Thursday, August 27, 2009

Stewardship and Church

I have really been mulling over stewardship and its relationship with the life of the church over the past few days. It was all sparked at our staff meeting over at Central UMC when a member led a presentation from Igniting Ministry. It had some very valuable questions that pushed the staff to reflect on what it means to be church and to move forward in ministry.

However, one thing really struck me. Throughout all of the material the church was referred to as "our church." Now I understand what was intended by saying "our church." The intention was surely to recognize the bond of the faith community, building, with the individuals who find themselves as members within that local context. However, I am starting to wonder if the "possession" of the church by its "membership" is somewhat misguided.

I have heard/read many theologians who push us to remember that all we have is given to us by God. Usually this language is pushed to get us to remember that the gifts we have and the resources (money, etc.) we accumulate are not fully ours but are given to us by God. In that way it really isn't "my money" it is rather "God's money" that has been given over to me to be a steward of. This was emphasized in my life by my mother.

You see I grew up in a single-parent household and we always went to church. However, when I was around 12 or 13 my mother ended up doing adult foster care for four gentleman with developmental disabilities. Sometimes it would happen that she couldn't bring the guys to church because one of them was having a bad day, etc. On those days mother would send a check with me to put in the offering plate. For the most part I would just drop that check in without looking, but one day my curiosity got the best of me and I opened the check.....$200....I was floored. You see money was very tight for us at all times growing up. My mother worked sometimes up to 4 jobs to pay the rent, buy us food, and maintain the car. She worked extremely hard for the money she got and I know as a young kid I always wished we had more money so I could have all the cool things my friends had. I can remember the moment vividly of my mind racing thinking of all the things we could have if mom didn't give away so much of "her" money to the church. I went home and asked her about it and her simple answer was this, "That money is God's not mine." I was left perplexed and stayed perplexed until I started to mature, had more conversations with my mother, and began to understand exactly what God had given me.

I have to admit that it took me a long time (until after college) for me to cultivate that same attitude, but I look back now and am thankful that my mother took the time with me to help me understand our relationship to God. Every year, Stacy and I are trying to increase our giving to God. There are times when I look at the checkbook register and realize that the money could have been used to decrease some of the debt accumulated in our early married life as student(s) but then I remember that I wouldn't have that money if God had not first given us the gift of life, the mental gifts for work, and the gift of faith so truly it belongs to God.

Now back to my original train of thought. When we use personal possessive pronouns in relationship to the church, I wonder if it doesn't reveal something about our thought. When I say "my" church or "our" church I am claiming some possession in it, somehow I am an "owner" of it. But is this right? I wonder when did the personal possessive pronoun come in to use when referring to church? These are questions I ask that I need to investigate some more, but they don't change some of the things I am thinking.

What would happen if we banned the use of personal possessive pronouns when referring to church. What if every church in its local context were referred to by it's name, but more importantly identified itself as "God's church?" Would attitudes begin to change? Would we start to really try and understand where God is calling us to and who God is calling us to be? Would we become less focused on "survival" and more focused on mission? Would our own lives be transformed in a way that realizes that we are but stewards of what God has given?

I have vowed this week to never again refer to the church I am placed at as "my" church (something we pastor's often do surprisingly) or as "our" church in any conversations. I will refer to them by title name only or "this" church when talking to those within. It is not because I don't feel a part of this faith community (I already feel very welcomed), but rather because I think we have to be very intentional in our language because in a way what we say helps transform and form who we are.

These are the thoughts running through my head. They are still at their beginnings and I still will be thinking about them and I would love to hear others thoughts. Am I off base? Am I missing something? Does it really matter?


  1. I think there's truth to what you say. I do think sometimes members of congregations take a sort of ownership over the church that can become spiritually unhealthy (creating a sense of disproportionate pride, creating a sense of exclusiveness, etc.). It's interesting to me because I always refer to the church I attend as my wife's church ("Sadie's church," "your church," etc.), and I do it with a consciousness, a sense that in some way I don't belong and in some way I'm refusing ownership.

    The issue of possessive pronouns is an interesting one. In Nathaniel Hawthorne's short story "My Kinsman, Major Molinieux," a country kid named Robin goes to a town and keeps talking about "My kinsman, Major Molineux." I always emphasize to my class that he's not just asking for Molineux: he's identifying Molineux's title (thus trying to add respect), identifying the relationship as kinsman (almost saying "I'm like him, so you should like me") and adding the possessive to in some way take some ownership over Molineux. If you read the story, you'll see Robin's sense of pride in "My kinsman, Major Molineux" gets spat back at him in unexpected ways.

    BUT...I wonder in the sense that the "my," "mine," or "our" isn't to take ownership necessarily, but to announce a connection, a relationship of a sort. When I say "my wife," I truly do not think I am identifying any form of ownership or control over her; however, I'm clearly identifying an association, a sense not that this person belongs to me, but that, perhaps, I in some way belong associated to this person. So in some ways, saying "my church" or "our church" may convey a desire to belong, to show a sense of being accepted, to show not that you own something, but to show that you belong to it. In that sense, the ownership may be reversed.

    After all, we can sometimes say things like "my boss" without wanting to take ownership, and not even wanting to show a sense of belonging: we may not even like the person, but it's just an accurate way of expressing the relationship.

  2. Joe-

    I agree in that I believe when most people say "my" or "our" church they often are thinking more about the connection, and yet in some way I believe the use is formative for people and transforms at some point into ownership. (Especially when one is giving money in the offering this can push forth the notion of ownership in our culture, even though that is not the case).