Changing the face of stewardship to live richly in faith toward God
by Rev. Scott Schantzenbach, Assistant to the Bishop for Stewardship and Faith Formation
In the ancient myths, Jason and the Argonauts joined in a search for the Golden Fleece. Their journey
would lead to an encounter with the dreaded Sirens, and therefore Orpheus, the mythical father of music, joined the quest. Unlike Odysseus of old who filled the ears of his crew with wax to prevent them from hearing the Sirens’ alluring call, Jason simply planned to have Orpheus sing a better song.
Contrary to the melodies of our consumer culture that tempt us toward debt, at the heart of our stewardship quest in the 21st century is the desire to sing a better song.
That temptation is seen in current-day vocabulary, preferring the phrase “giving back” when referencing matters of sharing, giving, philanthropy and stewardship. What is implied in this expression is a restoration of something to its rightful owner. The giver is called upon to exercise a sense of fairness, not to demonstrate generosity. This propensity to giving back creates and supports a life dominated by marketplace transactions rather than one transformed by a faith-filled relationship with Jesus.
Recall the story Jesus told of the rich fool in Luke 12:16-20. After building bigger barns to store his abundant crops, God said to the foolish man, “This very night your life is being demanded of you.” A closer reading of that story in the Greek text can be translated, “… ‘you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’ But God said to him, ‘Foolish man, in this night they demand your soul from you.’ ”
They are the “ample goods.”
Recall John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” God didn’t want the power of “perish” to claim us, so our creator was generous and shared the power of God’s love. Generous stewardship characterized by God’s relationship with us, sacrificial sharing and life-giving purpose spares one from the strangling hold of financial idolatry.
In a culture defined by the Siren songs of consumerism and transactional behavior, generosity is a far better life-giving song.
The hard work of stewardship is turning from the transactional behaviors and embracing a life transformed and redeemed by Christ. For many the term stewardship means the annual tithe or church budget talk. Unfortunately, stewards are frequently viewed as a “resource” rather than as followers of Jesus. The counterpoint to this trend is captured in that most commonly memorized text, John 3:16. This is our song that we sing as we steer through the lure of the consumer culture’s sirens around us.
Generosity says it all
This song is all about that central Lutheran focus on grace. A steward leader might easily substitute the word generosity. Four points meld together in this one word to define stewardship and characterize the core value of every steward leader: generosity.
• God gave the Son for the world and put us in a loving relationship with God.
• God gave first. God loved us first so that we can love. In other words, God shared so that we share.
• God forfeited God’s only Son. God gave sacrificially so we are free to give sacrificially, not for our salvation but in joy and thanksgiving. Jesus is the only example the world needs. Now we have the freedom to give for the sake of the gospel.
• God’s gift was purposeful. God’s gift was life-giving and thus our giving can be intentional for the sake of the gospel and the church. Thus we can sing joyfully in four-part harmony.
Generosity, the operative virtue in stewardship, is defined by life-giving relationships paired with sacrificial giving. The great narratives in Scripture record God’s work of generously shaping our relationships and behaviors. We also know that God is concerned with how followers of Jesus invest generously, not only time, talent and treasure but also with how we relate to God, to creation and to the world.
Maybe no other financial stewardship model anchors the individual in a life filled with generosity than the intentional “firstfruits,” the idea of moving toward a balance of sharing 10 percent of income, saving 10 percent and spending 80 percent (10-10-80). The firstfruits practice calls us to adjust our financial behaviors by 1 percent of our income each year until reaching the overall goal of 10-10-80.
Firstfruits giving (sharing) creates a culture of humility by moving ourselves out of the center and making God the focal point in our life (relational). Because of the size of such a gift, we will need to budget for adjustments (sacrifice) in some areas of our life and in our core values so others might discover a changed and redeemed life, hope and hospitality (life-giving). This model encourages every follower of Jesus joyously to rest in a loving relationship with God, recognize and generously use assets for God’s mission, and live generously toward family, neighbor and future generations.
Congregations living generously reflect common themes in their giving-education methods. They:
• Establish generosity as an act of worship. Rooting our giving in worship assures that our relationship with God and the faith community is connected with sacrificial sharing and life-giving purpose. Even parishioners who share financial gifts electronically will find creative ways to participate in the offering by using check boxes on properly marked offering envelopes and other means of participation.
• Concentrate on generosity. People give to congregations for different reasons than they do for secular causes. The cultivation of a generous heart is essential to good stewardship and leads away from the fundraising model. Setting a budget and asking people to make a gift to support it is a transactional goal fraught with pitfalls. Transactional stewardship frequently elicits people trying to define their “fair share”; invokes relatively small increases in giving; and diverts energy to the one or two negative reactions people have to a specific proposal.
• Write the joy-filled vision that sings. Stewards in all generations care that where they give is a strong, focused, future-oriented ministry. A clearly articulated and internalized sense of God’s mission is key to the creation of a generous culture. The accountability for God’s preferred future strengthens relationships and paves the way for sacrificial giving.
• Host a financial stewardship venture four times each year. Provide multiple venues through which Jesus’ followers reflect on their relationship with God and their generous living behaviors will only strengthen faith and equip the church in cultivating Christ-centered and resilient faith-communities. Using these events to thank the followers of Jesus, interpret God’s work, share an account of our stewardship, celebrate the work of our hands, and pray for the dedication of our gifts is an invaluable part of our discipleship.
• Base stewardship ventures on a biblical rather than institutional foundation.Preach and teach the biblical principles of generosity and percentage giving of income. It’s difficult for Jesus’ followers to see stewardship as an integral part of their lives and the life of the Christian community if they can’t understand that living generously is foundational to discipleship. When generosity is not taught, fundraising will become the default model for stewardship.
Financial stewardship ventures are opportunities for changing the face of every follower of Jesus to reflect and act on the connection between living generously and living richly in faith toward God.
This article originally appeared in the October 2014 issue of The Lutheran.