I love talking about stewardship because it is one of the most powerful tools available to experience the reality of life in the Spirit. For some people, emotional experiences and stories will lead them into the Spirit. For others, the ideas of theology will excite their souls. Stewardship has the power to take us from feeling good and being excited by ideas to living in Christ. Trinitarian theology may be too abstract to understand, but deciding where to spend your money is very concrete.
One of the keys to living intentionally in Christ is to develop the practice of discerning God’s purpose in your life. Stewardship offers a way to meaningfully integrate Christian faith into our busy lives. When you consider how much money to give to the church you are balancing your spiritual life with the rest of your life. You have to choose between one priority and another. If you tithe, or give proportionally, you are deciding to give that percentage of your income to God. Every other financial decision you make will be affected. Every other decision you make about your money is then made with an awareness of your commitment to following Christ. The decision to tithe puts God first in your life. Every time you place your check in the offering plate you are reminded of your commitment to God. Stewardship reminds us to listen to God, to consider God and to trust in God as we live our lives.
In most congregations the annual stewardship campaign is viewed as a something to be endured or something to get through. A common sentiment is that the best stewardship campaign is a short and virtually invisible campaign. The reasons for this are that people think of stewardship campaign as the annual begging-and-badgering-for-more-money campaign. There is another approach to stewardship that is life giving. Congregations that use the annual campaign to celebrate their congregation and their life in Christ have a transformational experience. Just as stewardship is an opportunity for individuals and families to be intentional about their commitment to God, stewardship is an opportunity for congregations to be intentional about their life in Christ.
The Rev. Anthony Robinson, in his book, Transforming Congregational Culture, describes the three legged stool of stewardship. He elevates the annual campaign from a budget setting exercise to a way of living into the purpose God has set for our lives together. The first leg of the stool is the stewardship campaign. Pledging to support your church community gives you the opportunity to deal with important questions through out your life. A good stewardship campaign gives a community the opportunity to celebrate successes, give thanks to God and to set their sights even higher for the future. Rather than hoping to make the budget to cover rising expenses, the stewardship conversation should be one of dreaming of a future that is not possible and then trusting in God that we will find the resources to achieve those dreams. The stretch, the challenge of setting our goals beyond our expected means forces us to rely on God rather than trusting in ourselves. That is the most powerful and transformational tool available to a congregation for learning to trust in God.
The second leg of the stewardship stool is the capital campaign. On a regular basis, perhaps every ten years, a congregation should go through a capital campaign. Like the stewardship campaign, a capital campaign forces us to confront issues and ask questions that draw us into intentional relationship with Christ. Capital campaigns have to do with the concrete assets of the community, primarily the buildings and property. A regular cycle of capital campaigns gives people who are new to the community the opportunity to invest in the future of their congregation. Capital improvements give people a sense of ownership for the worship space and properties of the church, all of which are an important legacy that we leave to the people who come to the church after us. Capital campaigns give a sense of common mission and purpose. Years ago I was looking at historical pictures of the building of the church I attended at the time. I was not surprised to see a forty year old picture of one of our church leaders digging the foundation of the church. That’s the kind of loyalty people develop when they help physically build the church.
The third leg of the stool is the Legacy Campaign. This is an ongoing campaign to educate people about planned giving through wills and trusts. Just as we want to support the church in life, we want our legacy to go to the causes and people we most love. Legacy gifts most often go to endowment funds for specific purposes. A strong endowment is vital to the health and vitality of a congregation, especially as it gets larger. Like pledging and capital campaigns, legacy giving brings up a unique set of questions and spiritual issues. What kind of a world to we want to leave for our children? How do we want the wealth of our lives to be used after we are gone? Endowments typically protect the principle of their investments and only use the earnings from investment of the principle. Therefore, a legacy gift to an endowment will live on for generations.
The dreaded pledge drive needs to be transformed. Not only should it be the most fun we have all year, we should plan our campaign over longer time periods. The annual drive is necessary for fiscal planning, but that should be a part of a longer term plan. A church should have a purpose statement, or mission, that looks at least three years into the future. The stewardship campaign, legacy campaign and periodic capital campaigns should all be integrated with this long term vision for life in God’s kingdom. Too often, the stewardship committee has to invent the program each year. A longer term focus supports us in raising our eyes from the short term budgetary issues to the longer term mission of the church. Striving to achieve the purpose God has given us requires that we turn to God and trust in God.
Finally, stewardship is an important aspect of discerning our mission in the world as members of the Body of Christ. In addition to setting a longer planning horizon than the annual budget cycle, we need to make stewardship more immediate. Discernment is an ongoing process of listening and looking for the ways God speaks to us. Stewardship permeates our daily lives as individuals, families and as congregations. Education about discerning our stewardship responsibilities must be a regular component of Christian formation in the church.