by Dr. David P. King, Karen Lake Buttrey Director
Stewardship, generosity and abundance can be beautiful metaphors that often lead us to avoid talking about money. Although it may be possible to fundraise within congregations while mentioning money as little as possible, the cost may be a domesticated theology of stewardship. Avoiding money-talk deprives faith traditions of some of their greatest assets in confronting issues of justice in our world where business practices, questions of privilege, and social ethics are completely wrapped up in economic issues. And if we don’t want to talk about money personally, it is rarely any easier to address these pressing issues more broadly in our society.
This is what Reinhold Niebuhr saw in 1930 when he wrote a piece for the Christian Century entitled, “Is Stewardship Ethical?” As the story goes, the young Niebuhr had made a name for himself as a Lutheran pastor who had just taken a post at Union Theological Seminary deeply engaged in social issues: pacifism, labor, and economic challenges. Faced with a deadline for submitting his regular Christian Century piece, Niebuhr decided to write on stewardship ethics: “did the churches have anything important to say about the ethical character of the entire western civilization?”
In examining the question, Niebuhr shined a light on how the church talked or didn’t talk about money. It’s easy for us to think that stewardship has just always been, but at least in the American church, what counts as “traditional” stewardship practices today are a relatively new innovation. Only toward the end of the 19th century did denominations begin to make the case for Christians to tithe to the church out of a sense of duty and commitment. And the language of stewardship only gained popularity between the world wars. Like today, American society was undergoing drastic changes: widespread urbanization, immigration, and increasing tribalism. To sustain the growth of American congregations in the midst of these great transitions, denominations developed a language of stewardship. At the same time, the practice of stewardship often seemed siloed from the pressing issues of the day. And so Niebuhr asked, “Is this stewardship ethical?”
Niebuhr was skeptical that conventional stewardship language could speak to current moral complexities. He called out the church as too easily satisfied – too quick to praise the virtue of the philanthropic gifts made by those with concentrated wealth and power. He claimed that “the apparently voluntary nature of a gift does not necessarily make it a truly ethical act.” We have avoided the ethical question. How did “your man of power and privilege,” Niebuhr would ask, “make his money?” How does he treat his workers? This too is a stewardship question and required what Niebuhr called a depth and range of ethical imagination. Of course, as a Christian realist, Niebuhr admitted that Protestant teachings on giving are full of mixed motives, but he challenged the Protestant churches to see stewardship as an ethical issue – personal, communal, global.
Yet the churches largely ignored him. Niebuhr went on to become the most recognizable public theologian of the 20th century, and stewardship principles and techniques went on just as they had before. Scholars in their ivory towers and grass-roots advocates on the ground fought for labor, tax reform, civil rights, but neither saw this as the work of stewardship. At the same time, churches entered the most prosperous period of post-World War II institutional building and public prestige, but they rarely saw their fundraising campaigns as an ethical issue.
By the 1970s, in response to a new set of moral crises and increasing affluence, a renewed theological ethic of stewardship emerged. Renowned Christian social ethicist Max Stackhouse again pointed to the temptation to see stewardship as the menial task of raising the budget: “In our reactions against seeing stewardship only as fund-raising, we must not be tempted to ignore the reality of economics and money… Stewardship is the Christian way of speaking of responsible economics.” And the 1970s – like the 1930s in the midst of the Great Depression – was an interesting test-case. There was the end of Vietnam, the resignation of a sitting President, the growth of corporations yet the financial pinch of an ongoing energy crisis.
Stackhouse also went on to propose a “stewardship ethic” for the church, and like Niebuhr, stewardship ministries have largely ignored it – following the same principles and techniques to raise budgets, fulfill capital campaigns, and support the work of the church. Perhaps, today we’re in a similar time – where the issues of our day are leading us to consider the full scope of our theology and practice of stewardship. Like Niebuhr and the Great Depression, Stackhouse in the midst of an unpopular war and a global energy crisis, we face our own challenges: an unprecedented refugee crisis in Syria, civil war in Yemen, mass starvation in South Sudan, Somalia, Nigeria. And even closer to home, we are reflecting on Ferguson, Charlottesville, not to mention debates over health care and tax reform. Unlike the response of the majority of congregations over past decades, we may no longer have the luxury of ignoring theologians’ critiques and we may no longer be able to simply go about stewardship business as usual.
Is Stewardship ethical? A strange question, but maybe one worth considering.
 Reinhold Niebuhr, “Is Stewardship Ethical?” Christian Century 47 (April 30, 1930): 555-557.
 Niebuhr, “Is Stewardship Ethical?” 555-557.
 Max Stackhouse, “Toward a Stewardship Ethics,” in Teaching and Preaching Stewardship: An Anthology, edited by Nordan C. Murphy, pp. 87-111. Library of Christian Stewardship. New York: Commission on Stewardship, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A, 1985.
 Max Stackhouse, Public Theology and Political Economy: Christian Stewardship in Modern Society (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1987).