Stewardship in Parishes: Not Just a Pledge

By Jeannie Babb

The Episcopal Network on Stewardship (TENS) defines stewardship as—“Everything I do after I say I believe.” This broad definition takes a step back from pledge drives that focus solely on the donation of money. Those who specialize in stewardship in the Episcopal Church emphasize that stewardship is not just about money; it can also include mission, care of church resources, and/or Christian formation. Yet financial uncertainty is a central problem for many parishes and for many Christians and a church’s reticence to talk about money is a stewardship failure all its own.

Chris Harris was a tax attorney before he became canon for congregational development at St. Paul’s Cathedral in San Diego, Calif. Harris’ definition of stewardship was shaped by former TENS director Terry Parsons: “Stewardship is using the gifts we’ve been given to do the work God is calling us to do.”

Harris notes that exercising this kind of stewardship, which he calls living the abundant life, is hindered by the consumer culture in which we live. “Living above your means keeps you trapped in a world of scarcity.” Commercial messages abound with messages that we don’t have enough “stuff.” Though the Church teaches and preaches abundance, both parishes and parishioners tend to operate in a culture based on an attitude of scarcity—and this is the attitude most often reflected in both personal and parish budget practices.

Rick Felton, current TENS director, says focusing on the parish budget fails to address the real the problem. “Just doing the annual drive doesn’t advance church generosity or create generous parishioners. Churches that don’t have a vision or mission don’t generate much generosity.”

Felton says true stewardship is the mission of the church—not to meet the budget and keep the doors open, but to grow stewards. How does this definition of stewardship square with the typical Episcopal practice of launching an annual pledge drive under the name of stewardship?

“I wish people wouldn’t call it that,” says the Rev. Michael “Corky” Carlisle, who works with parishes and vestries on their commitment to stewardship and has served the national Church on its stewardship team. “Just call it what it is. It’s a pledge drive.”

Bishop Cate Waynick, Diocese of Indianapolis, agrees and adds, “A pledge campaign is not a stewardship campaign. Calling it that cements in people’s minds that stewardship is money. Stewardship is not money; stewardship is how you organize your life and set your priorities.”

Waynick calls stewardship one of the organizing theological principles of her life and her teaching that stewardship should cover all forms of mission. During Lent, Waynick offered the Imposition of Ashes in a drive-through service in front of the cathedral. When a baffled parishioner complained that the project seemed disrespectful, Waynick replied that it was a stewardship issue. “When the church takes something outside its own walls and offers it abroad, to just anyone who seems interested, what are we doing that is so different from the preaching of the prophets, of John the Baptist, or our Lord—none of whom ‘saved it all up’ for sharing only in the temple or synagogue?”

For Waynick, stewardship means recognizing that we have been entrusted by God with abundant resources—from our individual talents and assets to those of the Episcopal Church including our hymns, traditions, and liturgies. Reflecting on Ash Wednesday, she writes, “We have also been entrusted with the things of our faith; the Good News that God’s love abounds, that grace is freely offered to all people, that the kingdom Jesus preached is truly among us and within us, that the gates of hell cannot prevail against that kingdom, and that in Christ death no longer has dominion over us. Such news is intended for all to hear and know and we are not entitled to keep it to ourselves! Like all else in life which has been entrusted to us, we are stewards of the faith, not owners of it.” Evangelism, then, is stewardship of the good news.

Felton echoes this sentiment. “Stewardship is the mission of the church—to grow stewards of all that God has given us. This includes the environment, outreach, and how we treat those among us who are more economically challenged.”

Identifying the Disconnect

Diane Jardine Bruce, bishop suffragan of the Diocese of Los Angeles, specializes in multicultural ministries and stewardship. Bruce offers this formula for stewardship: “Ongoing formation + nurturing fellowship = deepening faith.” Formation, she says, is synonymous with stewardship. This means the parish leadership is responsible for teaching people how to understand the role of money in their lives, how to be good stewards of all their assets and abilities, how to manage their time, and how to live in a way that enhances the lives of others. The goal of this teaching is not to raise money for the church’s annual budget; the goal is to be healthy, fully formed Christians.

Felton says more and more churches recognize that stewardship extends beyond balancing the budget. “People are hungry to learn more about how to develop generous congregations. Most people recognize that stewardship is more than money, and that money is a spiritual and pastoral issue in churches.” Most Episcopal churches still depend on the annual pledge drive for budgetary purposes, but many are also extending stewardship teaching into the stewardship of time, creation, and spirit.

Balancing the budget is made difficult in many parishes, not only because of low attendance, but also because those who do attend do not give generously. The average Episcopalian gives between 1.75 percent and 2.25 percent of his or her annual income to their church. “Mormons are closer to the biblical tithe,” Felton says. “Episcopalians give more than Roman Catholics, about the same as Lutherans and Methodists. Some of the evangelical denominations do a little better, but not a great deal.”

