God’s people as they become intentional partners in God’s dream for the world. She lives with her husband and two dogs in Denton, Texas.

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  • Proclaiming and responding to God’s prodigious generosity is a year-round calling.

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