Holistic and Joyful Stewardship – An Example from St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Exton, PA

Mary MacGregor, in a Vestry Papers article titled “From Scarcity to Generosity”, states that often focusing on budgets is closer to the scarcity end of the spectrum. Rather than beginning with the budget numbers, we should think about mission and ministry first. It is a subtle, but important, difference. The focus is on a narrative about mission and ministry (whether or not it is formal “Narrative Budget”) and how the shared mission and ministry is going to be funded.

From “either/or” thinking to “both/and” thinking. From a theology of “scarcity” to a theology of “abundance and generosity.”

St. Paul writes of stewardship as a “generous undertaking” (2 Cor. 8:7). The original Greek can also be translated as “grace.” This grace is the act of giving out of an abundance of faith, gifts/talents, service (time), and finances in advancing the reconciling love of God in Jesus Christ. I believe stewardship is about our response to God’s abundance as disciples of Jesus as we orient our lives toward God in Christ. It is how we care for community, others, and all of creation.

It is with “utmost eagerness” (2 Cor 8:7) we are called to a life of generosity in our stewardship. Generosity is the very nature and character of God, and this generosity is self-giving, creative, and loving. Our response is to reflect the abundant and generous love of God. In my own stewardship, I strive to offer an example in my giving out of sincere joy and thankfulness. As a priest, I invite and help others to grow in their awareness of God’s abundance and generosity in their lives and the life of the Christian community. This is an invitation to stewardship as central to being a disciple of Jesus and an apostle to the world in advancing the reconciling love of God through Jesus Christ.

It is an invitation to deeply encounter offering to God out of our treasure through closely examining our personal budgets – where our money is spent, how we make spending decisions, and in what ways does giving benefit us spiritually while also advancing God’s purposes. It is about prayerfully and as abundantly as possible giving of ourselves and our labors in honor and service of God. Yet, I believe that stewardship is holistic with an element of both giving and receiving. The prayerful and abundant giving is not just what we give the Church or to others; it is about the stewardship that allows room in our lives to honor God and the love, mercy, healing, and peace that God desires for each of us. Stewardship includes receiving from God so we can more fully recognize God at work in our lives and relationships.

When I arrived as Rector at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Exton, Pennsylvania, the church faced a $10,000 deficit. In fact, the parish had a history of chronic deficits, of various sizes, going back nearly two decades. This history had to do with the lack of any focused stewardship campaign as well as the absence of any real budget process itself. Previous deficits had been covered with year-end checks from a few wealthy members of the congregation (people long gone from the parish by the time I arrived). There was also a sense that financial decisions were made “in secret” and the congregation had little sense of what it cost to run the parish. Transparency and accountability were both at issue. Also at issue was a fear of talking about money which grew out of a sense of scarcity.

To confront the budget issues at St. Paul’s, we had a thorough overhaul of our budget planning and management process. We immediately established budget and audit procedures in accordance with the Manual of Business Methods in Church Affairs, as well as diocesan canons specific to parish audits (which included quarterly internal audits and an annual audit by an independent, outside accounting firm). Such procedures offered the accountability that had been lacking. To assist in transparency, we began publishing summary results of the audits for the congregation. A stewardship program had begun during the interim (transition) period, so we worked to build on that and expanded the campaign the fall after I arrived.

With the assistance and support of lay leadership, we began a process of evaluating what St. Paul’s mission/vision was and specific goals. This became the basis of a “mission-purpose, people-centered budget.” I worked with the Treasurer and Finance Committee to implement a “program” based budgeting process where we examined, with leaders of programs (e.g. Sunday School teachers) and staff (for office-related expenses), the costs needed to effectively run their respective areas, in keeping with the overall mission/vision of St. Paul’s and established goals. The program input became requested budgets for those areas. The Finance Committee worked with the program budget requests, as well as what we believed were realistic income goals, to develop a proposed budget for the Vestry to review and approve.

The approved proposed budget was presented to the congregation as part of our stewardship campaign so that everyone could see the mission and ministry we were trying to fund in keeping with the parish-wide overall mission/vision and specific goals for the year. This created a strong sense of ownership of the process for everyone involved and a real sense of investment on behalf of the entire congregation to fund the mission and ministry of the parish.

We maintained regular communication between the Treasurer, Finance Committee, Vestry and program leaders with respect to actual income and expenses. The Treasurer provided a monthly report to the Vestry and updates on our finances were communicated to the congregation to maintain the transparent and accountable process. In establishing transparency, accountability, and ownership we were able to improve our income-side results – increased giving from a number of long-time members and increasing the number of new members who gave sooner.

It was a true both/and of improving income to match needed, realistic, expenses with careful management of expenses and cash flow. By the time I left St. Paul’s, we had increased overall giving by nearly 30% and maintained balanced budgets. We had worked hard to establish a solid foundation, grow mission resources, and set a path for future growth.

Another important factor was encouraging, supporting, and promoting year-round Stewardship campaigns. Over three years we had “Seasons of Giving,” “Sharing our Blessings,” and “Fulfilling the Promise.” These campaigns focused on people and mission-purpose (inviting people, forming people, serving people) that was woven into every aspect of mission and ministry at St. Paul’s. We focused on broad aspects of congregational life (e.g. Finances, Care of Creation, and our personal lives). While the financial campaign took place in early fall, we incorporated the various other aspects of stewardship throughout the year as we integrated these themes into our outreach, our spiritual programs, and the like. In this way we were able to focus on stewardship in its many and varied ways throughout the year and it became less about merely funding the budget (as important as that was) and became a way to view and live stewardship more holistically and joyfully.