“Compound interest,” the old quote goes, “is the eighth wonder of the world.” Or, humanities’ “greatest invention.” But why? Well, it may be because humans don’t usually think in day-by-day, slow-and-steady terms. We yearn for moon shots, not tiny gains that add up over time. In today’s piece, Pastor Ross Reddick explores the concept of incrementalism and its relationship to stewardship. It’s inspiring -- but for being small not big.
Adam Copeland, Center for Stewardship Leaders
by Rev. Ross M. Reddick
Summer is a time when many of us take road trips. For me, the open road is also a prime opportunity for listing to podcasts. A recent episode of Freakonomics Radio has really stuck with me. If you’re not familiar, Freakonomics is the unlikely brainchild of journalist Stephen Dubner and award-winning economist Steven Levitt. The show is deceptively simple, and therefore captivating: using the data and toolsets economists employ, but in a way that’s approachable, surprising, and illuminating for daily life.
The episode that’s still rolling around in my head is “In Praise of Incrementalism.” The argument is that the world pays too much attention to immediate, meteoric successes in human endeavors -- from healthcare, to education, to politics. (I would add religion to the list). In actuality, stories of substantial change through history more than likely involve slow, incremental gains.
Several examples support their argument:
- the Italian Renaissance, which was not an immediate revolution of new forms, but rather a century’s worth of incremental changes, with each artist moving the ball forward ever so slightly.
- The civil rights struggle, which didn’t happen overnight. Few people know the tedious details of the decades-long efforts that would eventually pave the way for titans like Martin Luther King Jr. to move the needle in more visible ways.
- The parallel civil rights journey of the LGBTQ community which reached a new chapter in 2015 when the exclusion of same-sex couples from marriage was found to be unconstitutional.
- The story of how the United Kingdom went from only one gold medal in 76 years of cycling competition to winning six of them in Rio and eight of them in London. In short, the answer was a strategy called “marginal gains”-- actively improving small things like posture, nutrition, and even seemingly insignificant things, like handwashing and hotel arrangements.
But what does any of this have to do with financial stewardship, institutional fundraising, and church finances?
The sixth chapter of First Kings is dreadfully boring. Well, it was until I read it again through this new lens of incrementalism. It describes in great detail the process by which Solomon built the temple. We are familiarized with the cubital dimensions of the nave, vestibule, inner sanctuary, and other chambers. The windows, finishings, support beams, and roof tiles are described. We even know that the stones were crafted off-site in what is, perhaps, the first noise ordinance found in scripture.
At the end of the chapter, we read, “…the house was finished in all its parts, and according to all its specifications. He was seven years in building it. (1 Kings 6:38).”
Stone by stone. Pillar by pillar. The temple came together, but it did so slowly.
I thought deeply about what this construction project would have looked like in real life. I visualized all the calloused human hands that carved and laid the stone. I imagined the amount of time and brainwork involved in calculating the portions, laying out the plans, and translating those plans from the designers to the workers on site. I contemplated how the “end product” must have been broken down into small, achievable chunks, and accomplished bit by bit.
Another Building Project
Maybe in our thinking about faith and stewardship, the gains of incrementalism should be acknowledged and celebrated. Take, for example, the congregation I’m blessed to serve: the Spanish Fort Presbyterian Church on the eastern shore of the Mobile Bay in Alabama. Back in 2005 (well before my tenure), God helped this church dream a bold dream -- a huge investment in our Youth and Music programs, namely in the creation of two wings that flank the sanctuary today. The investment: approximately $1.3 million dollars. Naturally, an undertaking like that warrants a fully-fledged capital campaign led by seasoned fundraisers. (In fact, a project of that size for our congregation took a few concerted campaigns).
But, let’s not lose the trees for the forest. It’s now 2018, and we’re within striking distance of being debt free. And that reality can only be ascribed to the incremental, accumulative efforts of the people of SFPC who continually, regularly, even monotonously respond to God’s generosity with their own. It is their disciplined stewardship, their conventional (dare I say “boring”?) tithing, their remarkably ordinary giving that has carried that debt faithfully over 13 years. Sure, there were a few flashy, big gifts along the way in our temple project. Again, it’s easy to idolize those big leaps. But, the math tells the real story. The journey from zero to $1,300,000 is the story of tens of thousands of small, faithful steps -- $35 dollars here and $120 dollars there.
What, then, shall we do?
How do our organizations, institutions, and churches honor the faithful, incremental steps our people make? Can we help our parishioners, funders, and friends visualize the collective power of their individual contributions?
Perhaps we can find the stories of diligent, tedious faith in Scripture, like the building of the temple. We might embrace the theology of God’s steadfast, habitual providence to cast a vision for sustainable ministry.
I don’t know the best way to tell this story, but I’m almost certain that a preformatted report from an accounting software program isn’t going to do the trick. Your CPA’s, Treasurers, Finance Committees, and Stewardship Teams have the data that’s needed, but the data are merely the building blocks. The story of incremental stewardship is one that must be contextualized, visualized, and told. What might it mean for a supporter to receive a handwritten thank you note for their $10 check? What might it mean if your parishioner received a text (personalized, not automated) acknowledging three consecutive Sundays of regular tithing? What marginal shifts might we employ -- towards generosity, towards gratitude?
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Rev. Ross M. Reddick is a spectacularly average Presbyterian Minister serving in south Alabama, and that’s something to celebrate. He writes an extra $50 check, over and above his tithe, to the SFPC Capital Campaign once a month.