Stewardship shifts

I see stirrings of annual church stewardship pro- grams: pledge cards in the mail, appeals in writing and from the pulpit, maybe even lists and calls.

This has been difficult terrain for many years now. Giving throughout mainline Protestantism has been in free-fall for at least 30 years and is proving to be challenging even in evangelical traditions that supposedly teach the tithe.

There are three important truths about congregational stewardship.

1. Pledge results aren’t a report card on the congregation or its leaders. Some antagonists will try to use results to corral or to undermine leaders. But pledge results are about per- sonal faith and economic well-being.

We give back to God because we are grateful for God’s gifts to us. A certain level of token giving will express loyalty to the congregation. But most giving, and certainly any giving beyond token amounts, arises from gratitude.

Economic distress — today’s prevailing reality except in rarefied circles — undercuts whatever gratitude we might feel. Many lower- and middle-class people feel anxious because their fortunes have soured. They need spiritual sustenance, not a glib call to pledge.

2. We need to be realistic about whether people feel connected to God. We shouldn’t just lament non-connection or dis-connection. We should see it as our starting point. We talk about alienation from church. But the deeper phenomenon is alienation from God.

More and more people have lost the habit of prayer. Many find Sunday worship dull and church activities self- serving. Many see God’s public face in religious extrem- ism and want nothing to do with such a God. They see corruption among the religious and turn away.

It’s not one thing. But the net effect is distance from God. That’s the distance that faith communities need to address. Not levels of stewardship, but the more fundamental gap between self and God.

3. The issue is loyalty. Not people’s loyalty to their church, but their church’s loyalty to them. God’s loyalty to them. Loyalty expressed as concern, loving-kindness, weeping in solidarity and the promise of joy in the morning.

We can’t take for granted that people feel a sense of belonging at church or feel cocooned in God’s family.

If ever there was truth in Thoreau’s assessment, “Most men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them,” it is now. Loyalty to the church on the corner just isn’t likely at a time like this.

Personally, I would ease up on stewardship cam- paigns and focus instead on doing what Jesus did: loving those who feel unlovable, healing the wounded, embracing the outcast, speaking truth to power, and singing “songs of thankfulness and praise.” A loved and grateful people will give generously.

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