Preaching Stewardship: Confessions of a Convert

I love stewardship preaching. Honestly.

But that was not always the case. I used to, if not dread it, at least really not look forward to it. Actually, that is not quite true. I was quite comfortable with talking about stewardship of our time and our talents. It was bringing up our “treasure” that scared me. Why? All the usual reasons:

  • general unease with talking about money — after all, the three topics you are to avoid talking about in public are money, politics, and religion — which means that the stewardship sermon names not one but two of these taboo subjects!;
  • concern about exposing my own giving to public scrutiny — even though I was a good giver, the thought of “going public” still made me very nervous; and
  • worry that my preaching would seem self-serving — my salary came from a budget that was, of course, affected by the “success” of our stewardship efforts.

So what changed?  Somewhere early in my ministry, I discovered two things.

Helpful Discoveries

1) It’s not about money; it’s about values.

Okay, so it is about money. But beneath the money rests the far more important and more interesting issue of values.

We have, I believe, two kinds of values. Our stated, conscious values are those we name out loud when we are talking about the things that are really important to us. Our operative, and often unconscious, values are the ones that actually guide our behavior.

Wait a second, you protest, shouldn’t these be the same? Ideally, yes. But often they are not. And the slight lurch of your stomach each time you go ahead and charge a purchase that exceeds what you promised yourself you would spend tells you so. You know that feeling and so do I. It indicates that something is getting in the way of our stated values and causing us to act in ways that aren’t true to ourselves, let alone financially responsible.

It may be that we have gotten caught up in the cultural penchant to equate possessions with status or, more perniciously, with happiness. It may be that we spend to make ourselves feel better when we feel stressed or down. It may be that that buying something feels like an accomplishment. (Ebay’s tag line comes to mind: “Shop Victoriously!”)

Whatever the reason, our behavior does not always reflect our stated values and this dissonance troubles many of us. One of the gifts stewardship preaching can render is an opportunity to invite us to examine our operative values by looking at our budget or, assuming most of us do not have one, our banking or credit card statements. We all want to live in consonance with what we believe. Stewardship preaching can help us do that.

2) People want to talk about this stuff!

This was the big shocker for me. I assumed most people did not like stewardship sermons. I was wrong. Time and again parishioners have thanked me for bringing up something that is, to put it mildly, a huge part of their lives. Open, honest conversation about our role as God’s stewards provides people with a biblical and theological framework that helps them make sense of an important and pervasive aspect of their lives. It provides them one more way of connecting their faith lives on Sunday morning with the rest of their lives and work.

Further, we need to recognize that there are many, many voices seeking to influence the spending habits and views about money of the adults and children in our congregations, and most often they do not have the best interests of our people at heart. Articulating a vibrant theology of stewardship provides an alternative to the cultural voices about money.

Keep in mind that the opposite is true as well: to not talk about the relationship between faith and money sends the signal that faith does not apply to our economic lives and ends up accentuating the gap many already feel between church and the “real” world.

Concrete Suggestions

Armed with these two discoveries, I ventured forth into more intentional stewardship preaching and before long actually began to enjoy it. While I won’t claim being an expert in the matter, I have a learned a few things along the way.

1) Preach stewardship throughout the year.

The only way to help all of us realize that stewardship is not fundraising but rather is part and parcel of our Christian identity is to make it a part of our preaching regularly. If you keep your eye open for passages in the lectionary that lend themselves to talking about stewardship, you will be amazed at how many opportunities there are.

2) Tell people about the difference their stewardship is making.

Preaching stewardship is not just talking about giving. It is also about showing people what is being accomplished through their stewardship, both inside and outside of the church. Newsletter articles are a great way to showcase all the good that is being accomplished through our stewardship, and I have found it helpful to highlight this good work in my sermons as well. By affirming what stewardship is accomplishing, you are actually confirming people in their identity as Christian stewards.

3) You don’t have to do this all alone.

In fact, you and your congregation will be much better off if you don’t.

I will never forget the year the chair of our stewardship committee lost her job. She had planned to resign her position because she felt like a hypocrite asking others to give when she knew she would have to reduce her pledge significantly. But when she explained to the church council why she was resigning, another member said, “That’s okay. We know you can’t give as much this year, so we’re giving more. That’s what families do.” Trust me, when she shared this story with the congregation, her words were far more powerful than any of the sermons I preached that fall.

And while we are at it, why not open up the pulpit from time to time for people to talk about their own stewardship? I do not mean just doing “Temple Talks” during November. I mean having people talk from time to time throughout the year about how their faith informs their financial decisions and letting that be the sermon. The pastor is, by default, the religious professional. Inviting other members to share their stewardship stories gives people a tangible example of someone “just like them” who is connecting faith and money.

4) Be honest about your concerns.

Candor speaks powerfully. If you are worried that by talking about stewardship you will appear self-serving, say it. If you struggle with decisions about how much to give, admit it. Your open naming of these issues not only makes you a more sincere, and therefore more trustworthy, spokesperson, it also models for others how to get about the challenging and rewarding work of connecting faith and money.

Over time, I discovered that stewardship preaching gives us the opportunity to talk about something that really matters and to help people connect their faith and their lives in a valuable way. It may have taken me a little while to make the conversion to embracing, rather than avoiding, stewardship preaching, but now that I am here I wouldn’t go back.