A BRIEF INTRODUCTION TO COMPREHENSIVE STEWARDSHIP
Douglas D. Himes, Ph.D.
Stewardship has a really bad rap in the Church. The reasons for this are numerous and all have to do with the ways in which we typically approach stewardship in the Church. We don’t talk about it most of the year. As we get into fall, we realize that, in a few months, we’re going to have to figure out how to keep the church operating for another year, and that’s going to take money; so we haul out the stewardship rhetoric and begin to couch all of our financial needs in well-worn terms of giving away what we have, because it’s the right thing to do. For three agonizing months—sometimes referred to as the “October twitch,” the “November convulsion,” and the “December squeeze”—we hang all of our hopes for next year’s budget on our shaky and terribly myopic view of what we call stewardship, all the while protesting that it’s not about money. Is it any wonder that people find this so distasteful?
Stewardship is not only about money, or materialism, or time and talent, or preserving the environment. Stewardship is about all of these things, and much more. Stewardship is about how each of us, as a unique creation of God, relates to God and the rest of God’s Creation. It is no less comprehensive than that. Stewardship is not a program; it is a way of life. It is not something we do; it is how we live. So when we talk about creating a “culture of comprehensive stewardship,” we are talking about undertaking a journey of discovery that will lead us to an understanding of what it is to live in the fullness of God’s Creation in a proper relationship with God. In this “culture,” the church budget becomes a means for visionary ministry, rather than a list of objectives for fundraising. The church becomes a vessel through which each person responds to the love and generosity of God in his/her life, while fulfilling the Great Commission as a living member of the Body of Christ. Responsible stewardship is synonymous with responsible discipleship.
It all began many years ago. In the Book of Genesis, there are two Creation narratives. The older of the two is in the second chapter. It was probably written around 1,000 B.C.E., toward the end of the united monarchy of Kings Saul, David, and Solomon. The later narrative, in the first chapter of Genesis, was probably written some 450 years later, around 550 B.C.E. at the end of the Babylonian captivity. The two narratives are very different, but taken together they teach us a great deal about why, if not precisely how, God did what he did in Creation. No matter the order of events or how much time it took, God created the environment, all the plants and animals, and humankind, male and female. In the beginning there was only God, uncreated, the only thing that had life. In an act of unfathomable generosity, God decided to share what only he had and created us and gave us “dominion” over everything else that he had created; and, when he looked on all that he had made, he saw, according to one account, that “it was very good.” This is the earliest example of the pure joy of giving. At this point, humankind existed in its purest state, naked and unashamed, in a loving, trusting, guilt-free relationship with the Creator. The rules were clearly spelled out. There was order, no confusion between Creator and creation as to who had created what. Reality was ours to discover, not ours to create. It was the last time that everything was as God intended it. This is where our understanding of stewardship is grounded. This is also where we got off track.
Enter the serpent. The eminent Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann contends that the serpent was actually the first theologian. The theologian’s job, he points out, is to study and interpret the nature of God; so the serpent’s conversation with Eve was really the earliest recorded theological discussion. We all know what happened. The serpent said to Eve, in effect: “You can’t believe God. The reason he told you not to eat the fruit was because he knows that, if you do, you will not die, your eyes will be opened, you will be like God, knowing good and evil. God doesn’t want that. He doesn’t want you to be too good, too well off. He wants to keep that for himself and keep you in your place. He obviously does not have your best interests at heart. If you want to get ahead, you have to take control and do it your way.” The contemporary writer John Claypool draws a poignant analogy. He asks us to imagine that we go to our personal physician with a medical problem. The doctor examines us, diagnoses the condition, gives us a prescription, and tells us to follow the directions, and everything will be fine. When we get home, we discover that the sink is clogged. We call a plumber, who comes and, before he starts working on the drain, notices the prescription lying on the counter. “You aren’t going to fill that, are you?” says the plumber. “Don’t you know that all doctors are crooks? All they care about is getting your money. That’s why they charge what they do and write prescriptions for all those expensive drugs. My grandmother invented a wonderful remedy that you should try. If you take it, you will be much better off than you would by throwing away your money and following the instructions of a dishonest thief who is only looking out for himself and couldn’t care less about you.” The question Claypool poses is: “Would it not be absolutely foolish to follow the advice of a stranger with no medical training over the directions of someone who knows us and has the training and wisdom to know what is best for us?” That’s exactly what happened in the Garden.
So God called Adam to task and asked him directly if he had done what God had told him not to do. How did Adam respond? He blamed the woman and God: “The woman whom you gave to be with me, it’s her fault, she made me do it.” So God asked Eve: “What have you done?” How did she respond? “It’s the snake’s fault, he made me do it.” And everyone lost, including the snake. This is where it got off track. This is where humankind went from living in love and security to living in fear and insecurity. Whether we call it the Fall, or the Disobedience, or original sin, or loss of innocence, this is the basis for our misunderstanding of stewardship. Instead of trusting God, we insist on doing it our way, taking life apart and putting it back together in ways that don’t work. We live the story of the Garden of Eden today. God created each of us in his own image, each of us having in us all the capacity for love and generosity and joy that he demonstrated in bringing it all into being. He placed us in the midst of his abundant Creation and said to us: “All of this is yours, all that you need I will give you, and there will always be enough.” And we responded: “I don’t believe you.”
The journey toward comprehensive stewardship enables us to live into that belief, into that promise, to understand life as God intended it, and to discover ways in which we can live each day in God’s Creation on God’s terms. It’s really not about money.
Douglas Himes Associates offers customized comprehensive stewardship programs to churches of all denominations. Churches that undertake such a program typically experience substantial increases in annual giving, once they shift their focus from money to discipleship.