Fortress Press, 169 pages | Published February 14, 2023
In Serving Money Serving God, Sheryl Johnson aims to “equip progressive church leaders and members to live out their commitments in the practices of their churches” with a focus on finances and stewardship. She would agree that a budget is itself a moral document, but she pushes readers to review church facilities, investments, relationships and leadership models through the lens of their commitment to justice as well.
The meat of the book lies in the twelve “idols” of Christian stewardship that Johnson lays out — idols because “they underpin many of our mainstream practices and are incompatible with our beliefs.” Some are easy to go along with, such as those that prioritize donors over mission (e.g. “The Donor is Always Right” or “Donor-Directed Giving Options are Best”). More challenging are the “idols” that challenge conventional wisdom, such as “Giving is Generous” or “More is Better!” The author notes this and encourages readers to lean into the conversations created by this discomfort; however, she does not expect us to disagree with her premises.
Johnson notes upfront that this book is written for churches with privilege, and for folks who believe that inequality – particularly wealth disparity – is contrary to God’s will. She’s absolutely right about her intended audience, and she seems to make a fair amount of assumptions about who will continue reading, though by putting an examination of values and commitments at the front of the book she probably does warn off anyone who doesn’t, at least in part, share them.
It’s not clear if the book is intended for congregational use or primarily for those with theological education under their belts. While some reflections feel accessible, others use jargon likely to lose readers without strong church vocabulary. The book is clearly intended as a launching point for discussion and action, so perhaps a book discussion in a stewardship and finance committee or similar small group would allow it both to fulfill its purpose and tap into a wider knowledge base if readers feel out of their depth.
Johnson intentionally asks more questions than she provides answers, recognizing that each church must undertake its own journey. I respect that choice, but I left wanting more examples. The pull of “the way we have always done it” is so strong that even the concrete suggestions toward the end of the book are insufficient. For instance, she asks what connections or “safety nets” might allow a congregation to take a risk in the name of justice, knowing that others would step in if the results left them in a bind; it’s a wonderful question, yet there is never even a finger pointing to how that might work.
Serving Money may be a heavy lift for churches that are increasingly anxious about keeping the doors open, yet Johnson’s questions do offer the chance to reflect on whether a church whose doors are open at the expense of others is a church that should remain open anyway.
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