Five Principles of Stewardship in the Congregation

By Roger Smith, March 13, 2011

Unless we as leaders/servants in the church personally own something or acknowledge its faithful presence in our lives, it becomes difficult to accept the responsibility to care for it. Developing stewardship models in the congregation requires the freedom to care for and nurture relationships at the personal and interpersonal levels. We need to find ways to nurture trust and responsibility and faith among those who would share a common vision and mission. We must develop a sense of community, a readiness to acknowledge both our dependence on others and our commitment to others. Stewardship development in the congregation seeks to integrate three very important foundations.

Experience shows that results happen when we acknowledge 1) we are gifted; 2) we are stewards; and 3), we are accountable. The message of the book of Genesis is that we have been created in God’s image, and that we have been given responsibility to take care of and to enjoy God’s creation. We live under the Biblical premise that everything we have, even life itself which is lived in relationship with others, is a gift of God. Nothing is ultimately our own. God is the giver of everything. Creation is still God’s; the people of God have only been entrusted with the stewardship of it.

When the Israelites were fleeing the Egyptians and problems compounded, God worked through Moses to give his people the Ten Commandments. A person living by these commands would surely be a good steward. The Commandments were the foundation under which people lived in relationship with their God and with each other for centuries. In Matthew 22:34-40, Jesus repeats this law of Moses as the basis for every action in life. Loving God above all else and our neighbor as ourselves would make us all good stewards of God’s gifts.

Yet, when we showed that we could not be faithful stewards with the Ten Commandments alone, God gave us Jesus Christ (John 3:16). Through his life, we have an example to follow. Through Jesus’ parables his teaching on stewardship became specific. Through Christ’s death and resurrection we are accepted as God’s children and given God’s Spirit to help us live in relationship with God and humanity as intended at creation. It is in accepting this gift of God and allowing his spirit to live in us through faith that we become the stewards we were intended to be.

So being a steward suggests that it is a process of developing a disciplined Christian lifestyle that is practiced in and through the church, but it is also practiced through one’s occupation, community involvement, neighborhood, anywhere and everywhere a Christian goes and in whatever she or he might do. We learn stewardship in the church not for the sake of serving the church — but basically to serve — in and through the church, in our lives.

The stewardship of the gospel begins where we are. It is within and outside the congregation that we share the responsibility and accountability with other stewards of the gospel. And it needs to be said as forcibly as possible that what we do is as important as what we say. Someone has wisely observed that “It is not enough to talk the talk, unless we also walk the walk.” A similar message appears on a recently observed sign: “If you don’t live it, you don’t believe it!”

Soren Kierkegaard wrote: “Order the parsons to be silent on Sunday. What is there left: the essential thing remains, their lives, the daily life by which the parsons preach. Would you then get the impression by watching them, that it was Christianity they were preaching?” What we do to and with each other in the congregation is of primary importance.

A committed community reveals itself in patterns of caring and sharing. Stewardship unfolds with “the willingness to be accountable for the outcomes of a community that affirms our choice of being a servant over the pursuit of self-interest” (Stewardship, Peter Block, Berrett-Koehler, 1993). This choice requires a high level of trust. Trust comes out of the experience of pursuing what is true and is the highest form of human motivation. What is true lies within each of us.

To serve is to grow as persons, and through the process of being served to learn new ways to share our Christian faith for the benefit of the people we touch. We must stress the value of interrelationships and communication rather than focusing on things. Accountability and partnership should be centered on principles. Principles are human qualities that form the core of effective servant leadership. The most effective stewardship programs are principle-centered. Here are several principles that should be modeled in the congregation.

1. Stewardship — A Spiritual Matter
T. A. Kantonen says “that in the final analysis, the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers is the answer to the central question of stewardship: what does it mean to be a Christian? (A Theology for Christian Stewardship, Philadelphia: Muhlenburg Press, 1956). He further states “Unless Christ has priority in the life of a church member, he or she may be persuaded to support the church but will not be a true steward. Thus the main problem in the financial support of the church is not getting into the people’s pocketbooks but getting Christ into people’s hearts.” The priesthood of all believers is the reality that every Christian, by virtue of baptism, is to be the conduit through which the love of God flows into the life of the world.

