Can Stewardship be More Inviting?

By Rev. Dr. William O. Avery, May 8, 2011

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 ‘average’ 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 society’s ambiguous attitude toward money, this immediate identification leads to a hostile, or at least very conflicted, attitude toward stewardship.

Americans’ 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 ‘just 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.

“God’s 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 don’t do anything to earn God’s 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 God’s love. God’s love is freely given to us simply because we are God’s 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 nation.

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 our freedom?”

“Stewards know that happiness is by-product of living faithfully as God’s children.”

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 God’s 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. 9:7).

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 material possessions.

© 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.

Photo (c) jgroup, via

About the Author

The Rev. Dr. William O. Avery is retired as the Arthur L. Larson Associate Professor of Stewardship and Parish Life at Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg. He is a former executive director of the Stewardship of Life Institute.See Rev. Dr. William O. Avery's website.

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1 Comment

  1. P. Russo

    Are you kidding me?

    I once knew a pastor who always claimed stewardship wasn’t about money. Then he got himself a nice appointment and made his bones thimblerigging widows out of their savings, and thereby, their children and grandchildren.

    Beam me up Scotty!!

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