by David P. King, Ph.D.
In focusing on stewardship beyond the offering plate, how do we talk about finances? Answering that question was my task in helping to articulate a holistic approach to stewardship. And it is harder than one might think. With pledge cards, capital campaigns, and appeals for tithes and offerings so common in our faith communities, it is easy to assume this topic has no new ground left to cover. Yet, too often in our stewardship of finances, we rarely talk about money directly. Instead, both in and out of the church, we have learned to perfect talking around money. Money remains the taboo topic for American Christians - something too dangerous to address head on because of the power it holds over us. At the same time, we also know that our relationship to money is perhaps one of the best windows into the practices of the Christian life.
In my interviews with hundreds of clergy and lay leaders, few disagree with the role that our relationships with money plays in the lives of the faithful. Those same religious leaders, however, admit struggling mightily to integrate the stewardship of finances into a broader vision of discipleship and faith formation. Those same lay leaders confess to craving guidance on how their working, spending, saving, and giving fit into their life of faith. As long as the stewardship of finances is correlated in our minds as a “necessary evil” to raise the church budget, there is little incentive to broaden the conversation. As long as our personal finances remain simply the process of paying our monthly bills, then a holistic vision of stewarding our finances will receive little interest from people of faith.
While our society makes clear that money has power, our faith traditions reframe this notion to assert that money can often have power over us. When we lift money out of its properly ordered space, then it begins to define us, determine our values, and measure our self-worth as well as our relationship with others. As stewards, yes, we are managing finances but we are also working not to allow our finances to manage us.
“We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give.” Attributed to Winston Churchill but probably penned years earlier, such wisdom relates to Christian stewardship. Far more than managing resources, stewardship is the way that disciples make a life, and giving yourself and your resources away is central to our formation within a life of faith.
Therefore, instead of baptizing business management language, perhaps a more organic metaphor is fitting. Stewardship is more art than science. In ancient times, a steward walked the vineyard tending to the needs of individual grapevines or individual employees, knowing their needs were not the same. Cultures of financial stewardship must be tended in order to take root and grow.
On the other side of the production process, we might also gravitate to an image of a steward as a sommelier. Trained as a food and wine expert, sommeliers make sure their guests have a wonderful dining experience pairing wine that complements food selections and distinct palates. They too are stewards. The power of money in our lives is too great to view stewardship as managing finances by simply moving money from one column to another. Stewardship is rather tending our souls, aware of our unique fears and desires, nurturing our relationships with money as it marks a way of life and leading us to experience faithful living and the joy of giving.
Finally, it’s important to see the connections between stewarding finances and vocation. Quite often, it is our regard for money that is the biggest stumbling block. We live in fear, anxiety, or envy as we lose sleep worrying about having enough or not having as much as others. We hoard resources for fear of running out, or we squander resources on things of little lasting value because they make us feel good. Stewarding finances, then, is not how we invest what remains; it is rather how our full relationship with money becomes a way of life. Stewardship viewed in this way also opens up our imaginations as to how we see the world. Again, if it is true that “we make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give,” then when set free from the power of money, we are able to see the world in new ways.
*Want to read more? A fuller version of this post appears in the new book, Beyond the Offering Plate: A Holistic Approach to Stewardship, edited by Adam Copeland. To order visit: Amazon, Westminster John Knox Press, or Barnes & Noble.