As a teen-ager, I remember the chair of the Finance Committee in my home church in Hampton, VA standing before the congregation one Fall Sunday morning. He talked about the need to support the ministries of the church and listed several organizations that we supported with time, talent and treasures. At the end, He said, I upped my pledge…. UP YOURS!!!
There was stunned silence and then the roar of laughter from the saints at First Presbyterian Church.
First – Hampton is like most congregations with an October or November, Stewardship Sunday, typically signifying that a congregation’s stewardship season is underway. The day often includes a series of elements that most churchgoers have come to know well: testimonials during worship from church members who tithe, one brave sermon on money based on a Scripture that includes the phrase “gave her last mite,” “cheerful giver” or “rich young ruler” and possibly an afternoon all-church meeting about the budget.
While nothing about Stewardship Sundays is inherently bad, the catch is around what they (and the approach they so often represent) say about the real meaning of stewardship. Personal testimony is inspiring. Talking about money is a critical part of Christian community. Budgets are necessary planning tools. But were you to attend a “stewardship” service, you’d likely leave with the impression that stewardship is mostly the same as fundraising and describes an event or campaign that happens once a year, involves giving envelopes and a pledge drive and is designed for the purpose of asking congregants to help offset church expenses.
That’s problematic because the core of stewardship isn’t money. It’s love. Stewardship isn’t an event or campaign. It’s a spiritual practice. Hear that again: the core of stewardship isn’t money. It’s love.
Of course, stewarding financial resources is part of stewardship. But to practice Christian stewardship and be moved by it is to consider how we shepherd our whole lives – through word and habit, and with God and each other – to be expressions of gospel love in the world.
The challenge of Jesus is nothing less than to question every system in which we take comfort that is not love. A holy practice of stewardship helps us see our dependence on those systems and slowly release our grip on their handles. Christ’s gospel calls for an alternative way of being in the world that places love at the center — not money, power, validation, possessions, popularity or even security. The focus shifts to love! The key spiritual practice of love should change our lives, drastically.
When the value of everything we thought we needed changes, we become free to do things we simply couldn’t do while we were carrying the heavy weights of the economies we’re so used to. In love, we feel unweighted enough to share our resources with abandon; speak truth to power without worry for consequence; stand with the foreigner who is knocked down by oppressive systems; proclaim that all human beings are worthy just because God created them; and lay down our lives for causes of justice.
I want to invite you into an ongoing spiritual practice of self-giving that supports a release from every system that is not love. The spiritual practice of stewardship forms the way we see the world and ourselves within it as people of faith. It also hones each virtue muscle on Paul’s list of spiritual fruits: love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control — in addition to generosity and gratitude. It calls us to steward every part of who we are, not just money, for love’s sake.
Like all spiritual practices, including prayer or regular worship attendance, stewardship isn’t a one-time event or even seasonal. It’s an ongoing commitment with endless opportunity for growth and increased attunement to God’s call. What’s more, the practice is valuable outside of financial goals. If we quadruple our church bank accounts but aren’t transformed into a community of people who are kinder, gentler, readier to welcome the stranger, more forgiving and more committed to justice, then we may have practiced fundraising, but we didn’t find ourselves playing in the deepest wells of real stewardship where real change lives. The thermometer for measuring meaningful stewardship is less the meeting of an annual financial goal and instead the degree to which a church body looks more and more like beloved community. Again, my prayer is that you would PROMISE that the core of stewardship isn’t money, but LOVE!!