Harris adds another painful comparison. “The giving rate of Episcopalians is about the same as the rest of the world, including our neighbors who are not Christians. Just looking at generosity, you could not tell who is a Christian or not. Our Christianity is not impacting our giving at all.”

Harris says the Church feeds this problem by only discussing money when the Church needs money. “We’re just another ask, right alongside Red Cross and every other charity that might come knocking on your door.” He recommends that parishes stop thinking of stewardship as a means of fundraising and development, and instead bring stewardship into formation and Christian education.

Many parishioners are not giving generously because they live on the precipice of financial failure. Harris says 70 percent of Americans live two paychecks away from losing their homes—and this percentage probably vary little inside the church. Stewardship campaigns that rely on preaching about the abundant life ring hollow to families living with economic insecurity, inadequate insurance, and no serious plan for retirement. Harris says the Church is missing the point when all we offer in response to this crisis is a nice sermon on abundance and generosity.

Transforming the Steward

Confirmation class is a logical place to begin stewardship instruction. Harris says, “We spend a week on the Book of Common Prayer but we also need to spend a week on giving as a spiritual practice. Jesus never talked about the church’s need to receive; he talked about your need to give. Why did he do that? There was no budget, no finance committee, yet he talked about money more than we do.”

Harris envisions rectors asking their confirmands, “If you’re going to become a follower of Christ, what are you willing to give up to live differently?” Harris is not suggesting some once-a-week sacrifice. “We’re talking about selling your house and downsizing. We’re talking about learning to live more simply so that you can pursue the thing you are called to do.”

Rectors are sometimes hesitant to have such conversations with parishioners because they, too, are caught in the ever-escalating cycle of consumerism and debt. The resulting silence enables the dysfunctional relationship with money that parishioners have inherited from the culture.

Bruce opened up the conversation in her diocese through a series of gatherings on “Year-Round Stewardship” in which congregations were invited to send a team of clergy and laypeople. Teams attended different workshops that included instruction by TENS, Every Member Canvass, Eric Law’s Holy Currencies, and a homegrown program on year-round formation using the language of the community as a form of instruction. She says the diocese titled the gatherings “Year-Round Stewardship” to emphasize that it was not a campaign or a special project, but an encouragement to understand stewardship as Christian formation.
Another formative program for stewardship is Living Wi$ely, a curriculum offered to parishes by TENS that help individuals create a vision for their life and their assets. This six-week class explores how to live congruently with Christian values and within one’s own means. Students of Living Wi$ely examine their own history and attitude toward money and consider how that affects their relationships, giving, mission, and goals.

Living Wi$ely recommends a traditional 10/10/80 plan for budgeting one’s income. Ten percent is to be given away and 10 percent saved, leaving 80 percent to cover one’s living expenses. By living within the 80 percent a person avoids a life of scarcity and has a cushion not only to cover emergencies but also to allow a ready response to God’s call. Bruce uses a similar approach, encouraging both individuals and churches to give away the first 10 percent of their income, “the first fruits,” rather than waiting to see if anything is left at the end of the personal or corporate budget.

The principles behind these programs are not complicated or new but have been largely missing from Christian formation. The institutional church approach has encouraged parishes to focus on the institution’s needs, using average church attendance and average giving as benchmarks of spiritual health in the parish. Harris suggests some added new benchmarks: “How many of our parishioners are in debt? How much parishioner debt was paid down last year? How many parishioners report better relationships with their spouses because they no longer fight about money? How many parishioners report feeling less anxious about the future? How many parishioners are in discernment about what they want to do with their lives?”

Ultimately, Harris reiterates that stewardship is mission and the goal is for every parishioner to reach a place of abundance, free to give generously and free to live into God’s calling without being held back by debt. For individuals, the central question is, “Can you afford to do the things you want to do with your life?”

Such abundant living must be modeled by the parish as well. Can the parish afford to do the mission God has called it to do? Is it saddled with debt and overhead? Does the budget only serve to keep the institution alive? Just as people need to discern their life purpose and manage their finances with God’s call to mission in mind, parishes also need to start with mission, not need, when writing a budget.

Creating a Narrative Budget

Felton advises vestries to involve parishioners in the financial life of the church by changing how the budget is presented. Most parishes use a line item budget, which accurately depicts to whom the money flows, but does not show what the money does. He suggests dividing the money by what it accomplishes. “Most of the budget goes to personnel and most of that is the rector or vicar. It is important to say what the church personnel do and divide up the budget accordingly.”
One way to communicate how the money supports the mission is with a narrative budget. The salary of the rector or vicar is shown by percent of time spent on outreach, pastoral care, or worship. Numbers are often shown as percentages on a pie chart rather than figures in a spreadsheet. A pie chart is more visually appealing and shows parishioners the church’s priorities at a glance. “That’s how you want to show your budget, not by what’s compensated but by what’s accomplished. It’s not overhead but part of the mission.”

