General CBF

Stewarding trust

By Laura Stephens-Reed

The arrival of blessedly cooler mornings, college football and pumpkin spice everything can only mean one thing: September is (finally!) here. In congregations, summer road warriors are settling back in, new programs are kicking off, and — of course — the stewardship committee is ramping up preparations for its fall campaign.

Stewardship season and its first cousin, budget formulation, can be anxious if not downright contentious. There’s an awful lot of silence and shame around money. There’s also a prevalent cultural belief that we’re all in a never-ending game of Hungry, Hungry Hippo, and this scarcity mindset often carries over into our churches. So we as ministers think about how few sermons we can get away with preaching about tithing. In the ones we do muster the courage to deliver, we apologize for or make uncomfortable jokes about focusing on dollars. (That’s not exactly an inspiration to robust giving.) And we as committee chairs rend our garments if funds from our line items are redistributed elsewhere.

It doesn’t have to be this way, though. We can have healthy conversations about fundraising. We can think creatively about spending. We can see our budget as one of many assets that resource our God-given mission. But before any of these things can happen, there must be a sense of trust within the congregation and between staff and laity. So before you settle on a stewardship theme, calculate the needed number of giving units, or mail out pledge cards, consider what you need to do to up the trust factor in your congregation.

To build trust, we must first understand what it is. Our default thinking about trust equates it with predictability. This includes the norms and expectations under which we typically operate. In terms of stewardship, this surface level trust is the spreadsheet: last year we had X number of giving units who pledged an average of Y dollars and actually made good on Z% of what they promised, so we can expect roughly the same pattern this year. It’s waiting on Consecration Sunday to set the 2017 budget so that we know how much income we have to divvy up.

Don’t get me wrong — part of faithful stewardship is doing our due diligence with the numbers. But we can’t stop there. We’ve got to be honest with each other about our hopes and fears around finances — our own and the church’s. We’ve got to listen to God and one another as we discern how best to live toward our calling through the tending of all our resources. We’ve got to disagree with each other about budget-related matters in the confidence that we still love one another. To do all this, we must engage a deeper layer of trust that deals in unpredictability.

Here are some ways we can invite others into this more foundational level of trust:

  • Explain process/protocol. Let people know what’s going to happen when, and whom they should talk to if they have questions or concerns about stewardship or budgeting.
  • Create safe space for real conversation about money. Ask the people in your congregation what they need from each other and from you to be completely candid. Covenant with one another to hold to these behaviors, then start with low-risk topics and work your way up.
  • Lead the way in vulnerability. Someone’s got to go first. Tell a relevant personal story about your relationship to money. Share an idea and then invite others to push back on it.
  • Inquire before advocating. It’s easy to jump to conclusions, especially when money and strong feelings are involved. Seek to understand others before rushing to explain your own position.
  • Then communicate some more. Make sure everyone has the same information, the same understanding (as much as you can control what people believe!). A little transparency goes a long way.
  • Keep your common goals in view. Often in difficult conversations — such as around money — we skip from problem straight to solution. But going from problem to an exploration of shared values and goals prepares the way for productive dialogue, which gives everyone the chance to own the solution.

We must build trust in money-related processes and in the character and competence of the people who oversee them. After all, trust is closely linked to faith. And what do we as Christians have, if we do not have faith?

Laura Stephens-Reed is regional director for CBF Peer Learning Groups in Alabama, Florida, Georgia and South Carolina. She is also a clergy coach and congregational consultant who blogs at laurastephensreed.com.

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