“For everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven.” (Ecclesiastes 3:1)
It’s nearing the end of summer and our fall activities will soon be upon us. Many of our regular activities that took a break during the summer are about to resume. Oh, and we need to think about our annual stewardship campaign. What can we possibly do this year that will be different than any other year? What can we do to get people to give more money and to volunteer more of their time? And more importantly, who will chair the committee this year and get all this work done so we can put our budget together?
Sound familiar? For many of our churches, stewardship has a season of its own. That season is typically about eight weeks long and happens sometime in the fall usually before Thanksgiving. Stewardship committees begin to gear up for their work shortly after the summer is over as other fall activities are being planned. Pledge cards are received, and budgets are prepared just as we enter into the season of Advent. It’s a season filled with lots of anxiety about the future of the church… and it’s not because we are anxious about the birth of the Christ child.
Stewardship should be a part of everything we do throughout all the seasons of our ministries. It is not an eight-week program that helps us put together a working budget for the coming year. It is a spiritual discipline and a way of living that helps us to manage what God has entrusted to us and to teach others the true joy of giving as a response to God’s generosity. We are called to be good stewards of all that we have: stewards of time, stewards of gifts, stewards of resources, stewards of relationships, stewards of ministry, stewards of the knowledge of God, stewards of the people in our community of faith, stewards of the mysteries of God.
Seasons of stewardship instead of a stewardship season
What might it look like if we experienced “seasons of stewardship” instead of a “stewardship season”? Seasons of stewardship would happen throughout the entire year much like the seasons of our planet where one season prepares us for the next and we reap the harvest in one season of the seeds that were planted and nurtured in previous seasons. Our liturgical church year is also a succession of seasons that begin with the birth of the Christ child and lead us through Christ’s ministry to the death and resurrection and finally culminates with Christ the King Sunday.
Imagine the shift that would occur in what stewardship looks like, what it means and the kind of results we might experience if there were seasons of stewardship. As the associate for stewardship in the Presbytery of the James in Virginia, I have found this “seasonal” approach helps move congregations into a deeper understanding of what stewardship means and creates a plan for helping stewardship leaders (pastors, sessions and stewardship committees) enhance the stewardship ministry of any size congregation.
A season of discernment
The winter months are a good time for discernment. This is a time to recruit and train stewardship leaders, spend time in study and develop stewardship goals for the year. If the stewardship ministry of your congregation is being led by the pastor alone, it is time to recruit a team of leaders who have a passion for the mission and vision of the congregation to lead your stewardship ministry. Here are some ideas for how to engage in the process of stewardship discernment:
- Recruit and train a stewardship committee. This team could consist of three to seven people, depending on the size of the congregation. The only criterion for serving on the team is a passion for the ministries of the church.
- Spend two to three months in prayer and study to broaden your understanding of what stewardship means. Two recommended books:
- Involve the session in the study. Get all the leadership involved in stewardship.
- Develop stewardship goals for the year. Consider how you will highlight stewardship in all areas of ministry in the congregation (Christian education, worship, finances, property).
- What kind of stewardship events are you planning for the year?
- What stewardship curriculum could be taught in Sunday school or small groups?
- How often might the pastor give a stewardship sermon outside the “usual” time?
- Who could give a “minute for stewardship” during the worship service?
- What specific things need to happen to be better stewards of your property?
- Take a look at the giving patterns of your congregation for the previous year and identify areas for focus (pledging, commitment, discipleship, tithing).
- What percentage of your congregation has increased their giving in the past five years?
- What percentage of your congregation gives regularly?
- How many people in your congregation are not currently giving?
- Are the children and youth giving through their participation in the congregation?
A season of direction
Spring is a time of awareness as the beauty of God’s creation begins to come out of hibernation and shows signs of growth and rebirth. This is a time to generate an awareness of all that God has entrusted into our care, to evaluate and regenerate the ministries in which we are engaged and to make plans for the annual stewardship emphasis. Your congregation might find some of these suggestions helpful as you search for the direction of your stewardship focus.
- Lead a Bible study on stewardship. Explore the Scriptures that talk about generosity and gratitude and what it means to be good stewards. Other resources include:
- “A Spirituality of Fundraising” by Henri Nouwen
- “Giving to God: The Bible’s Good News about Living a Generous Life” by Mark Allan Powell
- Conduct an evaluation of current ministries. Examine how your congregation’s resources (human and financial) are being utilized. What is God calling you to continue, and where might God be leading you in the future?
- Provide workshops or small groups to learn more about important topics that might address some of the reasons why people are not able to give of their time or their finances to the church. Some workshop examples are:
- Financial planning: Debt reduction and preparing budgets.
