RUMINATIONS FOR NOVEMBER 2011
“Restoring the word, Stewardship”
On October 2nd we began our annual Every Member Canvass. In my sermon I shared a vision for Emmanuel Parish that can be summarized in three words – Stewardship, Environment and Evangelization (S.E.E.). The first component of the vision, Stewardship encompasses and is the container for the two ‘E’s’ of S.E.E.
However, “stewardship” is a word that is often misunderstood and misused in the church. Marcus Borg in his recent book, Speaking Christian: Why Christian Words Have Lost their Meaning and Power – and How They Can Be Restored, notes that many Christian words have diminished in meaning and have become distorted and stripped of their biblical and historical meaning. As such, he invites us to a reconsideration of key Christian words with the goal of faithful restoration as to their meaning. “Stewardship” is not a word Borg addresses in his book but is a word that is in need of clarification and restoration, and as such, is the subject of this month’s rumination. I would hasten to add that in what follows I am not offering an exhaustive account of either the etymology or theology of stewardship, but rather a corrective with the hope that the word, “stewardship” as central to all ministry might be restored given the vision I S.E.E. for Emmanuel.
Where to begin? Stewardship is not Fundraising. It is not surprising that this is a common misunderstanding given the fact that the word is associated with making one’s financial pledge as a part of the traditional Every Member Canvass. “Stewardship Sunday” is the ‘kick-off” for raising funds for the church’s ministry, a common understanding or perhaps misunderstanding. Why? Usage within the Church of the word “stewardship” has all too often been equated or reduced to meaning money. The centerpiece of most Every Member Canvasses is the pledge – understood as a financial commitment from each church member or family. Stewardship, however, involves three “t’s” – time, talent and treasure – three “t’s” that are fundamental in restoring the word to its original meaning. Said more succinctly, “stewardship” is everything a person does after he or she says, “I believe.” Restoring this understanding requires a brief look at the word itself.
“Stewardship” derives from the word, “steward”, which refers to a person who manages another person’s property, finances or other affairs. According to the dictionary, a person in charge of the household affairs of a large estate, club or hotel, or an officer in charge of dining arrangements or an attendant on a ship or airplane, e.g. a “stewardess.” Etymologically the word “steward” is from the Old English word, stigweard: stig, hall +weard, keeper. As such, a steward is one who serves in the mode of caring for or “keeping the hall”– the property, the finances, the estate, the lodging for another person.
Service or serving is central to stewarding and stewardship. Serving God through God’s creation is service to “another,” through the use of one’s time, talent and treasure is how one serves as a steward.
In addition to the mode of service as definitive of stewarding, critical to the definition is that a steward administers, from the root “minister,” another’s property and affairs. Simply put, service for another and to another is the essence of stewardship both in secular and religious terms. Said still differently, all that we have is a gift from God (another) that we are called to steward (administer via ministry) to and for another (the created order to include all of the created order not just humanity). Such stewarding as service involves administering justice, compassion and charity (love or agape).
What does such service and ministry have to do with money? Everything, if we recognize that money in our culture is a sign and symbol for one’s personal worth but it should not be! Common usage serves as an example. “How much is John worth?” is normally associated with John’s personal wealth. As a Christian, however, personal worth is how much John is loved by God.
Therefore, ministry is not fundraising. To be sure, we are called upon to tithe or give 10% of our first fruits to God as stewards. Such tithing is the biblical and Church’s norm or way of recognizing that nothing we have is truly ours, but God’s. We are called to use only what we need and share with others given their needs. Such sharing is grounded in generosity and realized as economic justice. As such, the meaning of the term, “pledge,” connotes a pledge of allegiance, if you will, to God as a steward of God. But a pledge is not a response to a fundraiser or church dues or our annual subscription to the Church. It is our pledge to replicate God’s love and generosity for us in service to others. A pledge of our time, talent and treasure is the true measure of “our worth.” Examining your calendar, your vocation and your checkbook serves as a measure of your worth, what you value and your personal identity.
Is there a place for fundraising in the church? Yes, as in a fundraiser for our labyrinth, a new roof, or relief in Haiti. But such fundraisers presuppose the pledge we make to our church family as stewards and reflect the generosity we share in response to special needs. On Orcas there are over one hundred not-for-profit organizations that work for the common good and most of them have fundraising activities and drives. Most of us support and give to those important organizations, as individuals, in terms of our time, board and committee memberships and money. In addition, our parish gives over 10% of our pledged income to such organizations within the community. But the church is not just another 501C3. It is the family of God. We give, or better return to the Church, our pledge, not out of a sense of charity or philanthropy, but in recognition that we are returning a portion of the gift that we have received as sons and daughters of God. Said differently, we do not support our children or immediate family members in need as a response to a fund raising request from them. We support them because we love them.
Our pledge is an indication of our Christian self-worth and how we value God and God’s creation in our life. In sum, stewardship is our personal response to God’s generosity and love and is measured in how we spend and share our resources of time, talent and treasure. Stewardship reflects our commitment as servants of justice and ministers of compassion as revealed and embodied in Jesus. Our pledge represents our commitment to “work, pray and give for the spread of the Kingdom of God” (Book of Common Prayer, page 856).
In thanksgiving for your service and ministry as stewards,