American culture is intensely individualistic. Given this context, it’s no surprise that a lot of talk about money and stewardship is focused on the individual. Scripture, on the other hand, tends towards a more communal culture. Many times, when we read a passage and hear the word “you,” the original language was indicating “you all,” but our minds hear “you” singular. My favorite example of this is 1 Corinthians 6:19, “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit,” a passage often misconstrued as having to do with individual purity. In fact, it’s about the corporate body — you all — and the whole community’s relationship with God. How might we make stewardship more communal? What might communal stewardship look like in congregations?
First, a congregation embracing a more corporate approach to stewardship will make spaces for, well, communal conversation around stewardship matters. Certainly, many giving decisions will eventually be made at the kitchen table in your home, but these individual household decisions can be supported by community conversation elsewhere. If your church has small groups, they’re a perfect place to host conversations around money.
I’m part of an informal men’s group that meets monthly around a topic of concern (OK, I’ll be honest, it’s a whiskey club). An ethnologist studying our gatherings would likely note how often money comes up in conversation. We discuss the birth of babies — and the cost of diapers. We celebrate the purchase of new homes — and lament the cost of upkeep. We talk about planning vacations, and saving for retirement, and the cheapest, best place for oil changes. While the group gathers for other purposes, our conversation touches on money pretty darn often. I find that fascinating because it’s actually a group of guys that are not much concerned with climbing the corporate ladder or keeping up with the Joneses. Instead, I think money concerns crop up because we’re grateful for the opportunity to discuss them with others we trust. How can your congregation be just such a place?
Second, congregational leaders — and clergy, especially — have a huge opportunity for modeling public discussion of money. When we address money from the pulpit, I think the message comes with particular power when pastors admit our own struggles with money. We can share stories of that individual/corporate divide, and explain scripture’s alternative vision.
Walter Brueggemann writes, “A [biblical] study of money and possessions makes clear that the neighborly common good is the only viable sustainable context for individual well-being.” So, we can acknowledge our individual decisions, struggles, and concerns while pushing for more communal awareness.
Increasingly, one way congregations are addressing such matters is in the area of their own investment practices. Congregation members might be surprised to learn their church endowment is invested in tobacco companies, gun manufacturers, or serial polluters. Conversations around church investments tend towards the corporate — what do members (together) want? What are the neighborly consequences of such investment practices? When leaders embrace these challenging questions, members may reflect how their own individual money practices relate to the whole community.
Finally, there are some technical things stewardship or finance committees can do to help individuals consider the whole. Often, when we speak of giving in congregations, we do so with the mindset of individual or family giving. It’s important to put that giving in context of the whole congregation. Sharing (anonymized) data on average giving, giving levels, or even factoids like what percentage of gifts come in via electronic means helps make financial stewardship the work of the whole church.
In one study, Brandon Vaidyanathan and Patricia Snell found what they called, “giving illiteracy” as a significant factor holding back congregational giving. They described giving illiteracy as vagueness around giving levels, lack of clarity around expectations, and misperceptions about where individuals fit in with the rest of the congregation’s giving. When people know where their gifts go, and how their giving practices fit in to the whole picture, they are more likely to give. Plus, I think, they’re more likely to think of giving as something we all do together.
We’re not going to shift U.S. culture away from individualism anytime soon, but let’s do what we can to make congregational stewardship culture a bit more communal.