- Planned giving: Leaving a legacy gift and writing a will.
- Find opportunities to preach and teach about stewardship at times other than the annual stewardship emphasis.
- Begin planning the annual stewardship emphasis. Review the previous year’s focus to see what you might like to do differently. Choose a direction or new method for this year.
A season of development
It’s so easy for us to use the summer months for rest and relaxation – not only in our personal life, but also in our spiritual life. While we may take time away from worship because we are traveling and taking vacations, this can be a time for us to focus on the development of new ways to encourage faithful, regular giving during the summer, to help our children and youth learn what it means to be good stewards as they share their time and resources engaged in missions and mission trips and to develop the materials for the annual stewardship emphasis.
- Develop alternative ways for the congregation to give when they are not in worship during the summer. Provide special envelopes for them to mail their giving on a regular basis or to have their summer giving held for deposit.
- Provide online giving to make it convenient for gifts to be made from anywhere and to provide convenient methods for a new generation of givers who conduct all their financial matters online.
- Create a recycling ministry to be good stewards of our planet. Make this an intergenerational ministry to model good stewardship for our children and youth.
- Sponsor a series of “summer stewardship Saturdays” to demonstrate all the ways the congregation can be involved in caring for God’s creation. This might include a cleanup day, a children’s mission day, a youth mission trip or a community garden.
- Select a theme for the annual stewardship emphasis and begin to develop the materials you need to promote the events.
A season of dedication
So here we are; it’s fall and now we arrive at the time when we typically conduct our annual stewardship emphasis. You may have noticed the continued reference to a stewardship emphasis and not a stewardship campaign. Too often the fall stewardship event is focused completely on financial giving, when stewardship actually encompasses much more than our gifts of money. This should be a time to focus on discipleship and commitment to not only pledging our financial resources to the ministries that God is calling us to do, but also to consider our participation and involvement in them.
The more people we have involved and the greater the passion for the mission, the greater the possibilities of our being faithful as “servants of Christ and stewards of God’s mysteries” (1 Corinthians 4:1). The seeds have been planted, the fields have been watered and now it is time to harvest the crops. Our congregations have grown spiritually throughout the year and have a deeper understanding of what it means to be stewards of all that God has entrusted into our care. As stewardship leaders, we have a responsibility to provide opportunities for our congregations to dedicate their lives to that which God is calling us to do.
- Conduct a well-planned stewardship emphasis that speaks to the hearts of the congregation.
- Tell stories! Give people a voice to share their stories of faith and giving, to tell how the ministry of your congregation has touched their life in meaningful ways and to invite others to join them along the journey.
- Ask people to make a commitment to be involved, to worship regularly, to participate in mission and ministry and to pledge and give faithfully.
- Give thanks to God for all the blessings we have received from God. Give thanks to those who make a commitment in some way. Acknowledge their stewardship by saying thanks. Send a note. Say thank you in the newsletter or on the website.
- Celebrate! Celebrate the generosity of the resources that your congregation has to offer to the ministries of God through the mission and vision of your church. Celebrate the gifts of time, talents and treasures!
Changing how we think of stewardship
For the past two years, I have been working with the congregations in the Presbytery of the James helping them embrace these ideas. Changing the culture of a congregation is not something that occurs overnight. These types of changes take time and energy and attention. Congregations are more likely to be healthy spiritually and financially if they focus on this important ministry of stewardship.
I discovered in my research that congregations are more effective stewardship leaders when they feel free to discuss money and finances and challenge people to be faithful in their discipleship of time, talents and resources. Every Sunday is an opportunity for us to preach and teach about stewardship. It’s an opportunity for us to emphasize that the offering is a special part of our worship in response to all that God has entrusted into our care. Stewardship is about faithful living as well as faithful giving. It has a place in all aspects of our ministry – from Sunday school to worship and from the children to the adults.
This year when you complete your annual stewardship emphasis, make a covenant together to begin a new season of stewardship in your congregation. Let that season begin with one new thing that you can do to enhance the stewardship ministry in your congregation. Take time to discern what stewardship really means and be open to new possibilities and ways to broaden your understanding. Then plan your journey for the next season. Figure out the direction you need to take to reach your destination. Once you have planted seeds along the way, cultivate them and develop some new ways of doing things. And then as your reach your destination, be sure to give thanks to God for all that God has done. Dedicate the gifts of your congregation to the mission and ministry of your church and acknowledge the stewardship of all disciples.
DEBORAH REXRODE is an elder at First Presbyterian Church in Charlottesville, Virginia, and serves as the associate for stewardship for the Presbytery of the James.