STEWARDSHIP MATTERS: WORDS OF ENCOURAGEMENT AND SUPPORT
I’m assuming you clicked to this letter because you wanted to read a little bit more about generosity practices and stewardship, or because you are looking for some additional support or encouragement. That is exactly what I intend to convey here. So here we go!
First, there is a lot of talk about inflation and the potential for a recession. Along with and as a result of these concerns –it is natural to wonder about how to approach your stewardship ministry as well as to have some apprehension regarding financial generosity in the future. In fact, it is the very same wonder and apprehension that was raised not so long ago and at the outset of what was then the outbreak of a novel virus called COVID-19. Long story short, that was another recent moment reflective of other critical moments where many of us didn’t know what to expect regarding financial generosity going into the future. The surprising thing was, however, that generosity not only continued but grew to an even higher level.
There are numerous articles and studies regarding charitable giving demonstrating that people who practice generosity remain generous in uncertain times as well as economically more prosperous times. In fact despite the six recessions we have experienced since 1980, charitable giving by individuals has steadily grown. In 2021, over $136 billion was contributed to religious organizations which remain, by far, the largest sector for charitable giving.
All of this is to say, though there may be economic as well as other ‘headwinds’ before us, church leaders should continue their good and faithful work of teaching and encouraging generosity through intentional and ongoing stewardship ministry. Further, even in these hard times we may remain hopeful that the generosity we have been blessed by in the past shall remain with us going into the future.
There are always many challenges in teaching and practicing generosity or running an annual stewardship appeal. However, one of the principal challenges is forgetting why we do this. Very simply the answer is this: because it is the life God wills for us to know and be; it is the Life God has given us through faith in Jesus Christ! We hear this in scripture. And we affirm this in our prayers. It really is true and of the utmost importance to recall that all of our stewardship talk, all of our invitations to make financial offerings, all of our communication regarding congregational ministry -all of this is an extension of the life of Christ welling up within us and in service to one another as well as our neighbors. It is what it means to be ‘in Christ.’
In Henri J. M. Nouwen’s Spirituality of Fundraising, he writes:
Fundraising (i.e., stewardship/generosity ministry) is proclaiming what we believe in such a way that we offer other people an opportunity to participate with us in our vision and mission. Fundraising is precisely the opposite of begging. When we seek to raise funds, we are not saying, ‘Please could you help us out because lately it’s been hard.’ Rather, we are declaring, ‘We have a vision that is amazing and exciting. We are inviting you to invest yourself through the resources that God has given you-your energy, your prayers, and your money-in this work to which God has called us.’
Too often and for a variety of reasons, we forget that our annual appeals and year-round stewardship ministry are not church-speak or euphemisms for membership dues or institutional survival. No, rather what we are talking about here is an act of devotion; a living out of our Christian freedom to be Christ’s body in this world together and with everyone joining in! The worship, fellowship and service we hold and bear has powerful, joy-filled and cascading blessings and benefits. We know this! And we’re inviting everyone, always, to recall this and live into this way, this life, this truth! Making financial gifts are a gift to the giver.
Stewardship Ministry is a joyful ministry to be engaged in. It is all about noticing. Noticing those times someone remarks how the worship, service or fellowship has touched their life or the life of God’s world. Noticing how God’s discreet Spirit stirs in the life of your congregation; a gift of God’s Life broken open for the young child whose faith is but a nascent thing. Noticing people who could be investing their time and energy in so many other places but choose to build community, launch food drives or work with local ministries and services caring for neighbors whose material needs, for example, may be acute.
Stewardship ministry is about noticing. And stewardship ministry is about sharing what you’ve noticed as a reminder of the blessed mission and ministry that is going on, as well as it being one of the reasons we give. We give our time. We give our talent. We give our money.
This fall the NJ Synod will be partnering again with Rev. Mike Ward, author of Abundance: Creating a Culture of Generosity, offering the stewardship ministry program aptly titled ‘Building a Culture of Generosity.’ Every NJ Synod congregation is invited to participate, and it is an excellent program for sharpening or improving your annual appeal. It is also an excellent reintroduction for those congregations that have fallen out of the habit of regular, annual, intentional stewardship ministry.
A second resource that is excellent to be aware of is the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy’s Lake Institute on Faith and Giving. Outstanding resources for aiding congregations as well as courses/seminars for individuals who want to sharpen their knowledge of leading religious organizations in stewardship and generosity are offered. A bi-monthly newsletter titled Insights is an excellent and succinct source of articles providing research and reflection related to teaching generosity as well as overall leadership.
Third, Stewardship Kaleidoscope is an ecumenical partnership providing annual gatherings, speakers and a website with various tools related to annual stewardship, planned giving, as well as broader theology and themes related to fostering and witnessing financial generosity.
In addition to these resources and opportunities, please remember that I am very happy to schedule meetings with stewardship leadership teams to discuss their stewardship state of affairs. And I am also glad for those chances to join you and your congregations as we recall God’s blessed and abundant presence in our midst, while thanking God -and God’s blessedness through you and your offerings- through words of celebration and thanksgiving.
When we are integrating stewardship ministry with all the other ministries we are working on, at the end of the day it is some of the most meaningful and spiritually inspiring work we may ever be a part of. It is all about relationship. It is all about concretely noticing, celebrating and communicating the blessed impact and outreach of our ministry contexts. It is all about recalling the great ‘I am,’ and how we’ve seen and been taught about this Life ourselves. It is all about having a clear sense of our congregational identity -what we are uniquely called to be and do. And it is all about inviting everyone you know -as well as an invitation to yourself- to recognize the financial offerings we share as one of the significant and needful ways that our beliefs and confession become the actions and extension of what we pray for and place our hope in. So, everyone: join in!
Thanks be to God that you have, are and shall.
God’s grace and peace be with you all,
Rev. Dean Brown
Assistant to the Bishop
 Henri J.M. Nouwen, A Spirituality of Fundraising (Nashville: Upper Room Books, 2010), 16-17.