Generous giving is psychologically incompatible with the idea of stewardship.
Speaking psychologically, and not politically, stewardship is a conservative concept. In the first post of this series (“Confronting Stewardship”), we saw that conservatism is one of the strengths of the idea. We need stewards to preserve scarce and valuable resources, the true meaning of conservation. It should be no surprise that the ecology movement has adopted the concept of stewardship with enthusiasm.
Building on what was said in previous posts, I would suggest that the essential characteristics of stewardship include:
- a conservative ethos
- an emphasis on holding on
- an environment of scarcity
- strategies of saving and investing
- a motivation of duty or obligation
If we consider the qualities of an ideal steward, we list might include the following adjectives:
- Scottish ethnicity (stereotypically)
And if we looked for a story from the New Testament to complete the picture, we might think of the Parable of the Talents.
On the other hand, a dictionary definition of generosity includes “liberality in giving or willingness to give”. We apply the label “generous” to gifts, to people, and to the spirit some people exhibit. We think of a generous gift as exceeding the minimum requirement; “the more the better”. A generous person responds to need, and is neither calculated nor grudging, but free and spontaneous. Isn’t this what all fund-raisers, including those who work for the church, are trying to encourage in people?
So our list of the characteristics of generosity might include these attributes:
- a liberal ethos
- an emphasis on letting go
- an environment of plenty
- strategies of spending and giving
- a motivation of freedom
We might describe a generous person as:
- Slightly reckless
- Mediterranean ethnicity (Zorba the Greek comes to mind)
And the illustrative Bible story would be the Parable of the Prodigal Son.
It could be argued that my outlines are stereotypes and that the game was rigged from the get-go. But that is precisely my point. Invoking either concept stimulates, in the mind of the listener, exactly the kind of caricatures I have painted. This may be one reason why stewardship is such a tough sell in our churches. When we want generous giving but use the language of stewardship, we’re asking people to do the psychological equivalent of driving with one foot pressing the accelerator to the floor while the other is jammed on the brake pedal. The expression “generous steward” is reminiscent of the old Canadian Tire commercial which encouraged us to “Give like Santa; save like Scrooge”. The ad worked because it was telling us we could do the impossible (at one retail chain’s stores only).
If we’re asking for generous giving, we defeat ourselves by using the language of stewardship. As Mr. Dunk, my elementary school principal used to admonish his students: “Say what you mean and mean what you say.” Language matters.continue reading
The logical problem with stewardship can be put succinctly: if stewardship is true, God does not give and neither can we.
In making this claim, I want to draw a distinction that is similar to the difference in law between a trust and a gift.
According to the Canada Revenue Agency, “A gift is a voluntary transfer of property without valuable consideration to the donor.” For our purposes here, the two key features are the voluntary nature of the transaction and the fact that it is a transfer of ownership. For a gift to exist, a donor must in fact own the property that is being transferred and she must do so without obligation.
Going through a form of giving without having ownership of the property in question is fraudulent, since the receiver is under the impression that she is the new owner when, in fact, the true owner has not given anything. There is no transfer, and the true owner retains possession.
CRA insists on a gift being voluntary to distinguish it from a contractual transfer or sale (which involves the legal concept of consideration, which is something of value such as money). Contracts are enforceable because there is a promise of money changing hands in return for the transfer of property. If there is obligation, no gift exists.
A gift is different than a trust, which is another type of transfer. In a trust a person (the settlor) settles certain property upon a trustee for the benefit of a beneficiary. The settlor and the beneficiary can be the same person. Trusts originated during the time of the Crusades, when a knight left his home for an indefinite period of time, facing an uncertain future fighting the infidel (the less said about that, the better). The law of trusts evolved in response to the need to give someone control of the knight’s property while he was away from home, without surrendering any of his ownership rights. The trustee had full authority to act, but the terms of the trust would spell out those for whose benefit he had to act (the knight’s family, but presumably his servants and vassals as well).
A trust agreement is enforceable at law. Failure to live up to the obligations imposed by a trust is known as breach of trust, an offence that occasionally catches up to lawyers who help themselves to money they are holding on behalf of clients for real estate transactions.
From this brief and informal survey, it should be clear that a gift and a trust are two very different concepts.
The correspondence may be inexact, but stewardship is very much like trusteeship. In both concepts there is a party who delegates authority over her property to a person who may act with all of the power of the owner, except the power to put her interests in place of the owner’s. The person being delegated to (steward or trustee) always acts under obligation to the owner, and at the pleasure of the owner. Authority delegated may be revoked.
If God is the owner of all things and we are merely stewards to whom God has entrusted certain goods, then God has not given us anything. If we hold things as trustees or stewards, it is logically impossible for us to give them to anyone else, for they are not ours to give.
