June 11, 2014

by Catherine Malotky:

Like you, I am a stewardship leader in my congregation. Sometimes I wonder why we work at stewardship in congregations. Of course we have to pay the congregational bills, and for a long time, stewardship fell under that umbrella. The stewardship conversation has evolved over time, something scholars have brought to our attention, and our family memories can recount. As the church’s identity has changed, so has stewardship. For example, church is no longer the center of community life as it was when our ancestors made their way as immigrants to a land that was new to them. Social services around us are not born exclusively in churches these days as they once were. There was a time when the money given to church was all about making the community a better place. We could see and touch this. We lived next door.

In some ways, we are asking foundational questions in the church right now. What is church for? What does it have to offer those who choose to affiliate with us? Of course, the gospel plays a central role, but what does the gospel look like on the ground, once it moves beyond the telling of Jesus’ story and becomes incarnate in our day-to-day lives? What makes being a Christian distinct and noticeable? We generally don’t hold hell over people’s heads, though certainly there are Christians who do. How do we “be church” so we attract rather than coerce?

Simultaneously, stewardship has been changing too. In a world that bombards us with messages about who, what and how we should be, almost always with strong profit motive in the shadows, how should we think about stewardship? In a world where we are running into the limits of our naivety and facing really, really serious problems with long-term implications (think climate change, for example), little is simple and clear. How do we equip each other to engage in the critical questions of our time, and not hide from them? How do we engage in that complexity as Christians?

Perhaps the church can help us learn to think of ourselves as stewards, choosing a management perspective rather than a consumption perspective. If we are merely consumers, we don’t have to engage in questions about whether what I consume will impact my grandchildren’s well-being. That’s simply not a part of a consumer’s world view. A consumer is solicited, procures and uses to his or her own benefit—very child-like. However, if I instead think of myself as a steward of the earth, my communities (faith and civic), my own body, and my family, then I have moved into a different point of view, one that assumes a long-term perspective and demands some kind of agency from me. I need to be an adult.

Business conversations sometimes ask that you move to a higher altitude to see the problem before you. A steward would do such a thing, primarily because a steward’s calling is to manage the life s/he has been given on behalf of someone else, and for the sake of someone else. A steward is all about the vital business of the world, because the well being of the world God loves depends on it.

Might the gospel have something to add to these kinds of conversations! I think so! Is it a bigger conversation than just money, but is it also money? I’m quite sure! Might a faith community be the perfect place to help sort out the paths each of us are on, to help us focus our lives on something broader and deeper than ourselves? Let’s try!