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Tangible vs. Intangible

Texts:  Isaiah 55:9, Mark 12:41-44

Perspective and Practices:  A holistic, whole-life approach to stewardship includes evaluating every component of a congregation's stewardship ministry.  This articles helps you to assess and improve the intangible side of individual and congregational stewardship.

Tangible vs. Intangible
July 2004
By Jonathan R. Reitz, Salt Specialist
Jonathan Reitz

Opening Questions
*How do you measure the "state of stewardship" in your congregation?
*What factors go into deciding whether or not stewardship is having a good year?
*What's the difference between encouraging members to give as a faith response compared with encouraging members to give to a budget?  When can these two ideas be the same?
*What are some tangible indicators of stewardship in your congregation?
*What are some intangible indicators?

Key Scriptures
Isaiah 55:9
"For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts."

Mark 12:41-44
He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. Then he called his disciples and said to them, "Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on."

Jonathan Reitz

Jean Bozeman, assistant to the bishop in the ELCA Virginia Synod, recently returned from a mission trip to Tanzania. While telling stories of the trip over lunch, Pastor Bozeman commented that the culture of the Tanzanian congregations provided an opportunity for celebration in the middle of each worship service. Each member brought their offering forward, and presented it for use in the mission of the congregation. These offerings were not just financial offerings. There was fruit grown in a member's garden, chickens that were raised on member's farms, and other household items that could be auctioned off to other members of the congregation after worship. The crucial components of the offering were that each item was given joyfully and without hesitation. According to Pastor Bozeman, the American delegation commented to each other that they could feel the joy that was a part of each gift to the congregation.

A few summers ago, I took a mission trip to Guyana, South America, and worshipped with several congregations there. The offering was a joyful part of the service in these communities as well. Each member got up out of the pew and bounded toward the front of the congregation as if they couldn't wait for their moment to give!

Think about the moment when your congregation receives the offering. What's the mood at that instant when the offering plate passes in front of you? What can you sense about the mood when it passes in front of other people? While traveling throughout the ELCA to work as a Salt Specialist, it has been a privilege to hear people say that giving their offering is a moment of joy. These moments point to an important set of indicators of stewardship health in a congregation: the intangibles.

We typically assess the health of a congregation's stewardship ministry by tangible indices. Quantities like annual giving, envelope giving, worship attendance, and the percentage of members who pledge can paint an accurate picture of the stewardship life of a congregation. But those quantities don't portray the full picture. What about the spirit of the congregation? Or the level of joy in the congregation?

Think about the story of the widow's mite in Mark 12. Jesus and the disciples had gathered in the temple at the moment when people were giving their offering.  What was Jesus watching for? Was he measuring annual giving levels? Or even attendance? No, but from the details of the story, Jesus knew that some of the people were rich, and the widow was poor. He knew that she was a widow. And while he wasn't measuring giving levels, he did notice the size of each contribution.

How did Jesus compare the gifts given? Not in terms of amount, but by an intangible quality or by the generosity of spirit with which the gift was given. Mark writes, Out of her poverty she has put in everything she had, all she had to live on." Picture the widow in your mind. What is the expression on her face? What does that expression communicate about her mindset? What is her body language saying? Where is she putting her faith? From where is her hope coming?

Keep picturing the widow, but try to project another emotion on her. If you were thinking that she was quietly confident as she strode up to the temple treasury, now see her as timid or even fearful. How does that change the expression that might be on her face? What does this second expression communicate about her faith and her hope?

Now ask yourself the same questions about your congregation at the moment the offering is received. What facial expressions and body languages are you seeing? What do those moments communicate about your congregation's sense of faith? What messages are members sending out and receiving about hope? Remember that the lesson in Mark doesn't say that Jesus was looking for anything in particular; he was just able to react to what he did see.

There are lots of intangible indicators of stewardship in a congregation. For example, does your congregation "receive an offering" or do you "take a collection?"  What might those two terms communicate about the state of stewardship in your congregation? What do these answers say about the intangible state of stewardship as celebration in your congregation?

Other intangibles might be the congregation's reaction to change, the amount of laughter in the narthex before church, whether or not meetings start and end on schedule, the spirit in the congregation when the peace is passed or even whether your congregation chooses to pass the peace! At virtually every moment in a congregation's life, there is some intangible indicator of stewardship health.

Here's another example. A small suburban congregation made a $1,000 commitment to support a local homeless ministry. The gift is about 1 percent of the congregation's budget, and giving is down a little from last year. The church council is discussing whether to attempt to ratchet down that commitment because financial projections say that finishing the year on budget might be tough.

The stewardship chair is convinced that the commitment will be met with no trouble, because she assesses stewardship in the congregation as very healthy.  Her reason? Because more members seem to be willing to have a second cup of coffee during and immediately after adult Bible class. To her mind, the coffee drinking pattern indicates that people are more actively engaged in studying God's Word and therefore are growing in their faith. The discussions seem to be livelier, and people want to linger longer in the classroom. At the very least, she reasons, people are enjoying each other's company more than at other times in the congregation's recent past. It's an intangible, but what that intangible points toward is significant.

An easy way to separate tangible from intangible indicators is to divide them along the lines of quality versus quantity. While not an absolute separator, tangible indicators most often measure a quantity in the congregation. Think about annual giving or the percentage increase your congregation sees in your annual financial response. Intangible indicators measure qualities, things like whether or not someone leaves church feeling like they experienced God during worship or whether they felt inspired to get involved with a particular ministry in the congregation.

A holistic, whole-life approach to stewardship includes evaluating every component of a congregation's stewardship ministry. The questions below are designed to assist you as you assess and improve the intangible side of individual and congregational stewardship.

  • What qualities of stewardship are strongest in your congregation?  Which qualities are your biggest opportunities for growth?

*What intangible indicators of stewardship do you see every Sunday in your congregation? What intangibles could you work on over the next six months?

  • Where else in scripture can you find examples of intangible indicators of stewardship?
  • How can you include intangible indicators in your assessment of your congregation's health?
  • How could your congregation assess the intangibles in your stewardship ministry?
  • What intangible indicators could be used as tools to increase participation in the life of your congregation?

What steps could you take to make your congregation's offering into more of a celebration? What effect would those steps have on your congregation's giving?

Stewardship Resources Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, 8765 West Higgins Road, Chicago, IL 60631. Any part of Salt Seasonings can be reproduced for local use with attribution.


Jonathan Reitz is CEO at CoachNet North America.


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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