This article was first published by the Ecumenical Stewardship Center in the Giving: Growing Joyful Stewards in Your Congregation magazine volume 21, no. 2.
by David P. King, Ph.D., Karen Lake Buttrey Director
In all our research and teaching on faith-based fundraising at Lake Institute on Faith and Giving, much of it can be boiled down to a single lesson: fundraising is primarily about relationships. We think the same lesson is true for congregational stewardship, yet too often, we present stewardship as a solitary endeavor, a private issue between an individual and God. Stewardship is corporate and community work, and it is time we treat and teach it as such.
Headlines may continue to highlight the fragmentation of our civil society and erosion of civic discourse in an increasingly polarized world, but that should not lead us from seeking common language and deeper relationships on issues like stewardship. In fact, I believe it necessitates a redoubling of efforts on that front. What we know from researching multiple generations of donors is that generous giving to religious causes aligns with donors’ engagement in social networks: the number of close friends one has at their religious congregation, participating in a small group, and taking part in religious rituals and spiritual practices. These are all aspects of life that cannot happen as solitary experiences. The more we are deeply formed through relationships in our religious communities, the more we are formed in generosity.1
This focus on relationships is also true within families. In research on next generation donors, it was at first surprising to me that despite our focus on peers and friends, it was parents and then grandparents that were the most influential shapers of the giving patterns of the next generation. This an exceptional challenge to those of us in faith communities, which remain one of the few venues for intergenerational engagement that many western Christians may still experience.2
For those of us tasked with leadership in congregations, what are we doing to foster stewardship in families and in communities? This is tremendously important because in our research asking donors what they care about, 76% of them point to being motivated to give out of their own passions and values. Yet at the same time, the majority of those same donors (67%), struggle to identify what they care about and how they should donate. Over 70% of donors do not involve their family in their giving at all. Our research demonstrates that while interpersonal relationships are central to forming us as givers, we are reluctant to make the connection. Perhaps this is something that we as religious leaders are especially well equipped to address with those entrusted to our care.3
We seem to know inherently that our giving is not a solitary affair, but too often we treat it as one. We struggle to engage in any conversations of significant depth as to what we value and why we are motivated to give. Surely our hesitancy is partly due to how we have made money-talk a taboo subject in our lives, especially our spiritual lives. On one hand, this displays the shortcomings of our stewardship ministries. Too often, stewardship has become shorthand for raising the budget, fundraising, and managing church finances. Important work, but not always the work that deepens our relationships around giving. On the other hand, we also have a stewardship theology that is expansive - looking at topics like creation care, global development, and economic systems. While this too is vital, sometimes it allows us to live in the realm of abstractions and avoid the gritty nature of relationships. It is easier for us to wax eloquently in a stewardship sermon on God’s abundance or on the necessity of caring for creation than ask what these same notions of generosity and stewardship mean for people in our pews in their vocations when they go to work, choose where to buy a house, or consider how to pay for college.
Like my mentor, Bill Enright has said, stewardship and generosity is better discussed around the kitchen table than the boardroom table.4 And kitchen tables are defined by relationships: families over midweek meals; friends celebrating special occasions; fellow spiritual travelers breaking bread. These are the spaces where our stewardship theologies take shape, and yet they are too often overlooked in our stewardship theologies and practice. How can we as congregational leaders expand our stewardship language and programs to equip those in our communities to start meaningful conversations with their families, coworkers, and neighbors? We cannot afford to overlook the power of relationships in shaping our views and practices of generosity any longer. They serve as a primary factor in the motivations of our donors as well as the next step in deepening not only our giving but our living generously.