Stewardship in a New World
The Goal of One Hundred Percent Giving
Tithing is hard. Tithing is hard to do, but it is also hard to use as our only biblical standard for stewardship giving.
For starters, Jesus never spoke of the tithe. How much did the disciples have to leave behind? Everything. How much did the rich young man need to sell? Everything. How much did the poor widow leave as her offering in the Temple? Everything. Jesus’ standard of giving is not 10%; it is 100%.
Jesus’ standard of giving fits with his overall view of Moses’ law: “You have heard it said,” Jesus says six times in the Sermon on the Mount, “But, I say to you…” It also fits with the practice of the apostolic church, in which no one claimed individual ownership of anything, but sold what they had and gave it to the apostles who distributed the proceeds to all as any had need. For Jesus and for the apostles, discipleship demanded a full measure of devotion – pressed down, shaken together, running over.
On this side of God’s Kingdom, there are obvious practical problems with 100% giving. But the goal of full devotion still applies. We should feel the cost of our discipleship and we should always be striving to do more. If we don’t notice the sacrifices that we are making for our faith, then we aren’t sacrificing enough.
Another problem with using the tithe as the only biblical standard for financial giving is that it has become an unfamiliar concept to many of our parishioners. In a previous article, I argued that there are four kinds of church givers: People who give as a spiritual discipline, people who give to support the church as a community institution, people who give to pursue concrete outcomes, and people who give as a token of their participation. The concept of a tithe resonates with people who give as a spiritual discipline, but it sounds like a foreign language to everyone else.
Jesus said, “I came not to judge the world, but to save the world.” The church needs to stop speaking to people as if they were where we wish they were and start meeting them where they actually are.
Stewardship beyond tithing
An effective stewardship program must not limit itself to a single message, because our churches are not limited to a single kind of giver.
- What if your treasurer offered presentations to explain the state of your church’s finances? This example of the vestry’s good stewardship would appeal to those whose own stewardship is motivated by furthering the institution of the church.
- What if your vestry established the church’s expense budget for the year ahead before it began the annual stewardship campaign? You could say: “If we raise $X, then we will sustain the offerings that we have. If we raise 5% more, then we will expand our youth program. If we raise 5% more than that, we will also expand our music program.” Etc., etc. This preserves the vestry’s role in setting priorities while also motivating outcome-oriented givers.
- What if your church calculated its average weekly impact in addition to – or even in place of! – its average Sunday attendance? What if you issued an annual impact statement that explained exactly how your church is making a difference in the community? This would appeal to parishioners who are motivated by measurable outcomes and to those who are interested in the institution of the church.
There is no one-size-fits-all solution to effective stewardship messaging. The church needs to use an all-of-the-above approach.
Invitation to deeper devotion and greater giving
Diversifying our stewardship message is critical to the future of the church because the days of people supporting institutions and giving out of obligation are passing quickly.
Youngish adults are proving to be far more outcome-oriented givers than the more institutionalist generations that preceded them, and most of the churches that I know are struggling to activate their generosity. We rationalize this problem by saying that young adults are early in their careers, that they need to be saving for retirement, and that they may have small children at home. While any combination of these things may be true, a recent article from the Forbes Nonprofit Council says that the Millennials were the most generous generation of Americans in responding to the COVID-19 pandemic. A quick visit to GoFundMe.com (which has brought in more than $15 billion since 2010) will reveal even more evidence of Millennial generosity. Young adults are giving; they’re just not giving to the church in the same ways or to the same extent that their parents and grandparents did.
The Forbes Nonprofit Council goes on to suggest that the key elements of activating young adult generosity are relationship and transparency. As leaders in the church, we should hear them quoting Gabriel: “Do not be afraid; for I am bringing you good news!” Relationship is the church’s business and the Episcopal Church’s business practices are far more transparent and audit-worthy than those in many other churches. The Episcopal Church will have a bright future if we can figure out how to do three things:
- Build authentic relationships with the rising generation of adults
- Level with them about finance and governance
- And talk with them about stewardship giving in more familiar terms
“The body does not consist of one member but of many,” writes the Apostle Paul to the church in Corinth. “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you,’ nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.’” Paul begged the church in his day to recognize that different kinds of people were all part of the same body; he asks the church in our day to recognize that different kinds of givers are too.
Stewardship as pastoral care
My congregation recently finished a large capital campaign, and I feel much closer to my parishioners now than I did when we started. Visiting someone’s home for the sole purpose of talking about the role that the church plays in their life is a profound pastoral experience. Demonstrating a willingness to talk about money invites future conversations about other uncomfortable topics.
What pastoral conversations might we have with each kind of church giver?
- Giving as a spiritual discipline invites a pastoral conversation about whether and why 10% is enough. Why not 11%? Could they work towards 12%? Jesus insisted that his disciples do more than Moses’ law required them to do; he puts the same challenge before each of us.
- Giving to support the institution of the church invites a pastoral conversation about the mission of the church and the needs of the community. How could the church do more for the least among us? How could we address more of our community’s systemic injustices?
- Giving to pursue outcomes invites a pastoral conversation about the spiritual and countercultural discipline of releasing control, of following the model of the early church in trusting the community of faith to discern God’s will rather than relying solely on private discernment.
- Giving as a token of participation (or not giving at all) invites a pastoral conversation about the role of the church in that person’s life, about that person’s commitment to the greater body, and about the mutual expectations that members of the body have for one another. Jesus called disciples, not adherents.
In every area of our life and faith, the church should seek to meet us where we are and gently and lovingly invite us to deeper levels of devotion. Stewardship is no exception. But meeting people where they are does not mean that they need to stay there. Faith is a journey, and Jesus’ principle of full devotion invites all of us to continue striving towards greater levels of commitment and sacrifice. Until we reach 100% giving, we all have room to grow.
The Reverend Sandy Webb has served as rector of Church of the Holy Communion and trustee of St. Mary’s Episcopal School, both in Memphis, since 2013. He has experience with congregational and staff development, annual and capital fundraising, facility renewal, and maintaining healthy church/school relationships. Before ordination, Sandy served as a lay professional in the Executive Office of the General Convention of the Episcopal Church, where he was involved in the planning and execution of General Convention worship services for fifteen years.