Dear Friends in Christ,
To most people, stewardship is a camouflage word, invented by bishops and clergy to dress up and add an ecclesiastical stamp to the difficult process of raising money to meet next year’s budget. Many people see nothing spiritual, nothing theological about stewardship. It is a fund-raising task that has to be done every year, so let’s roll up our sleeves and get on with it. Do it efficiently and in a business-like manner, but for heaven’s sake, don’t spend five hours talking about it.
Understanding Why We Give
As a youngster, I enjoyed serving as an acolyte. I made all the right moves, bowed from the waist when I was supposed to, extinguished the candles in the proper sequence. But I had little concept of why I was doing these things. So it is with stewardship. We may do the right things but not know the reasons. When it comes to the personal questions of how much we should give, many fill out their pledge cards from a feeling of obligation – and we do, indeed, have an obligation. In the words of my bishop, “For the Christian who believes and trusts in Jesus Christ, there is not option and there never has been.”
We can interpret or dilute this mandate in the light of theoretical and practical considerations. But there is no way a Christian, baptized into the body of Christ, can evade the duty in the Catechism in the Book of Common Prayer: “…to follow Christ, to come together week by week for corporate worship; and to work, pray, and give for the spread of the kingdom of God” (p.856). Yet those who give primarily out of a sense of obligation often fail to sense the joy, the liberation, the power, the oneness with our Lord that comes from giving out of thankfulness and as a response to love.
Stewardship: a Response to Love
For years I failed to see any personal fulfillment in giving. I tried to keep my contribution to the church low enough so that my lifestyle was not impaired, but high enough so that I didn’t feel too guilty about it. Then, unexpectedly, I was exposed to a priest of our church who taught stewardship by asking questions, to be answered silently.
Although an important component of stewardship is the giving of money, this priest did not once refer to the parish budget and the need to raise money to meet the higher cost of utilities. Nor did he make me feel bad about myself by comparing the money I spent on my hobbies and luxuries to how much I gave to the work of our Lord. Nor did he emphasize how bad off the church was financially. Instead, the first question to our group was, “Do you believe that God has created you and cares how you live your life?” That question I could readily answer in the affirmative. Next, he asked, “Do you believe that God loves and cares for all people – the poor and the rich, the free and the oppressed, the sick and the well, the powerful and the powerless?” Here, too, a “yes” answer seemed appropriate. Question three was: “Do you believe that Jesus of Nazareth is the Christ, the Son of God, who lived and died among us to show us what love and life are and mean?” “No question,” I said to myself silently. The fourth question posed was: “Do you believe that God expects us to respond to such great love in thankful and loving service?” This question caused me to pause. Sensing that our teacher was gracefully setting me up to extract a commitment from me, I responded with an unconvincing, silent “yes.”
Finally, he asked, “Do you believe that the tithe is a guideline for God’s people trying to express their thankfulness for God’s lordship over all life?” That was a tough question. “Me, tithe? Give 10% of my income to support God’s work in the world?” Yet, in the previous four questions I had agreed that our Lord cares about me and how I live my life. I had agreed that Christ lived and died among us to show his love. I had agreed that God expects us to respond in loving service. How could I not agree to respond by tithing?
Growing Through Stewardship
The priest went on to say that the first thing people discover about tithing is that tithing changes their whole life. Tithers put God first, at the center of their life and interest. They are then released for God’s work. There is a cliché that says people should give until it hurts. I suggest instead that we give until it feels good. In fact, there may be no such thing as sacrificial giving, because it feels so good to give generously. I have never met an ex-tither.