To illustrate this point, let me introduce Steve, who is both a long-time friend and my financial advisor, to whom I have entrusted the investment of the family fortune. I have given him the authority to choose investments, within agreed-upon parameters — the main one being the purpose of making money for me and my family. He is the closest thing to a genuine steward in my personal experience.
Now Steve, in discharging his responsibilities to me, can be many things: bold; imaginative; competent; prudent; honest; and so forth (and he is all of these). But the one thing he cannot be is generous. No matter how much money he is able to turn over to me, not one cent of it is a gift. Everything he does is merely discharging his responsibility as a steward, using money that is mine — not his.
A trust is not a gift. If we wish to hold to the idea that God gives, indeed is generous beyond our imagining, then we have to abandon the idea that God is the owner of everything and we are merely stewards, not owners. If we wish to encourage people to be generous in their giving to their friends, families or charities (including the church), then we have to abandon the fiction that stewardship describes the relationship between ourselves and God. If we don’t own it, we can’t give it.continue reading
A sizeable number of Christians give no money, literally nothing. Most of the rest of American Christians give little sums of money. Only a small percent of American Christians give money generously, in proportion to what their churches tell them to give.
Christian Smith and Michael O. Emerson with Patricia Snell, Passing the Plate: Why American Christians Don’t Give Away More Money.
In the last post I listed four types of reasons why we might want to say goodbye to the stewardship paradigm. I’ll take up the last category of reasons — practical ones — first, perhaps because it’s the least controversial. The simple truth is, as a set of principles for nurturing a cultures of generous giving in our congregations, stewardship does not work very well. If it ever did work on any significant scale, it certainly stopped working decades ago.
This is in spite of the facts that the United States is one of the most “churched” of all developing countries, church members are among the most affluent Christians in the world, and virtually all American denominations have written policies that prescribe tithing as normative for believers.
I have no way of demonstrating this, but I am pretty certain that virtually all Christian denominations in the U.S. and Canada have operated within the stewardship paradigm for the past century or more. Every church uses the concept of stewardship to explain why giving is an integral part of discipleship.
In the ELCIC, my own calculations have concluded that the average member household contributes somewhere in the vicinity of 1.5-2.5% of gross (before tax) income to its congregation. The data also show us that in a typical congregation, 30-50% of the households contribute a negligible amount each year, the sum of those donations comprising less than 5% of the congregation’s total income.
A brief digression: It is true that the other 50-70% of the households must be donating more than the average in order to bring it up to 2.5% of income. It is also true that per capita giving in the ELCIC has been rising steadily throughout the 25 years of our church’s history. Then why are we in such serious financial difficulties? The biggest reason is the loss of membership — averaging about 1% per year across the denomination. Those who are left are giving more each year, but their share of the load increases each year also. It is our failure to retain and attract members that is our primary problem — and not just for the financial consequences — poor evangelism, not bad stewardship.
But the point remains, and is brought into clearer focus when we look at the proportion of congregational income contributed to church-wide ministries. It has fallen, in the Eastern Synod, from an average of 10% in 1986 to barely more than 6% today. Congregations are keeping more of what they get. Does this indicate a culture of generous giving?
Finally, I contend that if the concept of stewardship ever had much effect on the behaviour of a sizeable percentage of members, its heyday has long since passed. Stewardship emphasizes duty or obligation. As it is publicly proclaimed — by the clergy or, more frequently, by the accountant or banker who has the misfortune to be chair of the stewardship committee and who is pressed into service on Stewardship Sunday in November — it often acquires overtones of guilt and shame.
Duty, responsibility and guilt are notions that might motivate some people born between the two World Wars, what many people call the Civic Generation, and one writer has dubbed “the Greatest Generation”. But those values have little or no traction with Baby Boomers, their children or grandchildren. They don’t give out of duty, and they don’t support institutions. That helps to explain why, on most Stewardship Sundays, it’s one old guy in a blue suit up at the front of the church talking to a small group of white-haired people in the pews.
Stewardship doesn’t work. We should get rid of it for practical reasons alone. But there’s more.continue reading
In our cynical world, where suspicion is a necessity, insisting that something is true is not nearly as powerful as suggesting that something might be true.
Thomas King, The Truth About Stories
In the next few posts, I wish to pose an idea that might be true. The idea is this: if we wish to nurture a culture of generous giving in our congregations, we need to abandon the stewardship paradigm for reasons that are . . .
