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“Steward Ship,” a practical approach

In her recent book “Spiritual Leadership for Church Officers, A Handbook” (Louisville: Geneva Press, 2009), Joan Gray, former moderator of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), urges leaders to ask if they are a part of a rowboat or a sailboat church:

The bedrock reality of life in the rowboat church is that

God has given the church a basic agenda… and then left

it up to the church to get on with it. … In contrast, the

dominant attitude in a sailboat church is that God can do

more than we can ask or imagine.

Our congregation took this question to heart. Finding ourselves in the midst of declining dividends and accelerating costs, the session decided early in 2009 that we needed to be, and indeed were, a sailboat church that is pushed forward by the wind of God’s Spirit and directed by Jesus as the captain of our ship. We did not want to be a rowboat church, a congregation which believed that when hard times come, all we can do is work harder, grit our teeth, develop more programs and keep going until we run out of energy.

In order to communicate the necessity of trusting in God to charter our financial future, we developed an entirely new form of stewardship based on Gray’s fundamental question. If we really are a Steward Ship, we had to get the whole congregation on board. Using Prezi, the Web-based presentation and storytelling tool, one of our elders depicted a large sailing ship representing our church. The words “Pray,” “Faith” and “Pledge” were on the sails. The presentation was made several times during worship services, using Prezi’s unique three-dimensional, somewhat holographic technique. Scripture verses were written on various parts of the ship and our journey was examined from different perspectives, from above with wind, from below with the angle of the waves, from the prow, the stern, etc.* The narration pointed out that the church is often depicted as a ship sailing on rough waters. It reminded us of the story of Jesus’ ability to quiet the typhoons in our lives (Mark 4:35-41) and helped us recall that the God of creation is also Lord of the sea (Psalm 107:23-32).

Another member of the session made a large wooden replica of the ship that we placed next to the offering plates. In our written materials to the congregation and online, we urged members to have courage in the midst of our financial storm, to trust that Jesus is the captain of our ship and to give as generously as possible because we know that we will be guided to safe harbor. The prayer on our brochure paraphrased a familiar saying: “O Lord, the sea is so big, and our boat is so small. Help us remember who our pilot is, and how great you are. Amen.”

The church has been in rough waters before, and we know that God will not only fill our sails but direct us where we need to go. As Psalm 107: 28-31 puts it, God stills the storm, hushes the waves and brings believers to a desired haven. This allows us to turn away from budget-oriented stewardship that merely tells members what they already know: We need more money. This way, concentration was on what we have done in mission and what can be accomplished in the future with increased resources.

For those who are interested, the results of our voyage were very satisfying. In the midst of a recession, the congregation responded very positively and increased pledges by nearly 10 percent. What would happen if the Spirit filled your sails?

* Elder Patricia Kilburn’s Prezi presentation can be seen here. Elder Linda Hinkle designed the logo.

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