What is this Stewardship Thing Really All About?

What is this Stewardship Thing Really All About?

In church, we often hear people make reference to “being a good steward over what God has given us.” But do we really know what that means?

Many would argue that the Bible talks more about money and stewardship than almost anything else. That suggests to us that what God has to say about money is pretty important.

Yes, there are more ways of practicing stewardship than ways that involve money, but money is what people struggle with most. Let’s address God’s posture toward our finances this particular article—we’ll save parts II and III on personal finance tips and church finances for another time.

First, many Christians have an incorrect biblical understanding about money. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve simply mentioned money and a Christian said, “Don’t talk to me about money. You know the Bible says that money is the root of all evil!” Well… no, it doesn’t. First Timothy 6:10 says that “the LOVE of money is the root of all [kinds of] evil.” And that makes a big difference. Money itself isn’t evil. Money is necessary. It’s the love of money that makes people do evil things to acquire more money. Essentially, the Bible is warning us not to make money our idol or god. If Christians spend their time avoiding money conversations, how can we expect to acquire any money or manage the money we have well?

So how does the Bible say we should manage money? Luckily, Jesus gives us a parable (a short story that makes a point) about managing money! But it might not be quite what you realized when you heard it in Sunday School or heard it preached…

Matthew 25:14–30 and Luke 19:12–28 are parables about financial investment that Jesus tells to illustrate what the kingdom of God is like. Yes, you read that right. Jesus tells a story about stewardship and managing currency (fittingly called “talents,” making it translatable to non-monetary gifts as well) to illustrate what God’s rule is like. The stories have some minor differences, so I’ll stick with the more popular version in Matthew 25.

Briefly, the story goes like this: a man has three people that work for him. (We can call them servants or employees.) He leaves them five talents, two talents, and one talent, respectively, while he travels to another country. (A talent could be interpreted as a way of making money or money itself. For this, let’s just say a talent is worth $10,000.) When he comes back after a long time, the first employee now has ten talents ($100,000), the second has four talents ($40,000), and the last one gives his talent ($10,000) back to his employer. The employer rewards the two servants that made him money, but calls the other one wicked and “cast[s] the unprofitable servant into outer darkness” where it says there’ll be “weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matthew 25:30, KJV). Yeah… he sends the unprofitable “wicked” servant to (symbolic) hell.
Whoa! That’s what the kingdom of God is like? According to Jesus—yep. But let’s unpack what this story is trying to tell us. It’s not saying that if we don’t make money (for God or ourselves), we’re going to hell. It’s something much more subtle and fundamental. So here are the three reasons the employer (who presumably represents God in this parable) is upset and what God is trying to tell us.

1. “Talents” lose value over time unless you grow them.

One of the first things that any good finance class will teach you is the time value of money, which simply means that money today is worth more than the same amount in the future. For some, this concept can be hard to understand, but trust me, it’s true. Money today can be invested sooner and gain more interest, so it is always worth more if used. And that’s before we consider inflation. In telling the story, Jesus is pointing out that the talents/money/earning potential that the master gave the servants was a gift that the master expected to be used for his benefit. (Sound familiar?) Jesus is clearly indicating that humans are God’s servants and that He expects us to use our talents (monetary and non-monetary) to His benefit. (The text doesn’t say “after a long time” he “settled accounts with them” for no reason; it’s symbolic of our lifetimes (Matthew 25:19, NIV).)

2. The servant wastes the talent that the master gave him.

I did say it’s only worth more if used. That’s why the Lord was so upset—the servant didn’t use the talent he was given. That means he not only wasted the talent itself (because it is worth less now than it was when he gave it to him), but also wasted all of that time that he had the talent. Imagine how much that single talent could have grown and been enhanced, but by hiding it instead of using it, he robbed it of its value. Unfortunately, some of us are guilty of doing the same thing with God because, like the servant in the stories, we’re afraid of messing up with the talent we have. This story warns us that the way to really mess up is to hide our talents and money out of fear and not utilize them for God’s glory

3. The servant/employee doesn’t put in any effort.

The biggest tragedy of this parable is that it didn’t have to end up that way for the third servant. The master points out that even if he feared him, hiding his talent (i.e., putting his money under a mattress) was the worst thing he could’ve done with it. He says, “You could have at least put my money in the bank so that it could have gained interest!” (Credit unions are also a great option these days.) This suggestion serves to tell us that even a little growth is better than no growth. Yet for some reason, many Christians think that as long as we present God with what He gave us, we’ll be fine. Not so. If we don’t help grow God’s kingdom, even a little bit, then it is as if He had not given us any gifts or talents to begin with. Putting the money in the bank was something simple that did not take much effort; how often do we not put in the effort to speak with someone about God or to pay our tithes and give our offerings? When we don’t put in the effort required to grow what God has given us, we are being the wicked servant Jesus warned us about.

