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The ‘S’ Word

Stewardship is a spiritual matter, not a code word for raising money

By Robert Bohl

Illustration by E.W. Stubbs

One of the curious things about Presbyterians and stewardship is that those who have the least tend to give the most. Percentage-wise more people with incomes of less than $25,000 tithe (give 10 percent) than those with a greater income. The same is true of the way they give their time and talents to the church.

Perhaps it is because they have learned one of the great theological and Biblical truths that Malachi taught the Hebrew people about the reward of the faithful: “Bring the full tithe into the storehouse, so that there may be food in my house, and thus put me to the test, … see if I will not open the windows of heaven for you and pour down for you an overflowing blessing” (3:10).

This is not a gospel of prosperity, but an illustration of who receives the greater benefit, the giver or the receiver. We discover the joy of giving when we discover that stewardship is everything we do from the moment we confess Jesus Christ as Lord. The Russian writer Nicholas Berdyaev once said: “If I am hungry it is a material problem. If someone else is hungry it is a spiritual problem.” Those who exhibit exemplary stewardship have made this an intensively spiritual matter.

A poor church is not one without money, but one without a vision. When people have a clear biblical and theological understanding of the mission of the church, healthy stewardship practices emerge. The New Testament church leaders discovered that stewardship did not come naturally; it was a learned discipline. Paul wrote to his young colleague Timothy to teach the people in Ephesus that “there is great gain in godliness combined with contentment; for we brought nothing into the world, so that we can take nothing out of it” (1 Timothy 6:6-7). We might say it this way: we make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give away.

If we believe that the mission of the church is to “make disciples,” to teach people to obey the commandments of Christ, we have to remember that Jesus also said: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me … For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life?” (Matthew 16:24-26). Exciting things are happening in many Presbyterian churches today as they put a new emphasis on stewardship in its fullest dimension — which includes a person’s time, talent and treasures (financial resources). More and more congregations have begun to talk about tithing time, talent and treasures. They are emphasizing that Christian living necessarily involves Christian giving.

Congregations of all sizes, from very small to very large and from every part of the country, are developing ways of making people the focus of their mission. They are sending members on mission work trips throughout the United States and to other countries. This has produced a new and fresh understanding of stewardship both for individuals and for congregations.

On average Presbyterians give 1.5 percent of their annual income to the church — an average of about $580 annually, which results in a total amount of $1.5 billion. If every Presbyterian tithed, together we would give $9.5 billion.

It has been said that no two Presbyterian congregations are alike, but we do share some common characteristics. One of these is that we do poorly in the area of stewardship. One of the basic reasons most churches have such poor stewardship is that they think stewardship is fundraising. It is how you pay for the church’s budget; it is the awful code word church officers and pastors use for money. Stewardship for many churches is what they do only one Sunday a year, usually in November. When church leaders and pastors make stewardship a taboo subject, poor stewardship results.

Where there is a vibrant, exciting church, that congregation has made stewardship a spiritual matter. For those Presbyterians stewardship has to do with how they live and their daily commitments to Jesus Christ as their Lord. I once heard a pastor say, “When you give only your money, you give very little; it is when you give of yourself that you truly give.”

First Presbyterian Church in Fort Worth, Texas, set a goal that each of its members would be a tither by the year 2000 (a program the congregation started in 1991). That church discovered people need to learn stewardship and to discover the joy of giving. The emphasis began, not on the giving of money, but on the giving of time through volunteer service within the church and to mission programs supported by the church in the city of Fort Worth. One member says: “We have discovered it is far easier for Christians to act their way into a new way of thinking than it is to think their way into a new way of acting.”

In the decade of the ’90s more and more congregations were introduced to the concept of tithing. It is not clear whether this was the result of a lack of money to support the mission or ministry of the church or if it was coming from committed pastors and sessions who believe this is what a faithful Christian is called to do by Jesus Christ. I believe people who enjoy tithing do so, not out of a legalist biblical interpretation, but out of gratitude to God for God’s grace given to us in Jesus Christ. Certainly, helping others is an authentic Christian trait.

The good news about Presbyterians and their stewardship of time, talent and treasure is that when authentic mission needs are presented, many respond generously. But more and more congregations are discovering that the Sunday morning offerings are inadequate to meet the growing mission needs in the world. Their solution is to invite people to give to a permanent endowment fund for the ministry of the church. These can be gifts over and above an annual pledge and can be given during a person’s lifetime or through a bequest in a will.

The mission and ministry of Presbyterian congregations would be vastly more significant if every member tithed and if every member left a tithe of their estate to the church. This can happen only when we all believe that “were the whole realm of nature mine, that were a present far too small; love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all” (From the hymn, “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross”).

The Book of Order is explicit in its stewardship emphasis

“Giving has always been a mark of Christian commitment and discipleship. The ways in which a believer uses God’s gifts of material goods, personal abilities, and time should reflect a faithful response to God’s self-giving in Jesus Christ and Christ’s call to minister to and share with others in the world. Tithing is a primary expression of the Christian discipline of stewardship.”

“Those who follow the discipline of Christian stewardship will find themselves called to lives of simplicity, generosity, honesty, hospitality, compassion, receptivity, and concern for the earth and God’s creatures.”

“The Christian life is an offering of one’s self to God. In worship the people are presented with the costly self-offering of Jesus Christ, are claimed and set free by him, and are led to respond by offering to him their lives, their particular gifts and abilities, and their material goods.”

This article originally appeared in the May 1997 issue of Presbyterians Today.