Can Stewardship Be More Inviting?
By the Rev. William O. Avery
In my position as Professor of Stewardship, I speak to many groups of
clergy and laity about the meaning of stewardship. I often begin my
presentations by posing some questions. A question I invariably ask is,
"What is the first thing the Ďaverageí parishioner thinks when she/he
hears the word stewardship?
In every instance the resounding answer is "Money!" It does not matter
if the audience is a group of clergy or a Sunday School class in a
congregation. The answer is always, "Money." Indelibly marked in the minds
of all churchgoers is the link between stewardship and money. Moreover, I
contend that, because of American societyís ambiguous attitude toward
money, this immediate identification leads to a hostile, or at least very
conflicted, attitude toward stewardship.
Americansí deepest obsession is with money. Money (or its manifestation
as power, prestige, or security) seems to be the ultimate value against
which many people measure everything else. People worry about money a lot.
People are willing to do just about anything for more money -- play the
lottery, take a more stressful job, work longer hours, or move away from
family and friends. No matter what their present income, almost every
American wants Ďjust a little more!"
At the same time, Americans are embarrassed by the preoccupation with
money. A survey of American attitudes toward money, reported in The
Christian Century (March 3, 1993) entitled "Pious Materialism: How
Americans view faith and money," noted that while Americans themselves are
terribly interested in money, these same Americans think that our culture
puts too much emphasis on money and material goods. Moreover, we are
corrupting the values of our children with this emphasis on materialism.
So, Americans hold a love-hate relationship toward money. It is hardly
surprising that, when people automatically connect stewardship with money,
this love-hate relationship extends to stewardship. Indeed, Americans seem
to be comfortable about faith and money only by putting them in separate
compartments as if there were no essential connection between two.
"Godís love is freely given to us simply because God loves us apart
from our worthiness or unworthiness."
Because Americans are comfortable only by keeping faith and money
separate, whenever we start a conversation about stewardship by talking
about money or financial need, we immediately arouse hostility or
uneasiness in the minds of our hearers. All stewardship talk which begins
with money starts at the wrong place. The place to begin meaningful
stewardship conversation is with the concept of freedom.
In Romans 3:28, Paul writes, "For we hold that a person is justified by
faith apart from works prescribed by the law." You and I donít do anything
to earn Godís love, we simply accept the fact that God has accepted us.
The remarkable insight of Martin Luther to the Christian faith is that
human beings do not -- indeed cannot -- earn their way into Godís love.
Godís love is freely given to us simply because we are Godís children,
simply because God loves us apart from our worthiness or unworthiness.
When we learn this truth and appropriate it at the center of our being,
then we are truly free.
Freedom strikes a very responsive chord among Americans. It is
something about which all Americans can agree. We may disagree about
almost everything else -- whether President Clinton is a good President,
whether George W. Bush or Al Gore should be the next President -- but we
can agree that freedom is our most central and cherished value as a
Freedom is the reason our forebears emigrated to this country. This
nation started as a wonderful experiment in whether a free people can
govern themselves effectively. At the time we became a free nation in
1776, no nation had ever been able to accomplish this governance. The
experiment has worked! America seeks to export this model of freedom to
the world. Freedom is a subject Americans want to discuss.
Michael Root has taught me that freedom has two faces. "Freedom from"
is essentially a negative concept. "Free from" means that something is not
present, whatever it is that might hold us in bondage. We are free when
nothing is present to stop us from accomplishing our goals. "Freedom from"
is the absence of that which frustrates us.
Americans tend to identify freedom with "freedom from." We are free
when nobody is telling us what to do. We Americans want freedom from our
neighbors, freedom to be left alone, freedom to do our own thing.
The more fundamental concept of freedom is "freedom for." When we are
finally free from all that chained us before, we are still left with the
question, "What are we now free for?" "What are we now going to do with
"Stewards know that happiness is by-product of living faithfully as
Thus, freedom is both a fundamental Biblical category and a concept
with which Americans can identify. The problem is that parishioners do not
connect stewardship with freedom. In fact, church goers see stewardship as
bondage, not freedom: we have to "make" the budget; we have to pledge; we
are supposed to tithe.
