September 2022
Stewardship in a New World

Forming Stewards, Loving the Questions

For individuals and congregations alike, practicing intentional and life-giving stewardship involves engaging lots of questions. Contrary to many congregations’ expectations, the big question in stewardship is not, “Will we have enough?” The central question is, “How are we making use of all that we already have to create Beloved Community?”

Spinning out of that big question is an almost inexhaustible list of related questions:

  • How do we make sure we can pay our bills?
  • How do we put all our assets to work to share abundant life with our congregation? And with our neighborhood?
  • How do we offer wholeness and new life to people beyond our membership?
  • Who is God calling us to engage?
  • What do we need to stop doing so we can bring our best to what we’re called to do?
  • How do we discern our next best steps?
  • And on, and on . . .

Engaging the questions

A much more basic question drew St. Martin’s Episcopal Church in Charlotte, North Carolina, into examining the stewardship of its mission budget. A year or so before the Covid-19 pandemic upended so many aspects of life in faith communities, St. Martin’s mission board wanted to learn more about the impact of the funds they were giving to local nonprofits. In the name of good stewardship and being in right relationship with their community, the church stepped back from its support of nearly all of the 27 different ministry partnerships it was supporting. Rector Josh Bowron said that he and the church mission board spent nearly a year talking and praying and studying together, all while practicing “being with” one another in ministry and “being with” the ministries they served.

For Bowron, the process was fueled by the principles taught by HeartEdgeUSA and HeartEdge sparkplug Sam Wells, rector of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, London. Wells sees “being with” as a pitifully neglected aspect of the church’s social outreach. Churches, Wells maintains, tend to emphasize “being for” (advocacy), “doing for” (direct service) and “doing with” (partnership in ministry). When in addition, we choose to “be with,” we are living God’s incarnational message: We are putting people, and not their deficits or limitations, at the center of the relationship.

The four C’s

As a result of their discernment process, Bowron’s congregation has sharpened its outreach efforts to focus on two primary community ministries, deepening its engagement with both of them. And the increased intensity of their relationship with those ministries has encouraged the church to deepen its engagement with the wider community. St. Martin’s concentrates on intentional development advocated by HeartEdge around “the Four C’s”:

  • Commerce: Finding income streams to achieve financial sustainability and grow flourishing programs; demonstrating a wider understanding of the faith
  • Compassion: Partnering with others in forming relationships, releasing the gifts of strangers; engaging local need and addressing social justice
  • Culture: Re-imagining the Christian narrative for the present; expanding and encouraging new avenues for art
  • Congregation: Day-to-day communal life, liturgy and worship; deepening and widening the congregation

As a HeartEdge April 2022 newsletter explains, “HeartEdge is fundamentally about a recognition of the activity of the Holy Spirit beyond and outside the church, and about a church that flourishes when it seeks to catch up with what the Spirit is already doing in the world.”

St. Martin’s Charlotte NC has chosen to staff up around those Four C’s. Emphasizing commerce to generate income has meant they leverage their property around income-generating activity, while still serving the congregation’s priorities. After the church’s preschool closed due to the pandemic, St. Martin’s chose to rent one floor of their up-graded facility to a separate nonprofit, converting an expense to income-generation. The move widened their relationships with the community and increased the funds available for the church’s mission goals.

Engaging with culture has brought a (very part-time) “director of creative engagement” on staff, leading to a Lenten exhibit for Stations of the Cross that celebrated artists from the congregation and the community. Pentecost inspired an animated art installation hung in the nave, created from hundreds of origami doves folded by the community. The displays are intentionally designed to allow the community to engage with the art in multiple ways: in the context of worship, in community gatherings and on its own time.

Shifts in understanding

Bowron sees the shifts in focus at St. Martin’s as an expression of their understanding of stewardship. “Stewardship for us is about stewardship of the gifts that God is giving us. We hold of central importance that God is, and indeed has given us the gifts that we need to do the work that God has given us. It’s all gift, it’s a gift economy. … In this gift/abundance model we look to what’s being brought and tailor the mission to those gifts. This is a distinct change from the problem-solving model of a lot of mission work.”

The incarnational practice of “being with” helps re-direct focus from the problem to the person, re-centering on relationship instead of resources and deficiencies. Bowron adds, “This is necessarily an abundance outlook. For some churches this will be new and require patient work in moving away from scarcity to abundance. I’d recommend a close reading of the gospel of John to hammer the abundance message home.”

As part of that abundance work, Bowron joins with his congregation to cultivate “friendship without fixing,” challenging its people to give precedence to “being with” in all their relationships. For many who are missionally driven, letting go of the desire to fix things calls for a shift in attitude, both inside and outside the church. Similarly, “spending money on ourselves” has not been an easy sell – even when mold removal was required to make facilities usable. Once the facilities were safer and more inviting, the buildings could become income-generating assets. Equally challenging is moving beyond a “quick fix” model to seeking to build real friendships. “When you decide you are going to lead with friendship, you are purposely lowering your status…. The Gospel is downwardly mobile; we’re downwardly mobile,” he says with a chuckle. “The definition of privilege is that you’ve substituted resources for relationships. We're re-centering on relationships.”

Living God’s future now

Leveraging each of the Four C’s is becoming an intentional process each time St. Martin’s engages a challenge, and that approach has energized the church. Bowron points out, “Folks think of congregational renewal when they’re in crisis…. I would encourage healthy churches to consider experimenting in this way…. The energy that gets released into your congregation is outrageous.”

HeartEdgeUSA’s website proclaims, “HeartEdge is a group of people who believe in living God’s future now.” Bowron understands the foundation of the HeartEdge movement as a profound statement of life-giving stewardship for the community. “God has already given the church the gifts it needs to do the work God is calling us to do. Our work is to learn the discipline to receive the gifts in the form they’ve given…. When you start looking at your church as a field of gifts as opposed to a problem to solve, it’s so exciting.”

RESOURCES - Episcopal Parish Network, workshop recording: “Catalyzing Community: HeartEdge’s 4C Model”

Demi Prentiss is ECF’s Program Director for Research and Development with broad responsibility across ECF for program development and communication. A credentialed coach, she also offers strategic support relating to finance and leadership to congregations facing challenge or change. Demi brings to her work a deep understanding of Episcopal organizations, having worked at the national and diocesan staff level and as a ministry developer in congregations ranging from family to resource size. She holds degrees from Seabury-Western Theological Seminary and Harvard University. The developmental editor of ECF’s Finance Resource Guide, she is the author of Making Money Holy (Church Publishing) and Radical Sending: Go to Love and Serve (with Fletcher Lowe). She lives in Lafayette, CO.

photo from Zoom with Josh Bowron; photo courtesy of St. Martin’s, used with permission – from their new website

This article is part of the September 2022 Vestry Papers issue on Stewardship in a New World