Rev. Victoria Rebeck is a United Methodist deacon who serves as director of deacon ministry development and provisional membership support for the United Methodist General Board of Higher Education and Ministry, Nashville, Tenn.
If your experience is anything like mine, your church will send the chair of the finance committee to stand up during worship on a couple of Sunday mornings this fall to talk about how we’ve fallen short of the budget, how expenses have gone up, and how we need to give more to feed the budget.
The clergy remain silent through all of this.
Two failures with this:
- Giving is about discipleship, not money
- Churches with a greater amount of generous givers have clergy who openly speak about the spiritual discipline of generosity
When we send the finance committee to take care of stewardship, we demonstrate that we have no idea what stewardship is. We’ve also given stewardship leadership to the wrong people.
The finance committee has an important, Wesleyan task, and that is accountability. They keep track of funds and assets coming in and going out for mission and ministry. They require those who spend the money to demonstrate that they’ve used it for the purpose intended. They help us invest wisely. They provide us with reliable information so we can trust the church to spend our gifts for Christian mission, as we intend.
The purpose of giving is NOT to feed the budget.
The purpose of giving is to practice the Christlike attributes of generosity and humility and to extend compassion and justice to people anywhere in the world. It’s a spiritual discipline. And the task of leading spiritual disciplines is rightfully assigned to clergy and lay. (Deacons: giving is historically your area of leadership.)
Here are some steps to get your church to reclaim giving as a spiritual discipline.
Reclaim stewardship for faith formation ministry, where it belongs.
Jesus spent much of his teaching on generosity. It is not difficult to find examples. At baptisms, we renew our covenant “faithfully to participate in the ministries of the Church by our prayers, our presence, our gifts, our service and our witness, that in everything God may be glorified through Jesus Christ.” Faith formation in the Methodist context is the daily recommitment to our baptismal vows, in the context of a community that supports us and keeps us accountable (what John Wesley called “social religion”). Giving helps us trustfully let go of material goods and helps us grow in Christ’s likeness. Make sure that generosity is part of your faith formation curricula for all ages.
Learn and model the discipline of Christian generosity.
Our teaching goes much farther when we practice what we preach. Develop a specific plan for how generous giving will be part of your lifestyle. John Wesley has familiar advice in his sermon “The Use of Money” : gain all you can (but never at the expense of your own or someone else’s well being), save all you can (don’t waste it on the ephemeral or unnecessary), and give all you can (for what we have belongs to God, and we are to render to God what is God’s). Take a look at your expenses. Are some of them unnecessary and unsatisfying? How much can you set aside per month for your church or for another favorite cause? One purpose of your money-earning work is to raise funds for a cause that stirs your soul. Knowing you are helping to build the realm of God by supporting a compassion, justice, and spirituality organization (or caring for someone unable to earn a living) is a joyful, fulfilling feeling.
Teach generosity as a spiritual discipline.
We tend to incorporate generosity in our lives reactively rather than intentionally. We see the sad faces of dogs and cats and children during late-night commercials, and we kindly donate to help them. Those gifts are good. But we can do much more for the world if we plan our giving. If, like me, you are not yet up to the level of tithing (10 percent) to your church, make a plan to raise your pledge by a certain percentage every year until you reach at least 10 percent. What else do you care about? Determine how much you will donate to that cause a year and set funds aside so you can make that gift. The church (and other beneficiaries) will learn they can rely on your gift and can make intentional plans accordingly. You will have the satisfaction of knowing you are making a bigger difference.
Teach stewardship as something more than financial generosity.
Giving back to God what is God’s is about not only the money we earn. It’s about the other free gifts we get—beautiful creation, water, air, relationships, etc. Encourage your church members to reflect and act as caring stewards, not simply users, of these gifts.
If you are clergy, speak and preach about the baptismal vow of giving.
Research by empty tomb, inc., has found that when clergy preach about giving, members are more generous and regular in their giving. The purpose is not just to get money. It’s to make plans to build the realm of God. The United Methodist Church, for example, offers many resources to help clergy preach and teach with integrity on this discipline. Another resource is Henri Nouwen’s A Spirituality of Fundraising (Upper Room Books, 2011). It’s hard to question the spiritual integrity of Henri Nouwen! Because giving is a spiritual discipline, it is appropriate for the lead pastor to know the members’ giving patterns.