Reflections on Stewardship and Giving – A Theology of Generosity

As both a priest and economist I am often asked to be part of church committees dealing with finances. This is fine. I am equally comfortable discussing theology and numbers. In fact, I believe the intersection of theology and money are important discussions for us to be having as the Church.

This is especially true in our congregations, where, more often than not, both clergy and the people we serve are uneasy discussing money. Stewardship campaigns are, if not dreaded, unlikely to make the list of things we look forward to. Necessary? Yes. Looked to with anticipation and joy? Not likely. But stewardship can become a celebration of a parish’s mission and the various ministries it supports.

 

I have always approached conversations around giving with joy and excitement as they are opportunities to discuss God’s generosity and our call to live boldly and passionately into mission and ministries. These are theological and spiritual conversations – the type of conversations I love to have as a priest. The fact that it takes money to fund mission and ministries is part of the theological and spiritual conversations. It is an invitation to reflect on God’s generosity, and our response – out of gratitude, to share that generosity we experience through Jesus Christ.

 

Funding the Great Commission

As a parish priest, I have found it beneficial to stewardship efforts in having a comfort speaking about the church’s need for money in living into God’s call to us. Funding mission and ministries is important. Jesus looked to the generosity of others to fund his movement. He also knew that resources would be required for his disciples to carry out the great commission he instructs them (and us) to take up at the end of Matthew’s Gospel:

Jesus giving the Great Commission
Jesus giving the Great Commission

Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. When they saw him, they worshipped him; but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’ (Matt. 28:16-20).

Christians today are a continuation of the Jesus Movement. We are 21st century disciples of Jesus who are called to invite, form, nourish and send people who are renewed by the reconciling love of God in Jesus Christ. We have received the great commission from Jesus every bit as much as the first disciples, and we are called to live a faith rooted in our baptismal promises.

The very nature of God in Jesus Christ is unconditional generosity. Jesus exemplifies this generosity and calls all of his disciples to live lives in the same generous spirit. In the Society of Saint John Evangelist’s Rule of Life, the brothers write: “[The] act of creation was one of pure self-emptying. But God broke all the limits of generosity in the incarnation of the Son for our sake.” (SSJE Rule of Life, p. 12).

As Jesus tells his disciples in Luke’s Gospel:

“Sell your possessions, and give alms. […] For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Luke 12:33-34).

We have a similar passage from Matthew which concludes with Jesus saying:

“No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth” (Matthew 6:24).

Jesus tells us that it is a mistake to think of our possessions and our money as things we should cling to, things that then possess us, rather than seeing them as reflective of God’s generosity and our participation in that generosity by giving to others.

The Widow’s Mite is a biblical story we can probably all recall from Sunday School. Jesus points to a widow as an example about a spirit of generosity in giving to God:

He looked up and saw rich people putting their gifts into the treasury; he also saw a poor widow put in two small copper coins. He said, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all of them; for all of them have contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in all she had to live on” (Luke 21:1-4).

While the amount of money the widow gives is small – two copper coins were the least value coins in use in first-century Palestine, Jesus tells us it represents all the widow had. God does not even expect this level of giving from us – the tithe of 10% being the biblical standard. Nonetheless, Jesus is pointing us toward giving that is rooted in gratitude and generosity.

Sister Joan Chitister – Benedictine nun, theologian, and writer, has commented that:

“The purpose of wealth is reckless generosity, the kind that sings of the lavish love of God, the kind that rekindles hope on dark days, the kind that reminds us that God is with us always.”

I love this quote as it speaks to freedom – a liberation – from wealth. It points us toward the unconditional generosity of God given through the Incarnation of God in Jesus Christ. It draws us closer to Jesus and allows us to follow him with a generous spirit in giving to others.

Saint Paul writes to the Church in Corinth of giving 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.

Early Christian communities took quite seriously their responsibility in caring for one another and others in need. This does not mean that they always got it right – as many of the Epistles address, but they were intentional communities of faith that are described as exhibiting economic fellowship, joy, and generosity (Acts 2:43-47). They sought to live according to Jesus’ vision for community where they shared possessions and distributed goods as those had need (Acts 4:32-37).

 

Gratitude and Giving

While this may theologically makes sense, it is not always so easy to connect Christian faith and life to joyful and generous giving. As church leaders we are often left scratching our heads as to why stewardship campaigns can be such a struggle. While the tithe is the biblical standard for giving, statistics suggest Episcopalians give, on average, closer to 5% (based on the average pledges from across the Episcopal Church and median household income in the United States). In 2015, this represented an average pledge of $2,707 from Episcopalians.

Average pledge in The Episcopal Church (domestic US dioceses)
Average Pledge in The Episcopal Church (domestic dioceses)

 

Averages can be a tricky thing. Some Episcopalians certainly give more than 5% of their income (there are those who even tithe), and others give less than 5%. Nonetheless, averages are instructive as to where giving in the Episcopal Church is with respect to the biblical standard of 10%.

