Asking the Right Questions for Better Stewardship

Last month, we wrote about how pastors can embrace stewardship with their congregations. As a follow-up, we spoke with Rev. Nathan Meador, Senior Pastor of St. John’s Lutheran Church in Plymouth, WI and the Assistant Coordinator of Stewardship for the Office of National Mission-LCMS.

Rev. Meador says the first step is getting into an appropriate mindset around stewardship, rooted in the biblical understanding of what it is. That means letting go of the common misconception that stewardship is about paying the bills and covering the cost of doing business. That’s a goal, but that doesn’t encompass all the spiritual ramifications of good stewardship.

He describes stewardship as, “the means through which the Gospel is proclaimed and people meet Jesus.” It’s hard to do that without paying the bills or keeping the lights on, but congregations can’t stop there or even at a balance sheet.

What’s Holding You Back?

To get started with stewardship take a deep, honest and objective assessment of both yourself and the congregation. If you find yourself reluctant to address stewardship, ask yourself why. Sometimes, pastors with significant financial issues (feeling the pressure from educational debt, for example), may have mixed feelings discussing stewardship at the congregational level. Rev. Meador says pastors in this situation need to get their own house in order.

Or, conversely, pastors may feel ill-equipped to tackle stewardship. If that’s the case, Rev. Meador points to many resources available from Synod, as well as through the Missouri District.

Signs of Trouble

Rev. Meador once went to advise a congregation that was struggling with stewardship. After going through many different aspects of administration and speaking with individuals, the pastor asked him what he thought. He said, “I think you should have called me five years ago.” Here are some signs your congregation may need some assistance with faithful stewardship:

  • The congregation is maxing out their line of credit regularly
  • The congregation is living off the principal of the endowment
  • The congregation is consistently using designated funds for day-to-day expenses
  • Donors have stopped giving (this is also a pastoral care issue)
  • Budget meetings used to take an hour and now they take four or five

While it may seem like people aren’t paying close attention to these matters, people who take their personal stewardship responsibly get frustrated when they see the congregation being run on a credit card.

A few years ago, Rev. Meador buried an oncology nurse. Her death was especially tragic, because she died from cancer that had a success rate above 80 percent when her symptoms initially showed up. However, she was so terrified of a cancer diagnosis, she couldn’t bring herself to go to the doctor until it was later and the prognosis wasn’t nearly as good. Rev. Meador sees a parallel between this woman’s death and the reluctance many congregations feel about getting help managing stewardship.

An Outside Perspective to Assist with Difficult Questions

While not impossible, it’s hard for congregations and pastors to assess their stewardship without an outside perspective. This is because if resources are not available long-term to support current ministry, the congregation must consider if there are different ways to operate that ministry, if it’s time to partner with another organization or even if this is the Lord’s way of telling them that the time for that ministry has passed. A fresh perspective can help people be more honest and objective with these kinds of questions.

Rev. Meador says, “Things change. Nothing is really done the way it was 20 or 50 years ago, but sometimes we continue to operate ministry in a way that’s outdated. We like to take ownership of ministries. We talk about ‘our congregation, our school,’ but they belong to Jesus. We should be talking about Jesus’ church and school.”

The Role of Culture and the Danger of Comfort Zones

When it comes to stewardship, assessing the role of culture is quite important. Rev. Meador says, “’Culture’ is just a fancy word for how things get done. Cultures develop organically and like water it takes the path of least resistance.” But he cautions that a comfortable steward isn’t as likely to be a faithful steward.

Rev. Meador works with congregations to assess what about their stewardship culture should be strengthened and celebrated and what about it should be absolved or avoided. Then people have to ask themselves if their answers
mean reinventing or repurposing a ministry, or finding a new partnership or even a new approach. Staying with what’s familiar and uncomfortable is like managing stewardship on autopilot, which won’t work.

This kind of thinking leads to congregations that can’t pivot and react to the needs of the community, which can culminate in a downward spiral of institutional survival.

Trust and Transparency Build Solid  Stewardship

According to Rev. Meador, “Nothing kills stewardship more than secrecy.” He recommends having the books externally audited every year and taking any discussions of financial problems to the congregation in an open manner to show them there’s a plan.

Each year, when you report about the finances, include a balance sheet for the few people who know how to read one. But Rev. Meador also suggests including an executive summary in the form of a narrative. His preferred format includes an easy-to-digest story that covers where the congregation is, what the data says about how they got there and where they intend to go in the future.

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