Potholes of Stewardship

Just one example of a pothole

Over the weekend I had the opportunity to attend a “Jump Start Your Stewardship” event put on by the Minneapolis and St. Paul Area Synods of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). I attended this event last year and enjoyed it, and so attending this year’s event was a no-brainer. Unfortunately, I didn’t quite enjoy this year’s as much. There was good material, but I think I would have structured the whole event differently and perhaps given more space for conversation and discussion rather than so much lecture. That being said, a few nuggets hit me, which I want to call “potholes.”

For those of you blessed with good roads that never buckle or open up, a pothole is a failure in a road (generally made of asphalt) that results in a hole or crater being created in the road. The Twin Cities of Minnesota are experiencing some of the worst potholes in many years as the remnants of winter recedes, and the battered roads emerge. Needless to say, you don’t want to hit a pothole, but its pretty much impossible right now to avoid them with your car.

So, what are some potholes of stewardship? This is certainly not a complete list, so please add others. Here are a few though that come to mind:

1) Focus only on money– This was one of the disappointments with the event over the weekend. It’s very important to focus on money in stewardship, but sometimes we get so focused on the money aspect, that we lose sight of the larger and perhaps more important question of what does it mean to be a steward? We are a steward of all that we have and all that we are. This includes money, but it doesn’t just consist of money.

2) Focus on time and talent and avoid money– Some times congregations and people focus exclusively on an understanding of stewardship around people’s particular gifts, strengths and talents. This focus is great for helping people connect their daily lives and work as examples of stewardship, but it can also be a means of avoiding thinking about the difficulties and challenges of money. It can even lead to the avoiding of any money conversations altogether, which isn’t helpful either.

3) Lack of facing the challenges of finances– This goes along with the previous pothole. If money isn’t discussed, then so to congregations are avoiding having conversations about helping people be responsible and sustainable stewards with their own fiances and budgets. If a person isn’t empowered and given space to feel capable and ask questions, they will just continue to avoid facing these challenges. Through this, money then can become a real barrier to one’s relationship with God rather than a means towards serving and living as God’s stewards and children. To quote a popular summation of stewardship, stewardship involves “time, talent, and treasure” together and working together.

4) Creation of Guilt– Pastor Greg Meyer believes that true stewardship comes through two stages of financial health. The first is the “sea level” perspective, which is a focus on budget and debt help and how to budget and get out of challenging debt. The second, is a sort of “how to fly” and “learn to fly” perspective, where one is enabled and shown how to use their wealth to express their values and calling(s). In Greg’s view, congregations ask the second piece about callings and values without tackling the first piece. By doing this, congregations inevitably create guilt among their congregants and stewards, and nearly pressures them to take on more debt in order to be able to give. If a congregation doesn’t help the person become sustainable, then a congregation may just be making a person worse and not better by pressuring them into giving without the help of how to do so and live into that in a sustainable way.

5) Inability to tell the story of the mission or movement– In the past it was just assumed that people would give because it was the right thing to do and and an expectation. This isn’t the case anymore. This doesn’t mean that younger generations aren’t generous. Younger generations are very generous and want to be. They give of themselves and their resources to movements and to missions that they can sense and see. They don’t generally trust institutions, so if an organization or a group can’t tell its story convincingly and in a way people can relate to, they aren’t likely to cultivate new givers. Successful non-profits have figured this out. Congregations are just starting to scratch the surface though, and it takes a willingness to adapt and change in order to do so. (Kickstarter is a significant example of where young people help through their money.)

6) An assumption that people know how the work/ministry is paid for and done– Related to the previous pothole, as people gave in the past as a sort of expectation, people also generally had some grasp of how work and ministry was paid for. Today’s generations don’t. And why would they? If more and more of younger generations are growing up without religious or faith experiences, how would we expect them to know how the church does it’s work? This means there is ample opportunity for engaging in conversation and mutual learning.

7) Treat younger families, adults, different demographics, etc. as “token” people– This shows up all over the larger church. But it reared its ugly head over the weekend. I don’t fault the person who said it. We have all thought it, but by thinking it and saying that we want “more younger people” or more people that are different than us to come to this, or particularly to participate in stewardship, we are expressing a desire without asking the all important questions like: “What do younger generations value?” “What can we learn from younger generations?” “Do younger generations view themselves as stewards with gifts?” These are important questions that need to be asked, and they can’t be asked of just a few people who, because they are younger, happen to “represent” younger people. It doesn’t work like that, just like I, as a Norwegian American cannot speak for all Norwegian Americans. Each person has their own perspectives, experiences, and values. To think they speak for all people who happen to share some characteristics is inauthentic.

8) A fear of offending people by talking about money– Perhaps this is the age-old assumption. People don’t want to hear about money, so by talking about it you are going to offend them. Rhetorical question, but what topics were talked about most in the Bible?  Besides, look at the data, people are drowning in fears of scarcity and debt today. They want to talk about money. They need to, in order to overcome these challenges. It’s a faith issue, and a spiritual issue.

These are just eight starting potholes that I see around stewardship. What sort of potholes would you add?

Image Credit: Pothole

If you appreciate this post, you might also like this one on “Defining Stewardship and Steward.”

6 thoughts on “Potholes of Stewardship

  1. Tim, thanks for sharing. I especially like points 4,5, & 7. I probably simplify my understanding of stewardship down to this: practical and theological/spiritual. (We tend to overemphasize one at the expense of the other)

    David Lose had a good insight in this book “Preaching at the Crossroads” that speaks to point 7 that might be helpful. There is a generational gap in which there’s an older generation that values obligation, while today that value has changed to discretionary. I think understanding and articulating that shift would go a long ways in bridging that disconnect that young and old are feeling in congregations.

    1. Absolutely! Aaron Thanks for commenting too. I agree that we do tend to overemphasize one at the expense of the other.

      Thanks for sharing that insight from David Lose too. I think leaders who get that difference among generations are beginning to craft ways to convey those differences between the different generations. Do you have any ideas to this end?

      Obligation was certainly core to the “Greatest Generation,” and probably shaped “Baby Boomers” too. But I like the connection to “discretionary.” I think that is related, but maybe not causal, to younger generation’s distrust or discomfort of institutions.

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