2. Where Your Treasure is — There Your Heart Will Be (Matt. 6:21)
Christian giving has to do with our stewardship of the gospel. Christ’s call to proclaim God’s love to all people remains our charge. “The end, the goal of all Christian teaching, all prayer, all study of scripture, all theologizing is to live with open and grateful hearts. In our journey of life, our quest for meaning and the purpose in our spiritual pilgrimage, the test is in how we invest it” (Donald W. Hinze To Give and Give Again, Pilgrim Press, New York, 1990). Each one of us is called to share the good news with those we contact in our daily lives. At the same time our prayers and gifts can support others who are called to proclaim the gospel to those beyond our reach. It is in regard to the stewardship of the gospel that the extension of self through our gifts of money is most evident. I was reminded of this when I visited the small farming community (53 families) of Lava Lava, in central Bolivia, part of the Andean Region of South America. This community of Quechua Indians installed, through the assistance of a Lutheran World Relief project organization, a distribution system through which running water was piped into each farm yard. Instruction was given on basic medical care and personal hygiene. One mother stated, we have not had a child’s death since the water came.”

3. Need of the Giver to Give
Always concentrate on the need of the giver to give rather than on the need of the congregation to receive. In a recent letter to the congregation of St. James Lutheran Church, Gettysburg, PA, the stewardship/finance committee had this to say: “This past year has been one of education and transition for us as we learned that stewardship begins when we say, ‘We believe.’ Our Lord will provide us all our needs while we are here. …  All He asks is that we give a portion of what has been given to us back to assist in helping others. It matters not where or how you give it. If you don’t have a favorite charity in mind, your church acts as one body in Christ to search out the greatest needs of many.” Giving is living. Giving adds meaning to life and reflects the priorities of God’s people, who love God and their neighbor as themselves. As Luther said, “I no longer live for myself, but I live in Christ and my neighbor.”

4. Affirmation of Our Baptism
William 0. Avery defines stewardship as “the process of living in/into our baptism in such a way as to be co-workers with God in God’s stewardship for this world.” He further states that, “‘Living in our baptism’ indicates that our stewardship is always based on something given, namely, our relationship to God established in our baptism. We never have to earn our place as stewards. It is given as God’s free gift in Jesus Christ.” (Lutheran Theological Seminary Bulletin, Volume 70, Number 4, Fall 1990). The understanding of stewardship is always rooted in the gift of our baptism.

5. Serve the Kingdom — Keep it Spiritual
The apostle Paul laid down a clear stewardship foundation in his letter to the Corinthian church. In 1 Corinthians 16:1-4, Paul suggests to this young struggling church, full of controversy, to turn its attention outward. He presents a cryptic understanding of stewardship education in the congregation. “In verse two, he makes four admonitions: First, giving is an act of worship. On the day of worship, Sunday, set aside an offering. Second, give systematically. If we give when we worship, we will give regularly. Third, give proportionately to income. We cannot give what we have not received. But we can withhold what we have received. Fourth, plan your giving in advance. “By the time I have arrived,” Paul is saying, “the offering will be in hand.” (Generous People, Eugene Grimm, Abingdon Press, 1992).

Finally, this message greets me as I walk in my front door: “We did not inherit the world from our parents; we borrowed it from our children. We are not owners but stewards.”

(Photo of Corinth Presbyterian Church, Parker, Texas, by Sultry, used by Creative Commons license. Thanks!)
© Copyright 1994, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.
This essay first appeared in the Summer 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 1994, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author

Before his death in 2014, Roger Smith was a stewardship specialist with the ELCA Evangelical Outreach and Congregational Mission unit and deployed to the Mid-Atlantic Region. Smith was also a founding member of the board of directors of the Stewardship of Life Institute.See Roger Smith's website.

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  1. dennis

    excellent message and detail of explanation of stewarship I will share it with family and friends.

  2. Linda Hayes

    I will share this with my Church family; I am the Stewardship chair in my congregation, St Andrew Lutheran, Mundelein, IL. I have been trying to develop a year round stewardship focus, “it is not just about the Fall Stewardship Drive” and “asking for money”; it is about stewardship being a part of each one of us; you have said it so well! thank you!

  3. Glad you found this article helpful, Linda! Thanks for visiting the Stewardship of Life website.

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