- theological, not to mention
I call it the stewardship paradigm, following the usage of Thomas Kuhn in his seminal work, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Kuhn defines a paradigm as “a set of assumptions, concepts, values, and practices that constitutes a way of viewing reality for the community that shares them, especially in an intellectual discipline.” He observed that a paradigm is so all-encompassing that members of a community are often literally unable to see observations that conflict with the prevailing wisdom. Experimental results that run contrary to the paradigm are explained away as anomalies. Dissenters are branded as incompetent kooks, radicals or, in some communities, heretics. Do our notions of stewardship constitute a paradigm?
Consider this quote from Clarence Staughton: “Stewardship is everything you do after you say yes to Jesus Christ.” Or the slogan adopted by the Synod of Alberta and the Territories of the ELCIC: “Stewardship is a way of life.” Finally, no less an authority than Douglas John Hall, in The Steward: A Biblical Symbol Come of Age, wrote: “The steward metaphor . . . is an inclusive concept, a kind of presentation of the gospel in a nutshell.”
Over the past several years I have looked, in vain, for any writing that critiques — or even critically examines — the Christian view of stewardship. There are hundreds of works that seek to justify it, explain it or improve the way it is put into practice, but none I could find that have ever questioned stewardship. That is what I intend to do here, at the risk of being branded a heretic (or more accurately, an apostate, since I used to believe all this stuff rather fervently myself).
What are the stewardship assumptions that define the way the Christian community views reality? We could construct a classical syllogism to explain the train of thought:
Since . . .
God created, and also owns, everything in the universe; and
God entrusted to us everything we enjoy, the way a master entrusts his property to the care of a steward.
Therefore . . .
We have an obligation to use everything we have (“our selves, our time and our possessions”) in ways that serve and please God.
We sometimes sneak in a second conclusion, often implicit but still potent:
Since God’s mission is carried out by the church, we are good stewards when we give to the church.
As Luther would say, this is most certainly true. Or is it?continue reading
Stewardship has been part of the accepted wisdom of church life for more than a century. A skeptical observer would note that it has probably been written and preached about with far more fervour than it has been practised. It constitutes part of the label under which this blog appears. For these reasons, it seems appropriate now to take a careful, thorough and unsentimental look at the concept.
Webster’s Third New International Dictionary defines a steward as “one called to exercise responsible care over possessions entrusted to him” (my version was published in 1966, which explains the non-inclusive male pronoun). Stewardship, then, is “the administration of the office of a steward and of goods or duties entrusted to one’s care”. Another source defines it as “a responsibility to take care of something one does not own”.
My Webster’s goes on to provide a second, more churchy definition of stewardship:
The aspect of the religious life and church administration dealing with the individual’s responsibility for sharing systematically and proportionately his time, talent, and material possessions in the service of God and and for the benefit of all mankind. [sic]
Our inherited theology of stewardship tells us that we are stewards of our time, talent and treasure because God the Creator has entrusted those gifts to us, although they continue to belong to God. God calls us to exercise responsible care over the three Ts, and since we have a duty of responsibility without the status of owners, that makes us stewards.
We are told that the Greek word (“oikonomos”) in the epistles which is translated as steward means “household manager”. Our words “economy”, “economics” and “economist” are obviously derived from the Greek source. That clears up a mystery for me which originated in high school — I always wondered why a course in cooking and sewing (which only girls could take in those ancient times) was called “Home Economics”.
So if stewards are really household managers, tasked with the responsibility to look after property they do not own, that explains why our teaching of stewardship in the church places such emphasis on careful management. It also explains why that teaching is almost indistinguishable from the cultural values of the petit bourgeoisie, imbued as we are in the Protestant work ethic, raised to be cautious, prudent and thrifty.
It seems to me that the concept of stewardship has its strongest and best application when three conditions are satisfied:
- scarce or finite goods;
- absentee ownership; and
- a clear delegation of authority.
Scarcity is an important condition, for if resources were practically unlimited, it would be a mockery to imagine anyone carefully managing them. What would be the point?
Absentee ownership and clear delegation are pretty much self-evident. I am not a steward over things that are mine; I can only be a steward over possessions, goods or duties that belong to someone else. And I must be appointed to my role by the rightful owner of those things, not self-appointed or nominated by a third party, otherwise I would have no genuine authority to act.
It makes sense to me that we talk about environmental stewardship, one of the more common uses of the term today (4.3 million hits on Google). It makes sense to me that we talk about a congregational council exercising stewardship over the congregation’s assets.
In both of these cases, we want the people acting as stewards to be careful, conservative and responsible because they stand in a different relationship to the goods being looked after than the owner does. We understand, intuitively, that I can do what I want with what is mine (within moral limits, of course). But I cannot do what I want with something that I am caring for on behalf of another. I have an obligation to act in their interests, not my own.
