God’s Economy – a view on Stewardship

By Jamie Coats
Published as part of the Vestry Papers issue on Sharing Our Gifts (September 2014). This article is also available in Spanish.

For 85 years the Brothers of the Society of Saint John the Evangelist lived in their monastery on the Charles River in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The monastery is so beautiful that it has become a place of pilgrimage for many, where even before you meet a monk, you are reminded by the place that God sees beauty in you. For 85 years the Brothers did not set aside money for building upkeep and finally the monastery fell apart, windows, roofs, electric wiring, heating — even the sewers packed in. And then the financial crisis hit. The Superior, the person who serves as the leader of the monastery, at that moment was Brother Curtis Almquist.

At a meeting at the home of a friend of the Society, Br. Curtis said, “As Superior I have a responsibility to ask for money. I also have no idea how much money any of you have. I ask one thing: please pray to God, and between you and God figure out what is right for you. Thank you.”

In saying this, Curtis made a distinction between his role as a leader who has to ask for money and his role as a monk who helps people deepen their relationship with God. Curtis helped me understand what Jesus meant by “Render under Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that God’s.”

We live in a world with two economies: the economy of transactions and the economy of gift, Caesar’s economy and God’s economy.

There is a simple exercise that I like to use to help people understand how they live in these two economies. You can do it verbally or ask people to write down their answers.

What do you do?
How do you exchange your time for money?
What do you care about?

I always used to answer the first question as how I earned money, forgetting to mention that I am a parent of a teenager, I write poetry, I try to stay fit, and so on. I used to let money solely name what I do, forgetting to mention the relationships that matter to me.

In the transaction economy we humans name a price for everything and then trade. This allows us to bring our gifts to bear to earn a living. I am not the farming type, so I value being able to exchange what talents I have to buy stuff like food. Trade is important, but it is not everything and it is not the business that the Church is in.

Living in the gift economy, God– not us–names the price: we are all loved; we see beauty in the world and each other; we care and are cared for; we rely on each other; we give as we receive, living in a cycle of kindness; we deepen relationships and understand meaning.

So here is the core challenge that I believe Br. Curtis defined so well: you have to name the price of your church. You have to ask for money. But to receive money you have to help your friends and parishioners deepen their relationship with God — you have to help them pray, be of service, and see themselves as stewards of their lives.

When churches ask me for fundraising advice, I urge them to be more upfront than many churches often are about their finances. Don’t claim to celebrate a balanced budget when no money has been set aside for building upkeep. As one donor helping us renovate the monastery put it, “Why should I give you money when you have been stupid and irresponsible for 85 years?” Buildings rot. The Brothers started a building fund the year before they began asking for capital donations – and they continue to fund the building fund annually.

The heart of stewardship is helping people deepen their relationship with God. When Br. Curtis asked people to pray to God over what to give, he was able to provide support in helping them steward their own lives first. A core part of the Brothers’ ministry is to help people develop a personal rule of life, to discern a rhythm for their life that allows them to live well in both economies. Simply put, the Brothers ask people to explore and examine their relationships in four dimensions:

With God
With themselves
With one another
With their stuff (including money)

We all need help learning how to be stewards in our own lives. When our churches help us do this for ourselves we are deeply appreciative. The challenge is that this formation works best when it does not happen in stewardship season. When you are asking for money we tend to tighten up in our souls, tend to think in transactions. If earlier you have helped us understand our personal stewardship, and think about how we live in two economies, then the conversations in stewardship season will be easier, more fun, and maybe joyous.

I am pleased to report that Monastery was successfully renovated in 2010. Information about the Brothers’ work on a developing a rule of life, learning to steward your own life can be found at www.SSJE.org/rule.

Jamie Coats serves as the director, Friends of the Society of St. John the Evangelist, a monastic community of the Episcopal Church. He shares his personal writing at wingedboots.com.

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