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Reforming The Church With The Hard Truth About Stewardship

The following article by Gary Moore traces his experience with "stewardship" in the various forms of the church with which he has related.  Through reflection on these experiences and his growth in a biblical perspective, he is convinced that the church has not told the hard truth about stewardship.  Stewardship encompasses the whole of life. It is a way of life for more than supporting particular institutions.

Reforming The Church With The Hard Truth About Stewardship
By Gary Moore

" Stewardship must not be reduced to a fund raising campaign on behalf of institutions, religious
or otherwise. It is a way of life and not mere rhetoric for motivating charitable contributions.
God has a prior claim on everything and not just that which we label as tithe."
- Bishop Ken Carder United Methodist Church

I recently attended another "stewardship" conference. I was surprised when someone asked if we should even use that word anymore. Some, myself included, volunteered that we rarely use it as the church has basically reduced it to financing our institutional needs. A conversation ensued about the definition of stewardship. Some thought it should be purely about raising money to pay the church's bills. Conference organizers seemed to agree.  Virtually every break out group, regardless of subject, led directly or indirectly to funding our churches and ministries.  Some said it was about the proverbial "time, talent and treasure," without being very clear about what that meant.  Several shared the belief that "it's all God's," again without being clear on how to put that theology into practice. So I realized I may have gotten ahead of myself with these classes and might need to explain what I'm trying to convey.

Thirty years ago, stewardship to me simply meant that dreaded time of the year when we had to appeal to my Episcopal church to get the bills paid. Our efforts were exclusively about buying a juvenile pledge card program and going to creative lengths to get people excited about it. Truth be told, people hated it. And the only person who hated it worse than I did as church president was our pastor. After all, his talk usually began with the "theological distortion" that we were giving to God, which is impossible if God really owns it all to start with. What we were really giving to was God's work on earth. That included the pastor's salary, which the most honest pastors I know acknowledge creates dissonance for them on stewardship Sunday. As to the laity, they surely wondered how much faith we church leaders truly had if we had to ask donors to estimate the church's revenue before we could prepare a simple budget. Just try to imagine a businessperson doing that!

Those experiences and my supposed financial expertise resulted in my helping 120 churches on the West Coast of Florida as a volunteer planned giving officer. I did my best to get people to come hear about wills, trusts and so on; but it was futile.  People viewed the sessions as just another fundraising effort on the part of an increasingly irrelevant church. Oddly, when I did seminars about the same techniques as an investment executive trying to save people taxes and increase their incomes, attendees thought I was some kind of whiz kid.

That work caused me to attend several of my denomination's annual stewardship gatherings. They too were exclusively about funding the church. Yet that led to my writing a financial book for the national stewardship department. It was picked up for publication by an evangelical publisher. It did cover all the "stewardship" topics I'd been trained in by the church. But my research into how money managers like Sir John Templeton managed our denominations' endowments and pension funds caused me to include a chapter on the embryonic "socially responsible investing" movement. Christianity Today said it was the first book that explained the biblical roots of the exploding movement to create as well as give money ethically. At the end of our next annual stewardship gathering, our leader acknowledged the meetings were getting boring and asked what would interest us. The number one reply was "socially responsible investing." He quipped that I would have to speak at the next meeting. But of course, when we got there the church's financial needs trumped the interests of attendees and we talked about the same old techniques for funding the church. By now I had noticed a pattern so I essentially made a deal with the church that I would talk and write about everything but giving. While I try to acknowledge the importance of giving, we seem to have adequate people covering that topic and my including it in my seminars wasn't helping attendance.

Writing the book seemed to make me some sort of expert. So I was invited to speak to ecumenical groups. I quickly noticed two completely different approaches. The mainline churches of Canada and the United States meet annually for the North American Conference on Christian Philanthropy. Oddly,it went far beyond philanthropy into issues of social justice, environmentalism and so on. I realized this was residue from the so-called "social gospel" of early last century. On the other hand, evangelical stewardship leaders met annually as the Christian Stewardship Association. Oddly, despite it using the
word "stewardship," I spoke at it several years and never observed any interest in anything but Christian philanthropy. I spoke about the growing disparities in wealth, which contribute to unwanted pregnancies and other social pathologies, the anti-Christian ethics of Wall Street, the misperceptions about the American economy which greatly reduce giving, and other challenges that true and holistic stewardship might help solve. But while my evaluations were solid, they routinely indicated few understood what any of that had to do with stewardship. Basically, evangelicalism is so new on the church scene it simply doesn't have the historically deeper perspectives of the subject. It's simply funding the Great Commission.

