Potholes of Stewardship

April 10th, 2014

Recently I had the opportunity to attend a "Jump Start Your Stewardship" event hosted by the Minneapolis and St. Paul Area Synods of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). There was good material, but I think I would have structured the whole event a bit differently and given more space for conversation and discussion rather than so much lecture. That being said, a few nuggets hit me, which I want to call "potholes."

For those of you blessed with good roads that never buckle or open up, a pothole is a failure in a road (generally made of asphalt) that results in a crater or hole being created in the road. The Twin Cities of Minnesota are experiencing some of the worst potholes in many years as the remnants of winter recedes, and the battered roads emerge. Needless to say, you don't want to hit a pothole, but it's pretty much impossible right now to avoid them with your car. So,

What are some of the potholes of stewardship?

  1. Focus only on money
    This was one of the disappointments with the event over the weekend. It's very important to focus on money in stewardship, but sometimes we get so focused on the money aspect, that we lose sight of the larger and perhaps more important question of what does it mean to be a steward? We are a steward of all that we have and all that we are. This includes money, but it doesn't just consist of money.
  2. Focus on time and talent and avoid money
    Some times congregations and people focus exclusively on an understanding of stewardship around people's particular gifts, strengths and talents. This focus is great for helping people connect their daily lives and work as examples of stewardship, but it can also be a means of avoiding thinking about the difficulties and challenges of money. It can even lead to the avoiding of any money conversations altogether, which isn't helpful either.
  3. Not facing the challenges of finances
    This goes along with the previous pothole. If money isn't discussed, then congregations avoid having conversations about helping people be responsible and sustainable stewards with their own finances and budgets. If a person isn't empowered and given space to feel capable and given an opportunity to ask questions, they will continue to avoid facing these challenges. Through this, money can become a real barrier to one's relationship with God rather than a means towards serving and living as God's stewards and children. To quote a popular summation of stewardship, stewardship involves "time, talent, and treasure" together with working together.
  4. Creation of Guilt
    A local pastor in the Twin Cities explained this well. He believes that true stewardship comes through two stages of financial health. The first is the "sea level" perspective, which is a focus on budget and debt help and how to budget and get out of challenging debt. The second, is a sort of “how to fly” and “learn to fly” perspective, where one is enabled and shown how to use their wealth to express their values and calling(s). In his view, congregations ask the second piece about callings and values without tackling the first piece. By doing this, congregations inevitably create guilt among their congregants and stewards, and nearly pressures them to take on more debt in order to be able to give. If a congregation doesn't help the person become sustainable, then a congregation may just be making a person worse and not better by pressuring them into giving without the help of how to do so and live into that in a sustainable way.
  5. Inability to tell the story of the mission or movement
    In the past it was just assumed that people would give because it was the right thing to do and an expectation. This isn't the case anymore. This doesn't mean that younger generations aren't generous. Younger generations are very generous and want to be. They give of themselves and their resources to movements and to missions that they can sense and see. They don't generally trust institutions, so if an organization or a group can't tell its story convincingly and in a way people can relate to, they aren't likely to cultivate new givers. Successful non-profits have figured this out. Congregations are just starting to scratch the surface though, and it takes a willingness to adapt and change in order to do so. (Kickstarter is a significant example of where young people help through their money.)
  6. Assuming people know how the ministry/work is paid for and done
    Related to the previous pothole, as people gave in the past as a sort of expectation, people also generally had some grasp of how the ministry/work was paid for. Today's generations don't. And why would they? If more and more of younger generations are growing up without religious or faith experiences, how would we expect them to know how the church does it's work? This means there is ample opportunity for engaging in conversation and mutual learning.
  7. Treating younger families, adults, different demographics, etc. as "token" people
    This shows up all over the larger church. But it reared its ugly head over the weekend. I don't fault the person who said it. We have all thought it, but by thinking it and saying that we want "more younger people" or more people that are different than us to come to this, or particularly to participate in stewardship, we are expressing a desire without asking the all important questions like: "What do younger generations value?" "What can we learn from younger generations?" "Do younger generations view themselves as stewards with gifts?" These are important questions that need to be asked, and they can't be asked of just a few people who, because they are younger, happen to "represent" younger people. It doesn't work like that, just like I, as a Norwegian American cannot speak for all Norwegian Americans. Each person has their own perspectives, experiences, and values. To think they speak for all people who happen to share some characteristics is inauthentic.
  8. Fear of offending people by talking about money
    Perhaps this is the age-old assumption. People don't want to hear about money, so by talking about it you are going to offend them. Rhetorical question, but what topics were talked about most in the Bible? Besides, look at the data, people are drowning in fears of scarcity and debt today. They want to talk about money. They need to, in order to overcome these challenges. It's a faith issue, and a spiritual issue.

These are just eight starting potholes that I see around stewardship.

What potholes would you add?

Timothy Siburg blogs at timothysiburg.wordpress.com.

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