By R A Linton
November is, in the real world of the church calendar, neither Pentecost nor pre-Advent. It is the season of Stewardship. Having grown up in the Episcopal Church, I have experienced many stewardship campaigns and varying definitions of the word. From Pony Express bags in which one placed the tithe card to dinners where one’s ticket was the tithe card, I have become accustomed to various public relations campaigns designed to remind us of our commitment to our parishes and church. I have also lamented that perhaps they all miss the mark.
Today’s buzz word in stewardship is community. What exactly is a “community”? Certainly the church community is not the same as the incorporated geographical location where we live. In seeking an answer I sought the dictionary, always a great starting point. In this case, however, I found it outdated – and I researched ten different dictionaries. Perhaps that is one reason we are, in the 21st century, having such a difficult time growing community. We haven’t updated our definition of the word to fit the world in which we now reside. Perhaps this is why our church communities are dwindling to the point of extinction.
The most common definition for the word community was “a social group of any size whose members reside in a specific locality, share government, and often has a common cultural and historical heritage.” The problem with this outdated definition is that today a community is more likely composed of members with a difference cultural and historical heritage and most definitely multiple spiritual beliefs. As we seek to grow our church community, we have to be open to differing opinions, new ways of operating, and different faces in the pews. We no longer have communities where everyone uses the same host for the Eucharist, or wear the same clothing or listens to the same liturgical music and the variety of Sunday services reflects this. As our personal space has decreased with the growth in the human population on this planet, our ability to learn and experience different cultures has increased.
What is your parish’s online community? One can debate the pros and cons of social media from sunrise to sunset but only a fool would try to deny its existence. Someone wanting to know the business hours of a retail, medical, or even religious facility no longer opens the telephone directory or newspaper to locate such. Today the Internet is the place to find answers and information. Any business or organization that fails to have on online presence is effectively operating in the dark with no way for its audience to find it.
There are many scriptures tossed about during this month of Stewardship. Some are used to guilt us into giving, although Second Corinthians specifically states no one is to give because of compulsion or reluctantly but rather cheerfully. Today we have opted to forego the traditional pledge cards of the past which included pledging time and talent and simply ask for the tithe – monthly, quarterly, or annually. We want to pick who has the talents rather than accept it as given. After all, what if things are not up to the standards of the past, the “status quo”? Vestry nominations are dependent upon “being known to the treasurer in good standing” and some parishes even have vestry nomination screening committees.
These things may be expedient but they are not going to grow stronger church communities, the ultimate purpose of stewardship. They define stewardship as raising money, getting pledges of tithing from their membership which creates a stream of income for the coming year. Many view their attendance at their house of worship as a stewardship of prayer, a type of “praying it forward” to earn extra points for those times they mess up or do not live their faith. Many donate or tithe during Stewardship season based upon the knowledge that they are not perfect and will need forgiveness from their supreme spirit to which they believe they are accountable. This use or practice of giving money as a type of “fine paying” treats forgiveness and being blessed as something that can be bought. It reduces one’s faith to dollar signs. Money is necessary but it should not be the cornerstone of Stewardship season.
The fact is that stewardship has really very little to do with money or even earning favor. How often have you visited a busy shopping mall or large office complex and seen someone mopping up a spill or emptying the waste cans? This is the real definition of stewardship, the caretaking of the people present and expected as well as the facility. Almost every culture has a flood myth, ours being that of Noah and the Ark. What we fail to realize is the stewardship required of Noah and his family in this story. Anyone who has had a household pet or lived on a farm or ranch knows the efforts required by owning animals. Imagine doing that on a boat in the middle of nothing but water. The mucking out of cages and stalls, the sweeping up of shedding hair…you get the picture. All of a sudden the mythology of this story takes on a very different meaning than simply a man saving his family and two of each species so they can repopulate the planet. Providing sustenance, a source of staying alive, a healthy environment…these are the realities of stewardship.
How we take care and accept each other is the real stewardship that will grow our church communities. There are funerals every day on this planet and yet, the one funeral we all need to attend we don’t. We need to bury yesterday and let the “status quo” rest in peace. We need to invite in the future, including those newcomers that sit in “our” pew and look different than we do. This year the buzz word for the Stewardship season is “Rule of Life”. We who have been confirmed already have one of those – the five promises reaffirmed from our Baptismal Covenant. They require our faithful attendance not only in corporate worship but in corporate acceptance and caring.
Change is how the world prepares for tomorrow. We provide for the future by our evolution and stewardship of each other. Community is perhaps best defined as “relationship”. When we are in community, we have acknowledged a rapport with each other. As stewards, we communicate and we accept. We need to reach out to not only those that come but especially those who are not coming. We need to be in communion with everyone, not just the big givers or big mouths. After all, we are all uniquely and wonderfully made in His image. A healthy community will grow and thrive when we are in communion with all and then our Stewardship will be successful.
Today is a new day and we need to embrace it, not fear it. Change is inevitable as is evolution. Despite what certain pundits would have you believe, evolution is not a nasty word. It means growth – nothing more. Our sense of community needs to evolve as well as does our definition of stewardship.
Rie Allen Linton is a life-long Episcopalian living in Huntsville, AL and a member of St Stephen’s Episcopal Parish. A professional musician, educator, and artist, she currently writes for the website www.n2myhead.wordpress.com.
image: photo by Jon White