So how do we understand stewardship in its holistic and biblical sense? First of all, it's not fundraising, or even tithing and giving. Fundraising begins, and usually ends, with the financial needs of our institutions. It's not unlike the ancients paying Temple taxes to keep the fires burning. Tithing also usually begins with a legalistic understanding of your finances. It's a standard that the church still teaches despite having forgotten most other dimensions of stewardship. It's safe to say that institutional self-interest, which is legitimate but theologically limited, has a lot to do with that concept's survival. That's likely why Jesus chastised the Pharisees for tithing even the mint, dill and cumin from the garden while ignoring the important teachings of the Law. Interestingly, that would surely include the responsibility to manage wealth in a socially responsible fashion as Moses said habitually refusing to do so is actually a capital offense (Ex 21:28). Now that's important!

Giving however begins with your needs as a child of a loving God. Adam Smith, the father of modern economics who wrote The Wealth of Nations, actually achieved fame by writing A Theory of Moral Sentiments. It begins by saying that regardless of how selfish we humans seem, we actually have a very deep need to see our neighbors do well, even if we get nothing out of it other than the pure pleasure of seeing it. That's far more spirituality than we usually hear on pledge card Sunday.

Still, even soulful giving hardly satisfies our responsibilities as stewards. Jesus clearly knew the difference between giving and stewarding treasure. He taught that if we are about to "give" at the altar and remember a neighbor has something against us, we should go away and make peace with that neighbor before coming back to give. No, we don't hear that too often these days. But like the prophets, Jesus knew the sacrifice of selfishness in our daily lives was the sacrifice God preferred, not simply cash in the Temple. Jesus also said our hearts will always be where the "treasure" we steward for ourselves is, not where the money we gave went too. As one corporate leader has said, tithing is simply about what we give away; stewardship is also about what we keep. Try this: Give to Focus on the Family to stop the spread of casino gambling but invest your IRA into casino stocks. Open the paper the next morning and see if your heart is sad or glad that your casino company is prospering. In short, if our treasure is invested in our culture, our hearts will be that of cultural Christians.

That's why I specialize in stewarding all the financial resources that belong to God. That even includes areas like trying to pay the full amount of taxes I owe each year without being a grump, as Paul commanded in Romans 13. Yes, I'm still working on that one. But I know finance is only one dimension of stewardship, and far from the most important one at that.

Watching Sir John Templeton grow old, as my father never had the chance to do, convinced me that time is far, far more than money. In fact, the less time we have left, the more money we usually have. If possible, we would gladly trade it for more time. So I decided twenty-five years ago to imitate John and use one-half of my time for ministry and one-half for business.

But I found the hound of heaven to be a jealous God. The more time I gave, the more God wanted. So I soon realized that God wanted all my time, as well as all my talent. So my investment practice and my ministry were soon "integrated." That causes both "worlds" enormous indigestion. I lose a lot of business and ministry opportunities as Americans, and probably pastors most of all, are so skeptical of people who actually mix faith and life. Wall Street thinks I'm totally nuts.

I'm not. When I was exploring seminary about the same time my son was born, the psychologist told me I had a very distant relationship with my father. He knew dad was an entrepreneur who was loving but always working, a cultural characteristic that has afflicted men since we left our family farms and began working in factories and offices. He also knew dad had died without my receiving "the blessing" of biblical times. Both caused a sense of loneliness deep in my soul, even if they drove me at work. Not wanting my son to grow up with that spiritual poverty, I moved my office into my home. An unintentional by-product is that I greatly reduced what we now call my "carbon footprint" by no longer driving to work each day. Sherry, who had worked in the marketplace to that point, did the same by coming home to school Garrett.

As I have less and less time on earth, I realize the blessings of those days could never be matched by corner offices, titles and pension plans. Sure there were financial costs, assuming I could have stayed sane while living in two worlds and thinking with two minds. Stewards should never fail to estimate those. My best friend in management training school, who was a Christian, ran the huge Wall Street firm last year, as I predicted he would. His annual bonus was probably more than my accumulated net worth. Even in my far lower orbit, I produced one-half the commissions last year that I did when I left the major firm twenty-five years ago. Adjusted for inflation, they were probably one-fourth. Yet by any standard other than Wall Street's, I was still blessed beyond my wildest expectations as a youth. My wife has now put up with me for thirty years. My son and I are close. I have time to write, speak and serve African orphans and on boards. On one of those, I served with Ken Lay of Enron. He gave lots of money to ministry but will not be remembered as a great Christian steward.