But stewardship is a matter of freedom in a surprising sense. In the
Bible the steward is a slave. As a slave, the steward can own nothing; he
or she belongs to the master. But the steward is different from other
slaves. The steward is the chief slave to whom the master entrusts the
managing of the entire estate.
How can acting as steward (slave) be freedom? In a paradoxical sense,
Christians only become free when we belong to God. There are no autonomous
individuals. Everyone is dependent on others. The idea that some people
are autonomous persons is a myth. Stewards know that they belong to God.
When we acknowledge this dependency, God sets us free from the various
bondages that afflict us when we try to live independently. God sets us
free for working along side of Godless!
Michael Root says that as stewards: (1) We are free from our idolatry
of things. In our obsession with money and material possessions, our
culture keeps telling us that if we have just the right things we will be
better, happier, more likable persons. But stewards know that happiness is
a by-product of living faithfully as Godís children. Things do not make us
happier. (2) We are free from fear of failure. All of us fail some of the
time. But our future with God is not based on whether we succeed or fail,
it is a freely given gift that will not be taken back. (3) We are free
from self-justification. The problem is when we try to justify ourselves,
we focus on ourselves. "How am I doing?" Our focus is not on God. In Jesus
Christ we are freed from concern for self so that we can be concerned for
the tasks and opportunities for which God has created us.
Freedom from these things is essential but only half the picture for
stewards. The other side is what we are free for. Stewards are free to act
for God. We act for God as we raise our families, perform our job, teach
Sunday School, or serve on the local school board. In parable after
parable, Jesus speaks of God as the owner of a farm or of a vineyard who
goes away and leaves the care of that farm in the hands of the steward.
The steward acts for the owner and makes all the decisions for the care of
the farm. Stewards act for God but are to remember always that we are not
God. Things belong not to us but to God. Therefore, freedom is for us to
be caretakers on behalf of God.
The joy of stewardship comes when it grows out of this freedom we have
been given in Christ Jesus. Paul points this out in his writing to the
Corinthians. In the eighth and ninth chapters of II Corinthians, Paul
tackles the issue of benevolence money (in the form of the collection for
Jerusalem). Note that this issue of money is raised near the end, not the
beginning, of the letter! In writing to the people of Corinth, Paul lifts
up the example of giving by their neighbors in Macedonia. He writes that
these very poor people in Macedonia had not only given voluntarily and
generously to this fund, they had begged to give even beyond their means.
But the key point Paul makes is, "they gave themselves first to the
Lord." That is, the basis of this generous giving is the freedom which God
had given them in Jesus Christ.
In these two chapters, Paul says giving is a joy, when it is a response
to this free gift of God. So, he urges the Corinthians to give, not under
compulsion, but out of freedom which makes them cheerful givers. "Each of
you," Paul writes, "must give as you have made up your mind, not
reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver" (II Cor.
In this article, I argue that stewardship talk should not begin with
money. I am not suggesting that stewardship should sever its connection
with money and material possessions. In fact, one of the great dangers of
the church in our society is that the majority of Christians keep money
and faith in separate compartments. Almost none of us discuss our finances
and our level of giving with fellow church members. We consider such
topics as too private. In this critical area, we do not help one another
in our community in Christ. We ought to be doing this.
The connection between stewardship and money is essential because being
a steward is a posture which changes all of life, including our finances.
But if the base of stewardship as freedom in Christ is not in place first,
then any talk of money will be resisted and resented. Therefore, let us
begin our stewardship talk with the freedom we have in Christ, and only
then move to critical areas of our life in Christ such as money and
The Rev. William O. Avery is Professor of Field
Education and the Arthur L. Larson Associate Professor of Stewardship and
Parish Life at Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg and executive
director of the Stewardship of Life Institute.
© Copyright 1994, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.
This essay first appeared in the Spring 1994 issue of Faith
in Action. Articles in Faith in Action may be reproduced for use in ELCA
and ELCIC congregations provided each copy carries the note:
Copyright 1996, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Reprinted with permission.