Does this mean Episcopalians are not generous? I don’t think that is necessarily so. There are many reasons why people don’t tithe. Our responsibility as church leaders is to engage our congregations in the deep theological and spiritual conversations around generosity and what is required to fund mission and ministries. The more we can connect their deep passions with the needs of the world being met through our mission and ministries, the greater is our gratitude and generosity.

The Rev. Canon Charles LaFond (author of Fearless Church Fundraising) has stated: “I give ten percent back to God through my church because that is what God has asked of me. I don’t think about it anymore. I breathe. I pledge. I eat. These are just things I do as a human and as a Christian.” He goes on to say it took him moments to learn to breathe and years to learn to pledge. He moved from 1% to 3% to 6% to a tithe.

The lesson is not to get hung up on percentages, but to focus on moving people into a deeper gratitude for their relationship with God. It is prayerful work. It has to do with our being human – created in the image of God and God sharing humanity with us through the incarnation of Jesus Christ.

 

Why Do People Give?

I recall an article published in 2005 from the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis titled, “The Economics of Charitable Giving: What Gives?” I know, shocking an economist would mention an economic study. Even though the article is over a decade old, it offers some valuable insight. The authors point to the fact that studies overwhelmingly suggest people are not entirely altruistic when giving. Individuals, they assert, seem to derive benefits from the act of giving itself. The article concludes about charitable giving that:

“[The] Dominant motivation is the internal satisfaction that individuals derive from the act of giving itself. Individuals derive [what economists call] utility from giving. […] [E]specially when the number of donors is large, the social context of other people’s giving is overshadowed by the satisfaction of one’s own giving when considering how much to give.”

According to the study, people give to charity because they largely derive satisfaction from the very act of giving. Additionally, while it may be of some interest for donors to know the average amount given from all individuals to the charity (e.g. the church), it is not much of a factor in determining how much to give themselves.

Sean Stannard-Stockton, a principal and director of Tactical Philanthropy (how’s that for a job title?) published an article in the Stanford Social Innovation Review, titled “Why Do People Really Give to Charity”, argues something similar from a slightly different perspective. I think of this as roughly the opposite side of the same coin.

Stannard-Stockton writes that people give to charity as a way to satisfy their deeply held need to find meaning in life. Part of this stems from altruism (the “unselfish regard for the welfare of others”), and part of giving is that it makes the individual happy (this is similar to the economic theory of the individual deriving utility from giving). Stannard-Stockton continues by stating that humans are communal. So it is not just “unselfish” to give, but part of what makes us happy is to be part of and contribute to community. It is, as he states, “hardwired into our DNA” as human beings.

The important takeaways, I believe, are that people give because: The act of giving is satisfying, giving make us happy by offering meaning, it fills a desire to help others, and is born out of the very human need for being part of community. As Archbishop Desmond Tutu has said: “My humanity is bound up in yours, for we can only be human together.”

 

Connecting Deep Gladness with Mission & Ministries

There seems a human impulse to give. And if the act of giving is itself satisfying (economic utility) and also fills the need to help others (altruism), and makes us happy by offering meaning within community (created in God’s image and the Incarnation), then our stewardship efforts are not about convincing people to give. Rather, our stewardship efforts are about matching people’s deep gladness/passions/desires with funding the church’s mission and ministries.

Those familiar with the writing of theologian Frederick Buechner may have already detected where this is going. So often in my ministry I turn to his quote:

“The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”

Christians are called to specific areas of ministry (in time and talent) at the intersection of their gladness (or passions/desires) and where there is need. I believe the same is true of giving when it comes to our money.

Part of the role of church leaders is to help the people of God connect their deep gladness (or passions/desires) with the funding needs of those areas of mission and ministries. A powerful way to do this is through narrative. We share the story of God largely through narratives found in the Bible, our own stories of transformation, and how others are transformed by the church’s mission in the world.  Writer, church consultant and Episcopal priest Tom Ehrich states:

“Thriving churches focus on transformation of life – the personal journey of faith – and on mission[s] in the community.”

When our focus is on God’s call to us in living out our deep gladness/passions/desires, then we can have deeply theological and spiritual conversations about where those intersect with mission and ministries and the generosity in giving needed to fund them.

So, yes, it means talking about money. But not by merely presenting a balance sheet or budget spreadsheet with mission and ministries line items. These are important as accounting tools and for transparency and accountability – which are absolutely necessary, but they are not the most effective ways to discuss giving for mission and ministries.

There is a reason human beings have been sharing stories since the beginning of human creation – because narratives are powerful in passing along information about how we relate as community. Our biblical narratives help us understand how God relates with humanity and how we are to relate to God and one another. All of these stories need to be shared and connected to funding needs.