The narrative budget tells the story of the congregation’s commitment to mission, by connecting every expenditure to ministry. Expenses that parishioners often consider overhead, such as building maintenance costs, are expensed according to the percentage used for activities like worship, AA meetings, and scout troop activities, which are then shown according to where they align with the church’s mission.

Preparing a narrative budget requires some adjustment up front; for example, rectors must estimate what percent of their time is spent on their various categories of ministry. The process enlightens leadership and inspires parishioners. People want to give to support mission.

Bruce is also an advocate of the narrative budget. She suggests posting the budget, profit and loss statement, and balance sheet in a conspicuous place, updated monthly, to help parishioners connect their giving with the ministries of church.

A narrative budget may especially be helpful in churches with younger membership. Millennials have a reputation for giving less but Carlisle says this is because young people are more determined to ensure that their giving is effective. “Millennials will give, absolutely. But they want to make sure that what they give is of significance. They want to know that something is happening with it, that lives are being changed.”

Developing Honest Relationships

Felton and Carlisle agree on another matter—that rectors must be willing to talk with individuals in their congregation about money and that means knowing what parishioners give.

“A lot of churches do not want the rector to know what individuals pledge,” Felton says. “The silence is viewed as a protective barrier for members of the parish. Some may worry that rectors will view people differently but this already happens based who is involved, who volunteers, etc.” He contends that a parishioner’s giving is a marker of spiritual health and growth and keeping it from the rector hinders his or her ability to minister completely.

Carlisle tells the story of serving in a Kentucky parish where children were taking up an offering for the Heifer Project at the parish door. As a wealthy man walked by and dropped a 10-dollar bill in the offering plate, a 10-year-old girl stopped him with a challenge. “Ten dollars? You’re the richest man in this county! You own more land and have more race horses than anybody here and you’re going to give 10 dollars so somebody can maybe buy a 10th of a cow?”

Carlisle says the wealthy man then emptied his wallet and every cent from his pocket, and wrote a very large check. He turned to Carlisle, who had watched the entire exchange with some mix of alarm and delight, and said, “Father, nobody in a long time has been that honest with me.” Carlisle decided then, if there is anywhere in the world we can be honest about money, it is in the parish.

Engaging the Right Vestry

Carlisle points out that church canons usually require vestries to be pledging members of the parish; however, a common mistake in vestry selection is choosing wealthy people who make large pledges, when those pledges are actually a very small percentage of their income.

How the vestry is chosen will determine the focus of the church, whether it is dynamic and thriving or fearful and just surviving. Felton says, “A vestry of people who hold tightly to their own money will often balance the budget but never discover ways to increase the budget. They will never encourage people to be generous since generosity is a challenge for them.”

Felton says, “Over all, you want to make sure that people are bringing their standard of giving in line with their standard of living. This shows where their real values are.”

Carlisle says the most important thing rectors can do is to ask for more from parishioners, not just financially but in all areas. “You ask for a little and that’s what you get,” he says. “Money may be the least important but money is not a dirty word. Money is not the root of all evil; it is the love of money, the hoarding of it, that is the root of all evil.”

Transformation Through Sacramental Generosity

Reflecting on the Church’s mission, Waynick says that our goal is not to survive, but to transform lives. Stewardship, then, is not about making ends meet but the means by which we use everything entrusted to us to transform the world around us.

Transforming the world through stewardship begins with the transformation of the steward. Since hoarding is rooted in our fear, generosity is an expression of faith. Generosity recognizes that the things entrusted to us—money, time, talents, relationships, and other assets—are gifts given to us by God and resources that God wants us to use for others.

Carlisle connects stewardship to thanksgiving for all that God has given and that connects to the Eucharist, our Great Thanksgiving. “I’m horrified to watch the plate go by and people put nothing in it,” he says. “I sense that they do not know the theology of what happens in the Eucharistic celebration. Just as the priest takes the bread, blesses it, and breaks it, so Christ takes our lives, blesses our lives, and breaks our lives so they can be given away—and how we get up there is by what we throw in that offering plate.”

For Waynick, too, stewardship is sacramental living. She points out that giving generously is a baptismal covenant obligation. “What does it mean to love our neighbors as we love ourselves? The short list of essentials would include clean air, drinking water, healthy food, adequate shelter, appropriate clothing, access to healthcare, access to quality education, meaningful work at a living wage, and adequate leisure. If these things are essential to ourselves, they are essential to others. If I have more than I need, maybe I have to do without surplus so others can have what is essential.”

Stewardship is not just about money, it is about mission. Stewardship is Christian formation. Stewardship is participation in the Eucharist by the offering of ourselves. Stewardship is honoring our baptismal covenant. Stewardship is “Everything I do after I say I believe.”

—This article was included in the Fall 2015 issue of From the Mountain.

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