Last year, our congregation president, a sales executive, lost her job. She’s still not working. A few months ago, our former treasurer, a CPA with a finance company, was also let go. And two months ago, the son of a couple in our congregation, a painter who did beautiful work with home interiors, lost his job and, three weeks later, committed suicide. Jeff left a note, apologizing to his wife and children for the financial straits in which he was leaving them.
And now Let’s Talk asks me to write about stewardship in hard economic times.
That’s good, because if we think about stewardship aright, it is exactly what we need to understand in order to address the situations described above. There has always been a “rubber hits the road” quality about stewardship, the kind of jaw-jutting challenge to faith that asks if this Christian discipleship business is important enough to put serious money down on it. Mark Alan Powell in his book Giving to God makes this point when he notes that he is far more likely to remember the amount he wrote on his offering check than to remember what the preacher happened to choose for the hymn of the day.
So let’s think about what happens when the stewardship rubber hits the rocky road of the Great Recession. To do that we’ll need first to define stewardship carefully — something that’s always necessary because there are so many bad ideas about stewardship in common use. Then we’ll consider four stewardship issues that might come to bear particularly when the economic times are tough.
Stewardship is not what the church does to fund its life and work. Such a notion is not the biblical understanding of stewardship. To hear most of what is offered on the subject in our congregations, you would never know this. Often what we get is the treasurer standing in front of the congregation, hat in hand, apologizing for asking for money, hoping that the congregation leadership is not asking for too much, and explaining that as soon as we get enough to cover the bills, we’ll knock off the talk about money and get back to the real and noble ministry to which we’ve been called.
This article is too short to go deeply into the biblical images of stewardship that can save us from such things, so three short points will have to do: 1) Whenever the image of the steward is used in Scripture, the steward is understood to be in the service of the master, obedient to Someone greater. 2) The steward is also understood to have charge over, and the responsibility for, the everyday business and resources of the world. The steward is engaged with the world. 3) Understood in this way — in the service of Someone greater; engaged with the world — stewardship is not something we do to support ministry; it is the ministry, and the whole ministry, of the church of Christ. Thus Douglas John Hall calls stewardship “the most visible side of a whole alternative vision of the church.” In other words, stewardship is a summing-up of the meaning of Christian life.
Issue #1: Stewardship as theological praxis in hard economic times
When we say that there’s a “rubber hits the road” quality about stewardship, we recognize that stewardship has always been a classic example of the claim of Liberation Theology that good theology is never done from a place of spiritual or intellectual retreat, but from the place where the work gets done, Stewardship is theological praxis. It is in the doing of it, that the thinking of it is born and shaped. Thus the specified order of Jesus’ teaching: “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” Just do it, and your heart will follow.
It seems to me that this idea of stewardship as theological praxis should be especially true in a time of economic and financial challenge when the funding needs of the congregation are more pressing. We’re going to throw ourselves into stewardship ministry more, perhaps by trying new things and pouring in more resources, because we know the need is greater than usual.
And if Jesus is right about what happens when we pour such treasure into the ministry, then our hearts will come to be aligned with his. We’ll come to see that what we’re doing is indeed something along the lines of what he does, for Jesus is indeed the Great Steward. Paul writes of him this way in 1 Corinthians 4: “All is yours, and you are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s” (emphasis added). Our stewardship comes to be aligned with the stewardship of the one who did not think of equality with God as something to be grasped, but was obedient (Philippians 2). We may come at first to stewardship as a matter of law (we ought to do it; the congregation needs it), but through that we can come to an experience of stewardship as a matter of gospel: We want to be like Jesus.
Issue #2: Stewardship as response to the temptation of worldly disengagement
From its earliest days, the Christian faith has wrestled with a tendency toward anti-materialistic “spiritualism.” You can think of most of the early heresies — Gnosticism, Docetism, etc. — in these terms. Apocalyptic earthly conditions have historically brought this anti-materialistic tendency to the fore; think of periods of persecution in the early centuries, or periods of plague in the Middle Ages. Now we are going through a period of financial meltdown, all-time high home foreclosures, double-digit unemployment that shows no sign of easing — what economists are now calling the Great Recession. With it comes a turning away from the world: What’s the use? I can work as hard as I want, but in the end the decisions are made in places and by people who are way beyond me.
