I’d be lying if I told you I don’t get anxious when I hear the word “stewardship.”
In the Episcopal Church, the autumn months of the year tend to be the season of stewardship, which culminates with the planning of budgets, the requests for pledges, and the anxiety of making commitments. Churches devise all kinds of programs to focus on two things: 1. To teach people about what stewardship really means and 2. to raise funds. In some denominations, there aren’t pledge drives. Instead, they rely solely on the gifts given in the Sunday morning offering plate. When the coffers get low, they put the pressure on people to give. I don’t think churches want to put pressure on people to give. In their greatest hopes, they want people to automatically give generously without having to remind them. But, inevitably, it falls back on the church leadership to figure out a way to encourage people to give.
The Episcopal Church asks people to pledge, to make an annual commitment to their financial giving, and encourages the biblical concept of tithing (giving 10% of your income) as the minimum standard. Pledging helps the congregation plan how they will pay bills and fund ministry. But the pledge is just a wish. In fact, at St. Nicholas for the last few years, we have seen a trend that around this time of year, we are usually behind on our pledges. This is due to a variety of reasons: job changes, economic declines, people moving away, family deaths, forgetfulness. The good news is that even when we seem to be behind on pledges, we get new people who haven’t pledged but still give regularly and that seems to always make up the difference.
But let’s be honest: stewardship season is stressful. It’s stressful for the leadership because we have a responsibility to make sure things are funded properly. It’s stressful for the congregation because they want to do what God is calling them to do, but money seems to always be the thing that determines whether or not something can be done. It’s stressful for the individual family because they’re trying to make their own personal finances work. For example, as I write this, I have an unexpected car problem that is hindering my job, and making me wonder if I can fulfill my own pledge this year. All of us struggle with this and similar issues. The pledge can quickly become just another bill that has to be paid, and typically is the last one paid because we know the Church won’t come and repossess our faith if we don’t pay it. We can celebrate stewardship all we want, but unless we deal with the stress of it, we may end up getting resentful when asked to pledge.
So what are we to do? This past Sunday, 8th grader Abbey Crowley gave a short talk on what St. Nicholas means to her. She talked about how the church welcomed her and her family and how it has become a second home to her. She used the term “family” frequently when referring to St. Nicholas, and that really moved me. St. Nicholas is my family too. I enjoy my work at St. Nicholas tremendously and have established life-long relationships with the congregation. I laugh a lot and get to do the things I feel that God has meant for me to do.
I recently took my kids to Disney World (which is part of the reason for the car problems). Despite the expense of getting into the parks, and even the cost of travel to and from there, I made lasting memories there that I wouldn’t trade for anything in the world. When I get bummed about the expense, I remember the joy of being there, and how I want to go back with my family. Somehow, the experience outweighs the expense. Abbey reminded me that being at St. Nicholas is the same way. I will gladly pledge at least a tenth of my income for St. Nicholas because St. Nicholas is there for me. When I remember all that the people of St. Nicholas do for me, their love, compassion, and support, that stressful feeling quickly dissipates.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus turns everything upside down by making things like poverty, hunger, sorrow, and persecution into blessings. Maybe the same is true of stewardship season. Maybe it’s in our stress over finances that actually makes us blessed. Maybe when we can’t see how we are going to be able to pledge, or increase our pledge, or fulfill this year’s pledge, that’s the time when we remember how important St. Nicholas actually is to us, and we remember how blessed we are after all.