October 3, 2022

Anglican Stewardship Part Two: Our Challenges

On sabbatical this past spring, I walked to the village of Grantchester from Cambridge. Turns out, Grantchester is very much a real village, not just a lovely PBS series. “Go to the Blue Ball,” the docent at Kings College told me when I asked for directions; “that’s the best pub.” The walk was lovely, and the inn’s hospitality and lunch were spot on.

Walking out into the afternoon sun, I saw on the wall a cartoon drawn of some characters in the village circa 1980-something: there was the barman; and a number of other characters, some in business attire, some in work clothes; and then, near the center, was a balding man in a backwards collar on a black shirt: the vicar.

There’s something about English village life in which the Vicar is ever-present, a public person or “parson,” like George Herbert wrote about. The fullness of Anglican Christianity depends on a wide variety of factors; a localized clergyperson among them. All of which are quite indispensable to the whole. There’s a Prayer Book, for sure, and a parish church. Also necessary are the villagers, or “parishioners” to use the more sterilized American word. Clergy can be shared among parishes, and not all villagers attend worship every Sunday – but none of those things have been universally true in all of Anglicanism anyway.

Part of what I’d like us to appreciate, as Christians in The Episcopal Church, is the fullness of our heritage. Come stewardship time, as it is now, it’s important that we take stock of the key resources we’ve had all along, lest we speak to a future that is as unrooted as it is unappealing to anyone’s greater sense of investment and generosity.

Here’s one thing I noticed all across my sabbatical journey, and I think it’s something we might take for granted – especially when we feel the pressure this time of year to ‘do’ stewardship. A huge part of Anglican Christianity depends on joyful, generous Christian people living in and loving the place where God has planted them. Generous, joyful lay leaders and happy clergy – living in and loving the place where God has called them to live lives of Christian witness and integrity, which is another way of saying, in shorthand, “ministry.” I know you may say that that’s hardly measurable (joy? generosity?), and it seems awfully ‘soft’ in terms of job descriptions and duties. But try as I might I cannot avoid the sense that there is no replacement for generous, joyful Christian people – clergy and laity – living in and loving the place where God has planted them. It’s an absolutely indispensable part of our Anglican heritage.

Years ago, The Episcopal Church thought that changing the structures of the church would change the outcome. But our church has never been much of a structural creation, top down; Episcopalians emerge within local communities more like a relational fellowship, often small but plucky and steadfast. There’s a human element to all of this, and The Episcopal Church would do well to consider how we are setting up women and men to lead congregations, love God’s people, and thrive in ministry.

So what does “stewardship” mean in practice, given what we’re asking women and men, clergy and lay leaders to do in our 6,000+ congregations? Let me paint a picture of a potential clergy call and then, on this basis, tell me what “stewardship” means. (I’ll leave it to the reader to determine if this is a real job posting or just one of my wild imaginations in church-gone-wild!)

St. Michael’s Church celebrated its centennial a few years ago, and they’re excited about calling their next rector. They cannot afford a full-time administrative staff, so they admit up front that their next priest will need to be very organizationally gifted.

The church campus is a beautiful, purpose-built mid-20[1] century creation – sanctuary, parish hall, and a 1960s rectory next door. The buildings need work and attention, and they need to raise money to get on the other side of deferred maintenance. Their town is not too small, and there’s a local college and arts scene that the members really cherish. They have two Sunday morning worship services – Rite 1 at 8am, and Rite II at 10:30am – and they like The Hymnal 1982 even though they are open to other musical resources in approved Episcopal hymnals. They generally seem to like each other, and their ministries suggest they like to fellowship and serve together.

Financially, they admit that Covid has been rough – their budget used to be bigger – but it was never that much bigger. They’ve never able to break through some larger, more crippling aspects of rising fixed costs and changing work culture since the 1960s. With an average investment from their members of around $150k, they give the standard apportionment to their diocese about $30k and that leaves them with fixed income for the rest. The new rector’s total compensation is a designated number in next year’s budget, but s/he is going to need to either have her/his own health insurance and pension from a previous work career or else live on a relatively small amount in terms of actual salary.

There are about 50 people in the pews on Sunday mornings between two services. That’s not so alarming given their Average Sunday Attendance in recent decades, even though they hope that the new rector will build a Sunday School and engage the youth of the village and grow the Sunday congregation.

They say that they want to boost their stewardship, and they admit they haven’t done much in the way of a serious stewardship push in recent years. Mostly, they’d like to raise money to put in a restricted endowment which would cover those fixed expenses – fixed with buildings and grounds and maintenance that is.

Speaking of stewardship, the diocese claims 20% of baseline giving via the traditional, albeit questionable apportionment system of central funding, but there’s no word about how the diocese is coordinating or inspiring any number of the three congregations nearby – each of them in a short driving distance from each other – to collaborate and share resources.

So what, then, does “stewardship” mean in this context? Frankly, it sounds like a lot of fundraising and resourcing of long-suffering business models. What are the collective resources? What is the larger, compelling vision? What gifts are being shared and stewarded?

There’ve been a whole lot of attempts to re-brand “stewardship” over the years. “Stewardship is everything after we say ‘I believe,’…” was the talking point years ago. But I’ve come to believe that stewardship depends more on the fullness of our common life than a snazzy pledge campaign or dollars-and-cents in the operating budget. How, then, will we learn to appreciate and celebrate the fullness of our resources, starting with our lay leaders and clergy, those who are bearing the burden in the heat of day? How will we learn to celebrate even those intangible gifts such as joy and generosity? How will we learn to better steward God’s many, many gifts? “Stewardship” is more than a structural, funding problem, and the best solutions are likely more relational and spiritual than strategic.

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