That, it seems to me, is the strength of the concept of stewardship. It is important for me to state this clearly now, for in posts to follow I will say much that is critical of our usual ideas about stewardship.continue reading
There may come a time when you need to raise a lot of money. It could be for a capital campaign, a major project, or to reduce a looming deficit as year-end approaches.
Sending fund-raising letters is one way to go about it, but it is difficult to tailor the message to the interests and circumstances of each individual donor. Sometimes the best wayto ask people for money is face-to-face, one person at a time.
Does the prospect of asking people for a lot of money fill you with dread? You’re not alone — but help is at hand.
Here is an article that explains, step by step, how to ask for large gifts. While you’re on the Sumac site, you may want to browse through other articles; click on the Library tab to find a wealth of helpful resources on a variety of topics.continue reading
Apart from the mystery of what the word “benevolence” means, there is also a mystery about what the money is used for. When congregations are reviewing budgets in times of austerity, there is a temptation to reduce the amount allocated to benevolence simply because few people know what it is used for. To say “this is the amount we pay to the Synod” makes it sound like a church tax — and who has the courage to defend paying taxes?
- A 2-page narrative budget that you can include in your congregation’s package of reports that are made available prior to your Annual General meeting. Our ministry story 2012 — 2 pages
- A 1-page story suitable for church newsletters (8.5×11 format). Our ministry story 2012 — 1 page
- A series of bulletin inserts. bulletin insert 1 bulletin insert 2 bulletin insert 3 bulletin insert 4
Let us know if there is another format that would be helpful.continue reading
In September 2011 Pastor Steve Johnston, from St. Peter’s in Brodhagen, was considering sending a Thanksgiving mailing to members of the congregation. Steve wrote:
“I’m preparing to write my first pastoral/stewardship letter to all the families in our congregation. Two things are driving this. First we do have a high percentage of “alumni”, those who claim membership but I never/rarely see them – and the pastoral letter aims to re-connect or strengthen their tie to St. Peter’s. Second – our treasurer liaison reports that we are down on our givings compared the past two years. This will be possibly be the first ever pastoral or stewardship letter for St. Peter’s – council have no recollection of this happening before.
“So we are planning to send this letter to arrive 1 ½ to 2 weeks before Thanksgiving Sunday. We get a lot “home coming” guests that weekend at church. We are sending this letter to ALL families and we plan to TELL of our mission work here in Brodhagen (which will include our givings to work beyond the village & area). I’m using the Ask, Thank, Tell book as guide and re-reading it now.”
Here is the letter that Steve sent to members of St. Peter’s: brodhagen thanksgiving 2011 letter
Two months later he reported on the outcome of the venture:
“The letters started arriving in mailboxes Friday 30th September – one parishioner that rarely, if ever, comes to church, dropped off a $100 cheque at the parsonage on Sunday morning before worship (and he still didn’t stay for worship).
“Council Treasurer reported on Oct 11th that we received about $1,000 marked as “Thanksgiving Gifts”. We received in October 2011 (with only two Sundays counted the 2nd and 11th) almost as much in offering (about $600 short) as we receive in all of October 2010. There are 3 Sundays left to count and 2010 also had 5 Sundays.
“I got this email from one of the key families in the congregation:
Hi Pastor Steve:
Thank you so much for your recent letter that we received from you outlining the recent happenings at our church and also the way that your appeal for funds was presented.
I don’t know how this suggestion came about for you to send letters to appeal for funds but I thought it was such an excellent way to approach the members that can the most afford to support our church. As a result we took a look at our givings this year so far and then realized that we needed to “catch up:” Our gift of $1500.00 to current was given on Sunday.
In our opinion this was a more effective way of appealing to the congregation than just an announcement at church. However a gentle reminder can go a long way especially now that the end of year is approaching. We all know that many of the congregation do not have the money to give as they would love to be able to.
We commend you and church council for such a splendid job you all do. God Bless you all!!!
Thanksgiving is one obvious time to send out a pastoral letter like this. Are there other appropriate times in the year? Consider:
- Christmas, where a theme of gifts and giving would nicely fit the season. In the secular calendar, December 31 is the last date to make donations in the income tax year.
- Lent, a time of spiritual searching.
- Easter, when we consider the meaning of sacrifice and new life.
Do you have a story to tell about generous giving?continue reading
More than 120 people attended this conference on April 8 and 9 in Cambridge, ON: Anglicans and Lutherans; clergy and lay leaders.
To read Jeff Pym’s opening presentation, “New Thinking on Stewardship, Generosity And Mission”, click here: new thinking
Other presentations will be posted to the Ontario Stewardship Network website over the coming weeks. Watch this space for further announcements.continue reading