Stewardship Conference Challenged to Move Beyond Scarcity to Abundance

Episcopal News Service. May 7, 1999 [99-064]

Kay Collier-Slone, Editor of The Advocate, newspaper of the Diocese of Lexington (Kentucky)

(ENS) "Inventing the Wheel," a conference for stewardship leaders sponsored by the Office of Stewardship at the Episcopal Church Center, brought stewardship leaders and potential leaders from 41 dioceses to Atlanta April 30-May 2.

"I expected to go home with a notebook full of suggestions for capital campaigns and how to's for annual giving. Instead, I have a new definition of stewardship and excitement for living it out with others that will make giving an integral part of every day life," one participant stated.

The energy was abundant and gaining in Atlanta as Bible scholar and author Walter Brueggemann provided the scriptural foundation for the definition of stewardship in plenary sessions which considered both Old and New Testament stories. He challenged participants to ask if the Scriptural story could truly be our story today. According to Brueggemann, the principle work of stewardship is to lay out the Biblical narratives in such a way that people can "get" the message that there is an alternative to the culture in which we live today -- a culture that produces high school massacres and other tragedies. He sees that alternative as the narrative of abundance.

Alternatives to culture of death

The reason that people in contemporary society do not "get it," Brueggemann stated, is characteristically deeply embedded in a philosophy of consumerism a "love affair with commodity that is a spiritually demonic force." "Stewardship is not about raising money for church, but about asking if there is any alternative to the culture of death in which we live."

Brueggemann took the conferees on a dramatic trip through the Old Testament to demonstrate the narrative of abundance "which is ours through scripture, liturgy and history." The sacrament, he stated, is about the drama of "more than enough." The narrative of abundance, which represents the "overflowing, limitless, generous power of God" both historically and today collides with Pharaoh -- "the belief that there is not enough" -- the narrative of scarcity.

"The alternative to stewardship is fear," he stated. "Fear that there won't be enough." It is a belief that is driven, Brueggemann believes, by the economics of scarcity, which is the invention of Nike and Coke. "The narrative of scarcity posits that the past is barren of miracles and the only way to get anywhere is to invent yourself and scramble for whatever you can get. A past without gifts and a future without hope gives a present as an arena for anxiety -- an anxiety endlessly stirred by those who generate the great theology of scarcity -- a theology which says our neighbors are a threat; which creates more suicides, murders and prisons."

Brueggemann proposes that the Christian narrative is a story of lives rooted in the liturgy of abundance, beginning with the baptismal rite, with its "abundance of water and grace." "For everyone comes Pharaoh, and the belief that there is 'not enough.' We must help people know that the narrative of abundance is ours, that the true story of our lives is an "'invitation to the wilderness where there is bread.'"

In his second plenary presentation, Brueggemann followed Jesus' concern with public life as revealed in the New Testament. The Kingdom of God, he said, is a political metaphor for recognizing life of the culture and turning it into neighborliness. "Deeply operative among us today is the mandate to transform," he stated, challenging the participants to realize that "stewardship is not a little scheme for raising the church budget," but a call to "re-vision the world as an arena for God's newness." The great crisis of stewardship is "people who go to Pharaoh's university and never get it about generosity, but have a hard heart, embedded in the narrative of consumerism."

A mentality of scarcity

Providing provocative support to Brueggemann's teaching were the statistical presentations of John and Sylvia Ronsvalle, authors of the Alban Institute book At Ease: Money Values in Small Groups and Behind the Stained Glass Windows: Money Dynamics in the Church. Publishers of annual studies on the state of church giving, the Ronsvalles analyze giving patterns in both mainline and evangelical Protestant denominations.

Two particular sets of statistics seemed to hit the heart of the conferees, surfacing in small group Bible study, prayers and discussions throughout the meeting. One concerned the 35,000 children under the age of five who die daily around the globe, mostly from preventable poverty conditions, according to the Ronsvalle's information. Many of these children live in areas where there is not even a "cell" of the church, or where people are "unreached" by the Gospel.

These deaths take place while in the early 1990's average church members spent less than $20 a year on global outreach -- including activities that provide temporal and spiritual aid to the children dying around the globe. And Americans, including church members, spent an average of $164 on soft drinks, $657 on restaurant meals and over $1,000 on recreation activities per person. In 1995, Americans spent $2.5 billion on chewing gum, $4.9 billion on movies, $8 billion on adventure travel, $12 billion on candy, $20 billion on cosmetics and $49 billion on soft drinks.

"Silent emergencies are going on all around us while we maintain a mentality of scarcity," Sylvia Ronsvalle told the leaders. "We avoid the topic of money, while $2.5 billion -- the chewing gum budget of the United States, could end global child deaths." Wealth addiction is an affliction of contemporary culture, she stated: money addiction (making and accumulating it); possession addiction (spending in visible ways); power addiction (using money for influence); fame addiction (using money to move in right circles) and spending addiction (symbolized by the catalogue culture and desire to spend.) These spiritual conditions which need attention produce the mentality of scarcity.

Response to God's grace

Adding their emphasis to Brueggemann's, the Ronsvalles urged the leaders to stress that stewardship is not about paying bills and keeping the institution maintained, but about a response to God's grace in our lives.

"For the past five decades, the majority of people in this culture have significant income over their basic needs. It is essential at all levels that we:

  • care more about other people who we don't see or know
  • encourage wealthy parishes to leverage giving throughout the congregation
  • help servant leadership emerge at all levels
  • at the national and local levels we clearly communicate what monies can buy to help those less fortunate
  • fund overseas trips to familiarize people with conditions that they cannot imagine
  • develop curriculum on the spiritual discipline of money and stewardship for seminary training
  • teach across the board that money is stored time and talent; this theological understanding will help develop theological interdependence
Wheels to move forward

The conference title, "Inventing the Wheels" came out of Terry Parson's awareness that as she travels the church as its stewardship officer, "good wheels are being created in many places. I wanted to connect the wheels to an axle so we can move forward."

One of the wheels which Parsons urged the participants to take home and put to work to support the narrative of abundance is the regular practice of Bible study. Each day of the conference modeled this practice, using a form developed in the Diocese of Alaska. "If you call the Diocese of Alaska at 10am, a recording says that the staff is in Bible study, please call again," says Parsons, acknowledging that the Congregational Ministries Cluster has also developed this practice.

To be called to move the church from scarcity to abundance is to be called to be an agent of change. In Atlanta, participants talked about the objective of being like Jesus, including talking about money only as much as he did. According to the Ronsvalles, there are 2,171 references to possessions and giving in the Bible, 714 references to love or loving, 371 to prayer and 272 to believing.

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