From the opening chapters of Genesis to the end of Revelation, the Bible teaches that God is the creator and owner of all things. The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof (Psalm 24:1). It also teaches that we are trustees (stewards) and accountable to the owner. Jesus’ parables often emphasize this theme. Whether it is the parable of the householder (Matthew 20:1-16), the parable of the talents (Matthew 25:14-30), or the parable of the rich fool (Luke 12:13-21), the message is the same: God is the owner and master, we are the trustees and servants. Every viewpoint and lifestyle that does not reflect that arrangement is inconsistent with biblical teaching and, ultimately, doomed to failure.
Christian faith teaches that God has placed abundant gifts within God’s followers. The church is most alive when these gifts are named, claimed, nurtured, multiplied, and deployed for ministry within the church and mission to the world. Stewardship assumes that Christian faith permeates every aspect of our lives. While it encompasses all forms of material wealth, stewardship is broader in scope. Stewards care for and responsibly use all that belongs to God including our time, abilities and wealth.
Stewardship transforms the way we think and act toward the Creator, the creation and personal possessions. Our use of the gifts God has given provides the foundation for the Christian’s and the church’s response to the gospel. Evangelism is done well only when those who have gifts for evangelism are identified, enabled and set free to do evangelism. Christian education is done well only when the church identifies, equips and installs those who have the gifts to teach. Mission is done well only when those who have the appropriate gifts are identified and commissioned to do mission. Therefore, since stewardship enables every aspect of the church’s ministry and mission to be done, making stewards is more foundational than raising money to meet the annual budget.
IMPLICATIONS FOR MEMBERS AND CONGREGATIONS
MAKING STEWARDS GIVES MEMBERS THE GIFT OF FREEDOM. When the church’s stewardship goal is changed from “funding the budget” to “making stewards,” members are encouraged to embrace a life marked by freedom from domination to an acquisitive spirit and captivity to their possessions. When God is acknowledged as the owner of all things, stewards are liberated from the burden of protecting (serving) their money, houses, cars, property, investments, etc.
MAKING STEWARDS IS AN ESSENTIAL TASK IN THE CHURCH. The church’s central task is not the raising of money to fund its programs, but becoming an instrument of divine transformation and new life in Jesus Christ. Because the gifts God gives are essential in bringing about God’s reign on earth (see Matthew 25:14ff), stewards participate as co-workers with God. When offering their gifts, stewards are offering themselves to God and to each other. In doing so they acknowledge their dependence on God, their interdependence with others and their mutual accountability within the church.
God’s promise is that we can be set free from the power of society’s most seductive idol: wealth and the power it represents. All we earn, inherit and accumulate is a trust from God and not our own. Stewards joyfully affirm that all that remains after giving a tithe also belongs to God and is to be used responsibly.
MAKING STEWARDS IS THE RESPONSIBILITY OF CHURCH LEADERS. By virtue of their offices, pastors and church officers are stewards of the gifts of leadership. As leaders they are called to claim, name, nurture, multiply, mobilize and deploy the gifts of the members for ministries within the church and mission to the world. Stewards are most often made when the church’s leadership is committed to this understanding of stewardship.
Making stewards is most likely to happen when stewardship becomes a session priority. As a priority the session will assign qualified and trained leaders to actively cultivate the gifts God has entrusted to the church. It is when church officers are growing as stewards themselves that they are most likely to lead others to become stewards.
MAKING STEWARDS REQUIRES INTENTIONAL AND PERSONAL EFFORTS. Stewards reflect a lifestyle that must be learned. Programs aimed at quick-fix fundraising, which avoid person-to-person conversation about discipleship as it relates to personal wealth, are not likely to make stewards. Initially, such programs may produce additional financial pledges. They will not, however, create the trust that grows the joyful and generous giving that typifies stewards.
Stewardship materials that aim to transform members into stewards must also be accompanied by personal challenges. Often these challenges will be face-to-face and include specific suggestions such as the tithe as a minimum level of response.
MAKING STEWARDS INVOLVES A LONG-TERM COMMITMENT. Culturally conditioned attitudes on ownership and giving do not often change quickly or easily. Relegating the stewardship program to an annual fall fundraising campaign trivializes the stewardship task. While such campaigns may nudge members toward increased giving, they lack the power to generate the deep transformation that typifies stewards. Profound change in belief and behavior often takes months or years and becomes possible as people are nurtured within the fellowship of an accepting and challenging Christian community.
Carefully planned long-term and year-round strategies that take members seriously, honor each person’s worth and cultivate their gifts are the strategies most likely to make stewards.
MAKING STEWARDS IS REINFORCED WHEN IT IS AFFIRMED PUBLICLY. The gifts God gives are intended to benefit and enrich the church and world. Therefore, as a way of stirring up these gifts, opportunities must be made for stewards to make public their joy in giving their time, talents and treasures. There is little justification for embarrassment and self-consciousness when their gifts, especially money, are acknowledged and celebrated.
Since God’s gifts are given to us by grace and held by us in mutual trust, decisions related to their use may be personal, but in the church they are not private. Therefore, when appropriate, it is important to openly affirm each person’s gifts and give thanks for them.
MAKING STEWARDS IS ENHANCED BY UTILIZING SOME PRACTICAL PRINCIPLES
a. Seize opportunities to recognize and give genuine and specific thanks for each member’s gifts (time, talents and treasures) no matter how large or small.
b. Use specific data (past giving levels, future giving goals) when presenting the stewardship challenge to individuals and families. General information offered in large meetings or mailings educates members to overall needs and opportunities. Specific information will encourage members to make their commitment based on stewardship principles.
c. Honor each member’s uniqueness. Communiqués from the church should use proper names and include personal data when referring to the member’s past giving levels and future giving goals. If possible, avoid sending generalized and impersonal “Dear Member” letters.
d. Value each member as a person of worth, not as a means to the church’s end. By taking them seriously and affirming who they are, members are encouraged to become stewards.
e. Avoid using the proposed annual budget as a motivational tool to encourage giving. Budgets distract members from the primary stewardship issue which is God’s share of their lives/resources, not their share of the church’s budget. Emphasize the difference their gifts will make for people and places of need. Members are motivated by vision, not budgets.
f. Encourage members to give their gifts to God through the congregation/church, not to the congregation/church. The survival of the institutional church or the maintenance of a particular congregation is not the ultimate goal. The goal is the transformation and salvation of the world.
Enable members to discover that the greatest benefit of faithful giving comes to the giver.
Making stewards provides a renewal opportunity for the church. Since stewardship is our response to the grace and goodness of God, what we do with what has been entrusted to us is our true worship. To live out a commitment that reflects the Lordship of God over all we are and have and to live humbly and sensitively before others is to be a steward. It is the way we say “YES” to God.
For stewards, worship in the sanctuary and acknowledging God’s ownership of all are inseparably connected. Worship enhances our level of stewardship. Our stewardship enhances the quality of our worship. The Spirit blesses and empowers the church when its people confess God as Lord and owner of all. Those who joyfully offer what they have first received are more likely to experience God’s grace.
WILLIAM M. PAUL is a minister member of Pittsburgh Presbytery, retired after 19 years on staff. He continues to be passionate about stewardship and mission.