Recently, for a class of mine, I had to think through what I thought about the idea of “Stewardship”, or how we relate to and care for the material things around us. The context for this was trying to think well and deeply about how we would attain and treat money being raised to plant new churches. Here were some of my thoughts.
Economics of Abundance
“It is here that the revolutions of empty and inordinate desires takes place: of the lust for a superabundance which is not the natural and beautiful abundance of life but the overflow of nothingness….” (Karl Barth)
“We live lives at the intersection of two stories about the world: the Eucharist and the market. Both tell stories of hunger and consumption, of exchanges and gifts; the stories overlap and compete.” (William Cavanaugh)
When it comes to stewardship, I have two guiding principles. The first is that the Kingdom of God is an economy of abundance that protests the dominant economic narrative of our culture that resources of all kinds exist in a state of scarcity. An economy of scarcity means we must compete in a zero-sum game to maximize our gains and defend against our losses.
To lead on the basis of scarcity is to seek excellence not to honor God, but to “compete” in the ecclesial marketplace for the most market share. It is to turn fundraising into conquests and battles, rather than a loving invitation into vision and mission (as Henri Nouwen beautifully reminds us). In my personal life, scarcity breeds anxiety, worry, and fear; letting the next pay-grade guide my job decisions more than vocational call. It puts a greater emphasis on saving now rather than spending wisely.
As William Cavanaugh reminds us in his book Being Consumed, the narrative that Christians live by is one of abundance, a story embodied in the Eucharist. “But the abundance of the Eucharist is inseparable from the kenosis, the self-emptying of the Cross…God is the food that consumes us.”
This story reminds us that our primary relation to the goods given to us by our good God is not to grip tightly for fear of losing them, but to have a radical gratitude and therefore freedom to give of ourselves and resources.
A Theology of Abundance increases our security as we seek new resources and money for the Kingdom vision God gives us. We know there is far, far more than enough resources to accomplish God’s mission in the world. Therefore, we can set faithfulness before finances and trust God. We don’t have to freak out with every “no”, and we don’t have to see every “yes” as a cosmic guarantee of our “success”.
Further, this redefines that very “success”. If there is only $100 available to all pastors, and you $90 of it, this can skew how you view your fidelity, vision, and giftedness. If there is, frankly, no limit to the resources God can mobilize for his Church, then $90 is utterly irrelevant as a litmus test for one’s calling—it is simply a means to an end that happened to be moved into your hands.
Economics of Mutuality
“This [mutuality] attitude does not measure difference on a scale of higher or lower ontological dignity but appreciates them as integral elements in the robust thriving of the whole.” (Elizabeth A. Johnson)
“Without his fellows, [a] man is not man at all but only a shade of man. If he seeks to…work in abstract isolation, his existence is that of this shade….Fundamentally, we can work aright only when we work hand in hand.” (Karl Barth)
The other (and arguably more important) principle by which I think through a Theology of Stewardship is mutuality. Elizabeth Johnson articulates this well in her book Women, Earth, & Creator Spirit. She speaks of how humans relate to the world around them, and how they often resort to dualistic hierarchies that end up demeaning God’s Creation more that honoring it.
She critiques the “Creational Stewardship” model, deconstructing how, in spite of its good intentions, it still ends up structuring the universe in the same destructive way that others do. It still sees the material and natural world as ontologically “other” and “beneath” us humans, leading to a certain patronizing view of “stewardship” for humanity’s own good. This discounts the reality of interconnectedness that every aspect of creation shares.
Therefore, she proposes a model of mutuality, where we see a relationship between the material world and ourselves. Rather than seeing money or resources as things that either control us or we control, this model suggests we stop relating to the world around us in a hierarchical way that defines everything in terms of dominance and power. We exist in a relationship with the things we spend money on, and rather than thinking of that relationship as one of power or even care, I think it’s more helpful to see this whole arrangement as one where mutual good and blessing is possible.
I find this helpful even in thinking through the “stewarding” of one’s resources. Elsewhere, Karl Barth talks of money not itself having any value, but rather serves as a sort of “incarnating medium”—a tangible vehicle—that connects us to other aspects of Creation. This is a fancy way of talking about money and resources being a “means” and not an “end” in and of itself.
But his fear, similar to Johnson’s, is not that humans would turn money into an end in and of itself, but use it towards humanity’s own attempts at “Self-Absolutization”. This is where mutuality is helpful.
Money and resources are not the point. They are a liminal space, a substance that connects humanity with the tools of its sustenance and existential glory and telos. And just as with God’s Covenant with Israel, God’s purpose and intention for all of humanity is not its own Absolutization, but the Blessing and Good of all things and others around it.
In short, to steward resources well is to see them first not as an end (which often happens when thinking in terms of scarcity) nor as a means to my own ends, no matter how inherently “good” those ends might be (which some models of “stewardship” might perpetuate.
Rather, it is to see our resources (internally, creationally, relationally, and financially) as an act of participation in the self-giving life of the Trinitarian God whose stewardship was not simply for his own Absolutization, but for the good, communion, and glory of others. This gives us freedom, security, gratitude, joy, and life in engaging in our resources well, for the blessing and life of the world.