August 20, 2010


Stewardship means getting out of the rat race

In July, two stewardship conferences were sponsored by representatives of Protestant denominations.

“Rethinking Stewardship: Our Culture, Our Theology, Our Practices” was the theme of a conference held in Eden Prairie, Minn., on July 19-21 sponsored by Luther Seminary. “Grace, Gratitude and Generosity” was the title of the 2010 Stewardship Conference sponsored by The Episcopal Network for Stewardship, which was held in Indianapolis on July 30-31.

Both conferences called attention to the challenges associated with teaching and practicing stewardship in an affluent, consumer-oriented society. In fact, “consumerism” was clearly identified as the chief obstacle to living Christian stewardship today.

The Rev. Mark Allan Powell, one of the speakers at the Lutheran conference, is a professor of Old Testament studies and an author of many books on biblical and stewardship themes. Powell challenged the participants—most of whom were stewardship committee or pastoral staff members in Lutheran congregations—to change the focus of their teaching about stewardship in three ways: 1) from talking about how much we give to talking about how we live; 2) from talking about obligation (guilt) to talking about privilege (good news); and 3) from a sense of duty to an experience of delight (the joy of giving).

Powell stressed that stewardship is not the means to an end (increased participation or financial support). Stewardship is an end—a life of faithful Christian discipleship.

David Lose, a homiletics professor at Luther Seminary, offered similar insights into the challenges facing Christians who wish to practice stewardship as a way of life. Lose observed that three cultural shifts have taken place in our society that have fundamentally changed the Christian experience of stewardship.

First, we are now encouraged to give not out of a sense of obligation but as a matter of choice. Free decisions rather than a sense of duty motivate most people today.

Second, Lose pointed out that whereas in earlier generations people received their identity (their station in life or vocational calling) from their family, their Church or their society, today people are urged to choose who they are, or want to be, from a seemingly infinite array of possible choices. In this context, Christian life becomes just one of many options, and stewardship as a way of life can seem to be a very remote and discretionary option—even for Christians.

Finally, Lose notes that tradition does not have nearly the power it once had. In our contemporary culture, personal experience is much more valuable than the received wisdom of past generations. That is why Christian values, including the stewardship virtues of gratitude, accountability and generosity, frequently take second place when compared to the “new” experiences and opportunities that seem to be promised by our secular culture.

Speaking to Episcopalians meeting in Indianapolis, the Rev. Dr. Walter Bruggemann, a Protestant Scripture scholar and author with self-identified “Calvinist leanings,” said that stewardship represents a fundamental choice between two ways of living.

“Stewardship is the big either/or,” Bruggemann says, “between living a life of covenantal fidelity and obligations or living as an autonomous agent who is unencumbered by obligations to God or to anyone else.” Bruggemann sees stewardship as a choice that Christians make to “get out of the rat race,” and to live lives of quiet fidelity to the Gospel.

Most of the speakers at the Lutheran and Episcopal conferences agreed that stewardship is countercultural—an antidote to the poisons of consumerism, materialism and individualism that have thoroughly infected our society.

“Affluenza” was a term used by more than one speaker to characterize the negative influences of our affluent society on the simple life of responsibility for others that Christians are called to live on a daily basis.

Both conferences also included a reflection on the U.S. bishops’ pastoral letter, “Stewardship: A Disciple’s Response,” and the stewardship message of the late Archbishop Thomas J. Murphy.

According to the bishops, our Catholic theology adds a profound eucharistic and sacramental dimension to the important biblical stewardship perspectives espoused by our Protestant sisters and brothers. We believe that all of creation is the gift of a good and gracious God.

Disciples of Jesus Christ are called to receive God’s gifts gratefully, cherish and tend them in a responsible way, share them generously with others out of justice and love, and return them to the Lord with increase. Christian stewards do not reject money or material things. We develop and share them for our own good and for the benefit of others.

This is the spirituality of stewardship taught by the American bishops in their stewardship pastoral.

As Catholics, we embrace a countercultural way of living that rejects the “isms” of our time—relativism, materialism, individualism, consumerism—without ever condemning our culture or the material gifts and possessions that we need and enjoy.

With all our brothers and sisters in the one Body of Christ, we Roman Catholics wholeheartedly affirm the Lord’s admonition: Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all the rest will be given to you (Mt 6:33).

—Daniel Conway

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