But remember, the biblical image of the steward is of one who has responsibility for worldly engagement. The steward exists not only to serve the master, but also to serve that which belongs to the master, those whom the master has at heart. Again it seems that stewardship is a summing-up of the whole of Christian life, for true Christian faith takes the world with complete seriousness. The world is both real and, in its essence, good. This is the reason that attempts at anti-materialistic spiritualizing of the faith are called heresies. Stewardship, with its image of care for the things that belong to God, is a corrective to any way of life that would turn away from the world in hard times.
Issue #3: Hard economic times, and the need for salvation
Good economic times are better than hard economic times, but one bad thing about good economic times is the effect on our charitable stewardship ministries. We who are privileged American Christians so often assume that the good economic times we know are the blessing of God upon us, and that the purpose of charitable stewardship ministries is to help those who are not blessed, to share out of our largesse and make the poor into objects of our charity. Fundamentally, this is what Luther called the Theology of Glory: I’m blessed, it’s those others who are in need of salvation.
Brothers and sisters in the less-developed world have for decades been trying to teach us a different way in the Theology of the Cross. I am old enough to remember Dom Helder Camara, the great activist Brazilian archbishop in the late 1960s, writing to people like me: “Instead of planning to go to the Third World . . . , stay at home in order to help your rich countries to discover that they too are in need of . . . a new hierarchy of values, a new world vision, a global strategy of development, the revolution of [humankind].”1
The good bishop allowed that what he proposed was harder than volunteering to go to Brazil to help, but I submit it is made easier when the economic times are so hard and so bad that suffering comes to roost even among us, even right next door, even at our house. Christ can save only those who are lost; Christ can raise to new life only those who are dead. Well, now the hard economic times are just killing us. “It’s me, it’s me, it’s me, O Lord, standin’ in the need of prayer.”
Issue #4: A stewardship stance that takes evil seriously
The Christian faith of most privileged Americans is, it seems to me, rooted in the liberal Protestant theological tradition that has been current since the turn of the 20th century. This tradition is anthropocentric and optimistic. It believes in people, and it believes that people and the world can improve, grow, and come closer to God. You hear a lot of this from 21st-century American pulpits.
I confess that my heart is with the liberal tradition, and partly on stewardship grounds. The good steward is engaged with and cares for the people and things that belong to God. Liberal theology does that.
But the great critique of liberal Protestant theology, leveled in the last century by such as Karl Barth and Reinhold Niebuhr, and the great inadequacy of 21st-century American pulpits that hew to the liberal line as the Great Recession goes on all around us, is that such thinking doesn’t take seriously enough the human capacity for evil.
If we believe in people that much, and we believe in the innate capacity of people and our world to improve and grow, well, where in that theology can we find why my sales executive, my CPA, and my painter were thrown out of work? How do we articulate that in a 21st-century privileged American congregation? We won’t find out why in liberal Protestant theology, but we will find out in the more honest realm of economics. (Perhaps we should not be surprised by this. Economics has always taken sin very seriously. The Victorian historian Thomas Carlyle famously referred to economics as “the dismal science.”) Here is the Nobel-winning economist Paul Krugman on the question of why my people were thrown out of work: “[T]he Great Recession was brought on by a runaway financial sector, empowered by reckless deregulation. And who was responsible for that deregulation? Powerful people in Washington with close ties to the financial industry, that’s who.”2
Jesus as the Great Steward certainly models engaging with the world and caring for the people and things that belong to God. But just as certainly His model shows engagement with this world, with these people, the very people who were capable of nailing their Savior to a cross. What a faithful stewardship stance must look for then, in hard economic times even more than in good times, is a theology that is just, as passionately oriented towards humanity as liberalism, but is also perfectly alert to the negative, sinful dimension of human behavior and experience. Hard economic times, and the brokenness and sin that have brought them about, remind us that we have to name evil for what it is.
Church and Colonialism, 1969
New York Times, May 9, 2011