May 2007

Discipleship and Young Adults: A Good Mix

When my rector asked me if I’d consider heading up the annual stewardship campaign, I admit to a sinking feeling in my stomach that many of us experience when faced with the task. And I got more than my fair share of knowing smiles and smirks from friends who had been there and done that. As a younger adult in my parish, and having only been a member for about a year, I felt more than a little nervous and unprepared. 

Fast forward six months, to this article. What should vestries know about young adults and stewardship? I thought back to my recent experience, and asked a few other young adults about their experiences in their own parishes. The answer wasn’t surprising; after all, the core concept of stewardship is the same for everyone. The differences are often in how we perceive the call to faithful stewardship, how we relate to money, and how we practice our stewardship.

Stewardship is a core concept of our faith, one which is key. Just look at the Gospel parables, or today’s newspaper. But it can still be a challenging idea to embrace. Our parents’ generation grew up with the idea that hard work and perseverance would lead to wealth. In more recent history, we’ve seen many examples of innovation, creative investing, and good timing leading to quick fortunes. The commercials that we are bombarded with daily teach us that our goal in life should be to acquire lots of stuff — the biggest car, the smallest cell phone, the trendiest gear. And with so much advertising targeted to eighteen to thirty-five-year-olds, younger adults must often quiet the inner consumer to hear the inner steward.

Be authentic about the message
If the message is the same, what is different? One difference is in how the message is received. Many people explain stewardship as our obligation to give to the church. For those who were brought up in the church and associated such institutions with feelings of security and longevity, this is a difficult commitment to make. But for those whose perceptions were formed more recently among scandals in big business, government, and even the church, institutions are often thought of with more skepticism than trust. This is why it is important to be clear, consistent, and authentic about the message of stewardship. Stewardship is about discipleship, and it is essential that discipleship remain the focus. 

Another difference is in the relationship many young adults have with money. The news is full of stories of young adults having to juggle skyrocketing school debt, housing and childcare costs, and health insurance — and many of us are living that reality. With shorter earning histories and large debts, it is easy to forget about our obligation to be faithful stewards. It’s easier to focus on bills and tangible goods over something as intangible as discipleship. Stress that it is the regular practice of stewardship that matters, not the pledge amount. When stewardship is confused with fundraising, it is easy to feel that a small monthly pledge isn’t worthwhile. But when a parish encourages members to give regularly from the resources God has entrusted to each, that small contribution is the fulfillment of a promise, and it is indispensable.

Join the 21st century
Young adults often have different ways of physically managing money. With the ease of online shopping and banking, and debit/credit card readers everywhere, it’s possible to go several days without touching a dollar, or writing a check. Newer technologies are springing up every day — at the Whole Foods near my apartment, you can now pay for your groceries by scanning your fingerprint!

This means that focusing solely on the cash-in-plate mechanism may make it harder for those who don’t carry cash. Acknowledge and incorporate modern practices so that those who use newer money management techniques can still make the regular practice of stewardship part of their routine. Encourage parishioners to make online bank payments to your parish. Or consider setting up a Paypal account, as many campus ministries and parishes have done, so that those who are not in the pew every Sunday can still fulfill their pledge.

This is by no means an exhaustive list. Young adults are as varied as any other demographic group in the church, and as the entire Episcopal Church itself. Our experiences vary based on where we live, with whom we worship and more. One of the most important things a parish can do when developing their stewardship program is to include young adults on the stewardship committee. 

Too often, this task goes to members who have given the most in the past, or are the most vocal, or who have occupations that deal with money. But if stewardship is about individuals acknowledging and responding to God’s blessings, then a diverse committee — wealthy and poor, old and young — representing the entire parish should work together to develop a stewardship program that speaks to all. You may be surprised at the innovation and inspiration that emerges from such a staid topic. 

And who knows? One day, you might even include fingerprint readers on the collection plates!

A budget analyst at the US Food and Drug Administration, and Board member of the Episcopal Church Foundation, Uchenna Ukaegbu, 29, is a Nigerian-American and also the financial stewardship ministry leader at her parish, the Church of the Epiphany in Washington DC. Thanks to Dan Wagner of Christ Church, Greenville, South Carolina and Ellen Dingwell of the Church of the Transfiguration, Dallas, Texas for their insights.

This article is part of the May 2007 Vestry Papers issue on Stewardship