In conclusion, many Christians erroneously believe that if they had more money, they would do better with it. Others say that when they make more money, they’ll pay their tithes, yet when a raise comes, they simply spend more money and never tithe. Based on the Scripture, if we did a better job of managing the little that we had, not only would we have more as a result of our good stewardship, but God would bless us with more. This is what I believe Jesus means when He says, “For whoever has will be given more … Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them” (Matthew 25:29, NIV). To God, if we don’t put forth the effort to grow a little, then we won’t have the “talent,” skill, or practice needed to manage something greater.

Foreclosures Hit Churches Hard

Foreclosures Hit Churches Hard

The gates of hell will not prevail against the work of the church, but what about that massive bank loan?

An April CBN News report on church foreclosures was rebroadcast online last week and got Urban Faith digging into the topic. The report focused on two black churches in Atlanta that were threatened with foreclosure. One church, Higher Ground Empowerment Center (HGEC), renovated (and changed its name) after a 2008 tornado damaged its building, but couldn’t repay its $1 million mortgage when attendance and giving declined during a year-long displacement.

When the story originally ran, the church’s fate was uncertain. Urban Faith tried to contact HGEC both by phone and email to find out what the outcome was, but didn’t get a response. Citi-Data.com lists the church (under its former name) as the owner.

The church’s Facebook page is active and advertises a Financial Fast on the first week of every month in 2011. Congregants are advised to meditate on Scripture verses (Exodus 22:14; Proverbs 22:7; Matthew 25:14-20; Malachi 3:10) and refrain from discretionary spending and credit card dependency. The fast was scheduled to kick off in May with a 4-week Bible Study on Becoming Better Financial Stewards.

“The fast is really about curbing the need to consume. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a good steward or a spendthrift; all of us consume more than we need,” the announcement said.

If any of our Atlanta readers know the fate of this congregation, please let us know. Whatever it is, we applaud its willingness to advocate better financial stewardship.

“More than 90 metro Atlanta churches were posted for prospective foreclosure from 2006 to 2010, according to a review by the Kennesaw-based real estate research firm Equity Depot for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution,”  AJC reported in February. Fifty churches, most of them small African-American congregations, “dominate the foreclosure lists,” AJC reported.

In January, The Wall Street Journal published a story that explored the roots of  the church foreclosure crisis nationwide. The bottom line: Historically, churches have been accustomed to obtaining specialized loans that allow them favorable repayment structures. But after the economic downturn, many of those churches were faced with situations similar to the subprime mortgage crisis that devastated countless homeowners.

“Since 2008, nearly 200 religious facilities have been foreclosed on by banks, up from eight during the previous two years and virtually none in the decade before,” The CoStar Group real estate services firm told the Wall Street Journal. A representative at CoStar told Urban Faith Friday that the group hasn’t updated its church foreclosure data since then, but promised to keep us posted if it does.

In April 2010, Reuters published an in-depth report on the situation, which also noted that African American churches have been hit particularly hard.

“Their congregations have suffered higher unemployment, and often the churches provide more services,” Reuters reported.

Rev. Grainger Browning, senior pastor of Ebenezer AME Church in Fort Washington Maryland told the news wire, “At a recent meeting with the 100 top pastors in the country, it was amazing how all of us were facing some sort of challenge with the banks.”

A historically high rate of church building preceded the most recent economic collapse. According to data from the U.S. Census Bureau, money spent on the construction of religious buildings rose sharply in the late 1990s and peaked at $9 billion in 2003 before leveling off. A study by the Barna Group found that more than half of U.S. churches said they have been hurt by the recession, according to the Reuters report.

Then, on July 8, BusinessWeek published a grim article about the residential housing collapse titled “The Housing Horror Show Is Worse than You Think,” which makes us suspect the crisis is far from over for churches.

“The housing decline will be a long, multiyear process, and the multiplier effect across the economy will be enormous,” Doug Ramsey, an analyst at Minneapolis investment firm Leuthold Group told BW.

“What was real and what was never meant to be?” Ramsey wondered.

It’s a good question for struggling congregations as well. With iconic churches like Robert Schuller’s Crystal Cathedral going bankrupt, perhaps its not only the end of the McMansion era, but also the church expansion one.

The situation leaves us with questions:

What was done in faith and what was bad stewardship?

What do church foreclosures and bankruptcies do to the church’s collective witness?

How do we respond in faith to this crisis?

If your church is being foreclosed upon or facing serious financial hardship and you think your story can help others, we want to hear from you. Email me at [email protected]