“Facing Forward” Part 4:  Help us with stewardship!

Parishes often ask for help with “stewardship.”  No surprise.  Budgets are tight.  The economy is scary.  Many parishes are in numerical decline and feel “squeezed.”

Taking action to build stewardship—which in the parlance of most parishes means “increasing income through more and larger donations, offerings and pledges”—is a difficult task.  Stewardship programs involve hard work.  In many cases they do not produce incremental income immediately.  And in some cases, these efforts produce undesirable side effects.  And it is not uncommon to find that there are those people who may misinterpret the motivation for the request and effort.

Often the root cause of the problem can be that too many of us have an incomplete or inaccurate understanding of Christian stewardship—incorrectly equating “stewardship” only with money.  Often the way stewardship discussions are handled in parishes contributes to this misconception.  Consequently, any discussion of what stewardship means in the Orthodox Christian context necessarily begins with a summary of good parish practices that can help plant a “stewardly mindset” in the parish.

The first—and never-ending—step in strengthening stewardship in the parish is to help the community understand that stewardship involves making a fundamental commitment to work with God in every aspect of our lives.  At the risk of over simplifying an important and very rich subject, let us consider the following key points.

Stewards and sojourners.  A steward is one who carefully and responsibly manages entrusted resources or delegated authority on behalf of the interests of another—the Master.

A steward in the ancient world was an individual who acted in the master’s name and managed, or “stewarded,” the master’s affairs.  But he wasn’t the master.  To this day, the term “stewardship” basically means the careful, responsible management of something entrusted to one’s care… for greatest output/return… for a purpose.  It refers to delegated authority to be practiced on behalf of the interests of another.  Christian stewardship, then, is working with God to responsibly manage all of our God-given resources—our time, our talent and our treasure.  It is about the way we live in relationship to God and the world.  Stewardship is a complete lifestyle, a life of total accountability and responsibility acknowledging God as Creator and Owner of all.

Likewise, each and every person made in the image and likeness of God is placed on this earth as a tenant—or, in the words of Saint Paul, a “sojourner.”  As sojourners, it is incumbent upon us to return what is not ours to its rightful Owner, in a condition at least as good as we received it, if not better.  Hence, as we pray in the Divine Liturgy, we offer to God that which is His—“Thine own of Thine own, we offer to Thee on behalf of all and for all”—as stewards and sojourners who recognize that apart from His many gifts, we have nothing that we can truly call “our own.”

Time, talent and treasure.  We recognize that giving belongs to God’s very being.  When we give freely and generously, we act as God acts.  We are sharing in the work of God.  Often the breadth of this giving back is thought of in terms of time, talent and treasure.  These are good elements on which to focus, but true Christian stewardship is even broader—a commitment of our entire life.

As Christians we acknowledge God as Creator and Owner of all and that none of our words, actions, powers or properties are our own, to do with as we please.  We receive them from God.  We possess them – but they are not really ours.  The resources we enjoy – and from which we give – are ours only by derivation.  All blessings flow from God.  Since God is Creator and Owner, when we give to the Church and others, we are only gratefully, joyfully giving back to God that which already belongs to Him.  We’re not the owners — we’re the borrowers.

We are accountable for our parish.  Ultimately, we will be called to give an account for the use of the gifts, resources and talents given to us by God.  Unlike the “one talent steward” who, having been given a talent by the Master buried it in the ground and did nothing with it, we need to willingly make a return to God for His investment in each of us.

One of the most important gifts entrusted to our care is our parish itself—not only parish facilities and resources, but care of the clergy, of one another, and of the parish’s mission, ministry and purpose.  The purpose of a parish is to proclaim Christ through worship and praise, through word and deed.  Our parish has been entrusted to us—not to keep or merely “maintain,” but to care for, to minister from, to strengthen and expand, and to pass on to future generations.  We are responsible!

It should be the joyful responsibility of all parishioners—and not just the clergy—to become invested in the work of the parish.  Responsibly supporting the parish means that we each return a meaningful portion of the resources—time, talent and treasure, given to us by God—back to God through the parish to support the costs associated with doing God’s work.

When each of us is gone, our future generations will be what remain of us and our parish.  Let us leave for them a parish prepared to do Christ’s work in the world and one which, in every aspect, can be found to be in better condition than we received it.  This would seem to be an important and pleasant task.

A free-will action.  Stewardship, finally, is a “free-will action” that demonstrates trust in God and a love for His Holy House and People and all His creation.  Tithes need to be joyful, unconstrained, proportional and authentic—a free-will offering willingly and gratefully made from the heart, given from the first portion of God’s blessings.  Authentic stewardship is neither grudgingly offered or compulsory, but rather confident and trusting.