My wife is a writer, and writers always say we should “show, don’t tell” for better narrative. In the context of parish, diocesan, or wider Church ministries, Telling is giving information/facts. For example, “We need X dollars to fund Y ministry.” Showing is discussing how lives are transformed because of ministry Y and attaching the X dollar amount which makes ministry Y (and those transformed lives) possible. If you have some actual pictures to go along with it, all the better.

Whether there is a formal “Narrative Budget” or not, connecting giving with the blessings that result (for existing ministries) and the vision of what blessings can result (for proposed ministries) can be powerful. Even those involved in those ministries may not be fully aware of just how many disciples (we are disciples of Jesus not volunteers), hours, and dollars it takes over the course of a program year to provide the ministry when we take into account a portion of clergy time, lay staff time, office and building resources, etc. play a role in providing the ministry.

Talking to people one-on-one, providing opportunities for people to gather to share stories, gathering data (time and money spent) and stories of transformation from ministry leaders begin to build a narrative about the mission and ministries of a parish. Then sharing those stories throughout the wider congregation and community, along with what it takes to fund those ministries, can have a dramatic impact on increased giving.

When I was Rector at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Exton, Pennsylvania, we had various versions of this type of stewardship. It was inspirational – both in terms of recognizing all that went into funding mission and ministries, and the congregation’s response in increased giving. And one thing we did was to discuss the year’s theme for giving year-round. We still had our annual stewardship campaign for pledges, but we didn’t wait until the campaign to share the narratives of mission and ministries, and what it took to fund them.

Over three years we had narratives for giving to fund our mission and ministries with the themes of: “Sharing our Blessings” – which focused on gratitude, “Seasons of Giving” – which followed themes of the Church Year, and “Fulfilling the Promise” – which was based in our Baptismal promises. Over those years, the parish went from chronic deficits to a balanced budget and a deeper sense of gratitude and generosity for all we did as a parish and the funding required to live into God’s call to us as a community of faith. (Unfortunately, all the files I had from those campaigns were lost from a computer crash before I regularly backed up).

While this was a new approach for St. Paul’s, Exton, the concept of using some form of narrative (often with visuals) is not. There are a number of success stories about parishes, and dioceses, moving to a place of deeper gratitude and generosity through a narrative process. All Saints Church, Pasadena offers one such example from their Connect, Inspire, Transform campaign. St. Paul’s in Bellingham, WA used the All Saints model for their own stewardship efforts with Connect, Inspire, Transform, Send.

 

Asking a Congregation to Prayerfully Give out of Gratitude and Generosity

We should never lose focus on the deeply theological and spiritual nature of giving and generosity. It is our responsibility as church leaders to engage the congregation in those conversations. We then need to connect those conversations to that place where their deep gladness/passions/desires meet a deep hunger/need through our mission and ministries (or proposed ministries), and what is required to fund them. Then we need to ask the congregation to pray to God as to what they will give with a spirit of gratitude and generosity.

 

Brother Curtis Almquist, while Superior of the Society of Saint John the Evangelist, once said to a group of friends of SSJE:

“As Superior I have a responsibility to ask for money. I also have no idea how much money any of you have. I ask one thing: please pray to God, and between you and God figure out what is right for you. Thank you.”

Brother Curtis knows of God’s generosity and the community’s gratitude for it. He also trusted that those friends of SSJE would take seriously his request to pray to God as they considered their gifts in support of SSJE’s ministries.

We can approach conversations around giving with joy and excitement as they are opportunities to discuss God’s generosity and our call to live boldly and passionately into mission and ministries. These are theological and spiritual conversations. The fact that it takes money to fund mission and ministries is part of those theological and spiritual conversations. They are an invitation to reflect on God’s generosity, and our response – out of gratitude, to share the generosity we experience through Jesus Christ.


You can download a PDF version of this article here.

You can Listen to my sermon titled “Deep Gladness and a Spirit of Generosity” here.


Resources:

The Episcopal Church Foundation Vital Practices – Vestry Papers on Rethinking Stewardship

The Episcopal Network for Stewardship (TENS)

Fearless Church Fundrasing (The Rev. Canon Charles LaFond)

The Episcopal Church Average Pledge

“The Economics of Charitable Giving: What Gives? – The Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis

“Why Do People Really Give to Charity” – Stanford Innovation Social Review

Your Pledge Dollars at Work (Connect, Inspire, Transform) – All Saints Church, Pasadena, CA

Connect, Inspire, Transform, Send – St. Paul’s Church, Bellingham, WA

Congregational Stewardship Manual (The Rev. Canon Charles LaFond, Diocese of New Hampshire)

The Consortium of Endowed Episcopal Parishes