Editor's Note:This article is one in an occasional series called "All About the Benjamins," running this fall on Fidelia's Sisters. As many congregations and organizations are running stewardship campaigns and lining up budgets for 2012, we'll be taking a look at the sometimes-taboo topic of money, and the roles it plays in our ministries.
I always feel nervous when I preach about money. And I always feel nervous when my church enters our annual campaign each fall. It’s hard to ask my people to give money to the church without feeling as though I’m standing in the pulpit next to Caesar and a gaggle of televangelists. A pastor asking for money, in my mental catalogue of associations, sounds like Reverend Huckster with her Lear Jet, not a teacher, counselor, or spiritual guide. But I’m trying to teach myself that a follower of Jesus can also be someone who knows how to talk capably about money, giving, and ministry.
First, I try to remember that an annual stewardship campaign isn’t really about money. It’s not about duty, our budget, or a church’s survival. It’s about deepening our relationships: with each other, with our ministries, and with God. It’s about demystifying money as a topic for church teaching and Christian practice, both for your congregation and, gulp… for you.
Demystify the language
First of all, the language we use to talk about money in church can be a barrier. “Stewardship”? What the heck is “stewardship”? Is there anywhere else in their lives that your people hear that word? Perhaps your church speaks about environmental stewardship but, frankly, the word “steward” isn’t even used by the airlines anymore. We need some new words for what we’re doing or we need to speak more frankly: fundraising, financial giving, annual campaign. At my church, I’m trying to transition us to: “Annual Giving Campaign.”
And do all of your people really know what a “pledge” is? A cleaning spray? Is it like the Pledge of Allegiance? Maybe some of your folks listen to NPR and know what a “pledge drive” is, but they probably don’t have good associations as a result. I haven’t figured out a new word yet but here’s how I’ve explained it to my congregation: “a pledge is the promise and spiritual discipline of a monthly gift to your faith community.” And while the amount of pledge means something, it doesn’t mean as much as the fact of the pledge in the first place, especially in this economy. Whether a pledge is a dollar a week or $1000 a week; a pledge says: “I want to be part of this community” and “What we do in this church means something to me.”
Demystify giving as a spiritual practice
There is little, even in my middle-of-the-road suburban community, as powerful in human hands as money. And yet, I rarely address it as an instrument of Christian discipleship and witness. Most of us pastors only remember to talk to our people about Christian practices of spending money around stewardship time. But if we avoid talking about money, we’re probably also telegraphing to our people that we aren’t going to be very good at managing it, either. We would do our churches and our people a favor to make more connections between what we believe about God and how we spend money throughout the year. (Advent is a great time to start!)
Most mainline Christians don’t talk much about tithing, either. A couple from an evangelical background joined my parish a while back and one of their complaints to me was that we didn’t foster a culture of tithing. Learning to tithe had changed their lives and their relationship with God, they told me, and it had completely changed the culture of their last church. They’ve since left our parish but I have a feeling they were on to something. Tithing, which can be proportional giving at any percentage point, isn’t just giving money: it’s a spiritual discipline that reminds you every month what you want to give value and priority to in your life, whether you’re able to tithe at 10% or just 1%. It’s a leap of faith and belief that God will provide. It’s a letting go of the fear of scarcity that consumer culture reinforces at every turn. It’s not easy, but it invites God – not just into your heart and soul – but into your wallet.
Demystify your own relationship with money
I became aware of my relationship with money in a new way this fall when my husband and I were on vacation in Maine. That Sunday, I visited a Quaker Meeting. I was very moved by their worship and hospitality. After the service, I reached in my pocket, found the $5 bill I’d brought and dropped it into their “donation box.” Then I paused; a day or two before, I’d spent $50 on two hardcover books. Apparently, worshipping with the Quaker community was a tenth as valuable to me as two books. Was that really true?
Before you examine stewardship in your church, you might need to examine your own relationship with money. How do you connect what you believe about the gospel with how you spend (or don’t spend) money? How do you make choices about supporting charities other than your church and what does that have to do with your relationship with God? Do you believe God will give you and your church what you need to do the ministry God has called you to do, or do you feel you’ll always be scraping by?
Finally, considering stewardship in your church and your own giving requires asking yourself about the value you place on your church in your own life. What does your church mean to you? Does it make a difference in your life or is it just a job? Do you believe your church is truly making a difference in the lives of your people and your community? My church is a source of great inspiration to my husband and me. It’s not just my job – it’s a place where we both feel we get a glimpse of the kingdom of God. So, we tithe 10% of our income to my congregation. The amount you give or tithe may be different, but how you give to your church makes a difference in your congregation’s attitudes about stewardship. And if your spiritual discipline doesn’t include a significant financial investment in the community you’ve made vows before God to lead, teach, and gather in worship, then it’s either time to reevaluate your ministry or get your resume in order. Because if you, the pastor, don’t believe in and invest in the faith community you serve, how can you expect anyone else to?
“Stewardship season” is probably always going to feel a little awkward. We all wish church could run on a few crumbs of bread and some good intentions, but on this side of the kingdom, a church has to be able to sit at the kitchen table with money on one hand and Jesus on the other and have some real conversation. To make the words flow a little easier, let go of that gnawing fear in your gut that there won’t be enough. Believe that giving to our churches is a spiritual practice that will make our lives better. And remember that best way to demystify anything is to have some fun with it! Celebrate what God, you, and your people give to your church community and chances are that Jesus was right: For to those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away (Matthew 13:12).
Two books that elaborate on these themes:
Giving and Stewardship in an Effective Church, by Kennon Callahan. Jossey-Bass (1997).
The Soul of Money, by Lynne Twist. Norton (2006).