So God hounds me for even more. The more I've seen and church history I've studied, the more I've realized we are all called to steward the life-enhancing teachings and traditions of the church. Those are under assault from secular humanism on both left and right so we have forgotten many of them. Knowing what had once made the church so relevant to economic life, I also realized the church is in dire need of a Second Reformation. So on counsel of an ordained friend, Sherry and I became Lutherans. My friend knew the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America is both evangelical and socially responsible and would meet this old Baptist's needs for down-home people and polity, as well as my wife's need for higher liturgy and sacrament. Lutherans tend to be as ecumenical and public-relations oriented as the Amish and Mennonites.

So few know that Forbes has estimated Lutheran Social Services is substantially larger than the YMCA, Red Cross and Salvation Army,  America's second, third and fourth largest charities. It is four times Habitat for Humanity. I attribute that to Luther teaching there's nothing more holy about a priest tending a church than a person plowing a field or tending a home. That theology is known as "the priesthood of all believers" and is another idea we desperately need to resurrect, even in the ELCA at times.

Just as importantly for me, Luther also launched the first Reformation after hearing a fundraiser named Tetzel preach the ungodly theology that we can achieve heaven by simply giving some money to the institutional church. Ironically, Tetzel was fundraising for St. Peter's basilica in Rome, one of our most treasured buildings today. But Christ knew even that could be destroyed very quickly. So the importance of the project did not prevent Luther from penning his 95 Theses that night and supposedly posted them on the door of his church in Wittenburg. Depending on how you read them, between a fourth and avthird are about the church's poor stewardship theology, which was nevertheless quite effective for fundraising. Yet Luther soon discovered even his own parishioners liked the idea that simply giving a few coins is all it takes to get into heaven.

Luther also discovered church leaders' self-interest caused them to like the theology even more. It was famously said that he was attacked by the church the rest of his life as he had touched the crown of the pope and the bellies of the monks. But it's my guess that he was blessed by Christ. After all, when Jesus also essentially reformed God's wayward church, he whipped Pharisees and cleansed the Temple of money changers. The examples of both Christ and Luther might suggest the modern church will never be relevant until it deals with money. That, in turn, might free all our time and talents for God's work.
Ironically, our Jewish and Catholic friends seem to have learned. During the eighties, the only person who asked me about investment ethics was a Jewish lady who became a dear friend. The U.S. Catholic Conference of Bishops has confessed this in a pastoral letter: "Concentrating on one specific bligation of stewardship, even one as important as church support, could make it harder--even impossible--for people to grasp the vision. It could imply that when the bishops get serious about stewardship, what they really mean is simply giving money." And before he died, John Paul said, "The decision to invest in one place rather than another, in one productive sector rather than another, is always a moral and cultural choice."

So the challenge we face today may not be the ones that Jesus and Luther faced. The real challenge may be with the newer branches of Christianity. I believe they too are quite popular today largely as they demand so little in the way of stewardship.

The November 2009 issue of Christianity Today contains an article about J. Lee Grady, editor of Charisma magazine, who has long battled "prosperity theology." In it, he says: "Martin Luther had to say something, or they were going to keep selling indulgences. Now we have that going on in our midst. If someone says 'Send your $100 to be saved,' that is selling indulgences, and there are people doing that on Trinity Broadcasting Network." If we realize that's essentially, if unwittingly, also going on in most conservative churches, and many mainline churches as well, we just might ignite that reformation.
Gary Moore has a degree in political science and thirty years of Wall Street experience. He once thought of attending seminary to study the moral and spiritual foundations of political-economy and personal finance but discovered they rarely teach it anymore, which is why churches rarely mention the
subject. He has authored five books on moral finance, the last being Faithful Finances 101 from the John Templeton Foundation Press. He is affiliated with National Planning Corp, member FINRA/SIPC, but these ideas are his alone. See The Financial Seminary


Gary Moore has authored five books on moral finance, the last being Faithful Finances 101 and is the founder of Financial Seminary.

Author information was updated as of the article's post date. Author profiles may not reflect author's current employment or location.

Image credit: © Ignacio García Losa ( via Flickr. Used by permission.

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