Tom Taylor, the president of the Presbyterian Foundation, served as an attorney in commercial litigation for one of the largest law firms in the western United States.
He walked away from that to become a pastor in the PC(USA) for more than 12 years, serving in medium and large church contexts and last serving a church of 1,400 members in Southern California. He then served as the deputy executive director for mission for the then General Assembly Mission Council, overseeing an $82 million budget. In addition, he holds a Ph.D. in intercultural studies and has traveled, studied or worked in more than 25 countries. He has been described as an evangelical with a small ‘e’ who has been able to talk effectively with people in all areas of church life. Outlook Editor Jack Haberer sat down with Tom to discuss Christian stewardship.
JH: So how do you see churches emerging from
TT: Churches are emerging from the recession much like the rest of the country. Some areas are doing better than others. But the recession really just amplified some of the emerging questions about giving, stewardship, tithing, that many churches and Christians had begun to deal with decades ago.
JH: What are some of those emerging questions about stewardship today?
TT: I think we in the church are facing some real challenges in adapting new ideas about stewardship based on some key cultural changes going on around us. I don’t think stewardship is a natural human proclivity. It’s learned. From whom? Typically, from our families, parents, our local churches, in some cases society. In tight financial times, it’s easy for us to begin to teach stewardship by giving out of what’s left, rather than out of committed conviction. We need to help our people avoid falling into that.
Also, I think we’re coming to realize that many of our past teachings of stewardship in our mainline churches may be coming to haunt us. In the middle of the last century, we began to talk about giving to “the church” as an institution. I believe this was well-intentioned. But for many people this emphasis was followed in later decades with the Watergate scandal, the Vietnam controversies, the hippy movement rejecting the establishment, and other cultural shifts that caused many people to doubt the effectiveness or even trustworthiness of centralized organizations.
Unfortunately, mainline churches fell into the sights of this wave of doubt as well. And that doubt was compounded, I think, as church denominations went to models that tried to unify giving to make the accounting simpler. But giving to general budgets raises people’s suspicions . . . plus, it’s just not very interesting. Because of this, giving to general budgets of congregations or large organizations like national church offices has gone down. Instead, people want to give to specific causes they learn about or have a personal stake in – a water project or church construction in Central America, an orphanage in the Ukraine that they know about or even worked on during a mission trip; or a homeless shelter or food pantry started by their own church community.
The result is that I think it’s pretty fruitless to try to fight these trends. Instead, I consistently urge church leaders at every level to figure out how to embrace them. Get back to biblical basics of stressing that giving is not a matter of supporting an institution or a system. It’s a theological matter of what God calls us as Christians to do, namely, to imitate God in God’s generosity. And it’s a pastoral matter in that real people have real needs and God is calling you and me as Christians to be God’s instruments in answering people’s prayers for help. And when we can be that for someone, how cool is that!
JH: Seeing as younger believers are even less likely to tithe than their parents and grandparents—or even form committed giving patterns to their congregation—how can we best draw them into some kind of committed stewardship of their resources?
TT: Actually, some recent studies are indicating that, overall, younger donors are giving about as much as their older counterparts. A recent study at Indiana University found this to be true even considering factors like income, education and religion. Now, they may not cast their giving in terms of tithing, which is often preached about as a biblical duty. Instead, the millennial generation often talks about “wanting to make their world a better place.” Many of them have become doubtful about the ability of government to do what they now presume they may need to do to improve life for people and planet.
I think this means our best chance at talking about stewardship to younger Christians is to talk in terms of their values that also coincide with biblical values.
So for instance, millennials like to work and give in community, but not in committees. So in our work at the Foundation we’re developing systems that allow churches and individuals to do online giving, but where they can see the power of their gift along with others who are also giving to the same ministries and causes. That model happened in the early church, for example, when St. Paul would petition one church for funds, but encourage them that their denarii were going further, because other churches were supporting the same cause of, say, those in need in Jerusalem. Paul used papyrus. We’re trying to use a common virtual mission site for the same purpose.
Also, I’ve long heard pastors talk about giving of our “time, talent, and treasure.” But I usually get the impression that they’re mostly just talking about the “treasure” part. Yet, younger believers today really do view giving of their time and talent as just as significant a part of stewardship. So we’re urging congregations and ministries who use our services for online giving not just to have a “Give Now” button on their websites, but to think about adding a “Volunteer” button as well. It may be something as simple as volunteering to pray, or it may call them to physical work. Either way, it matters a lot to younger generations. And it’s a great way to draw them in to be partners in ministry.
JH: Tell us about the relative health of The Presbyterian Foundation.
TT: In largest part we’re doing really well. For the last three years our overall gifts have been up by between 20-25 percent per year. We’ve freed up millions of dollars for global mission and church planting and revitalization that had been unavailable or not being used. And we’ve changed our investment structure to partner with some world-class investment managers, so that now we have the greatest opportunity for better reporting and performance and our staff can focus on our sweet spot of helping churches and constituent ministries gather more dollars for mission.
JH: In what ways have you put your stamp on the operations of the Foundation?
TT: I was a litigation attorney for several years, so I know the legal and business world. But I was also a pastor’s son and pastor myself. I have a heart for the local church, nationally and internationally, because I really believe churches can change lives and communities through the power of the Holy Spirit. So I am doggedly committed to helping congregations reach their full potential, by making sure that they have all the resources they need. I also think I’ve been a collaborative and a listening leader. I try to consistently ask church leaders, congregations, midcouncil leaders what they need. And then I have engaged our incredibly gifted and talented board members and staff to turn them loose to create and provide new services and tools that raise funds, not away from those ministries, but toward whatever those ministries want to support.
In that sense, I think we’re really different now than a few years ago. We’re focused outwardly on helping ministries find money for mission that they want to support, rather than focusing on the inter-workings and mechanics of the FDN itself.
JH: What about the program to help marginally viable congregations birth something new?
TT: We’re seeing more and more congregations whose buildings have become burdens; situations where the congregation may have gotten smaller and the cost to repair and maintain their facility just drains away the congregation’s energy and resources. In a lot of cases congregations are worshipping in structures that may be crumbling and feel cold, because their cavernous sanctuaries make their small worshipping community feel tiny.
Because of this we developed our program called Project Regeneration. We’ve developed some real expertise in helping struggling congregations and their mid councils envision how they can move forward in new ways, often by using the proceeds from the sale, merger or other transformation of a church property to make those visions and dreams a reality. When a congregation can make the shift from seeing the church as the building to seeing the church as community of God – when they are able to let go of a structure that is no longer meeting their needs – they’ve often been able to find some really exciting new and creative energy and growth. And for many of them, we’re seeing a really bright new future.