Stewardship TOE

          In the scientific worlds of physics and astronomy an enormous effort is underway to discover a unifying force or principle that underlies all of creation.  Scientists are pursuing nothing short of a theory of everything, or T.O.E.  Since Einstein transformed our understanding of the known world, the universe, and all it contains, through his theories of relativity – both specific and general – the scientific community has searched for the core, the essence, the substance of all that is.  It is believed that once we gain insight into this essence, there is nothing we will not be able to understand and achieve.  There is a parallel in the church — a quest for a unifying factor that gives definition to our life and ministry together, around which everything we do is aligned.  It is our theory of everything.  While we may never actually discover something that unifies all of our thinking and doing in the church, it is still a provocative idea.  To illustrate it, I want to share some thinking about stewardship, and to talk about ways I see individual congregations moving in this direction.  For some churches working on stewardship, they have discovered a unifying principle — a basis for their “theory of everything” — by defining for themselves an “ultimate concern.”

Ultimate concern…

is the essence that binds together our core values, sense of purpose (mission), shared vision, and commitment to achievement in the congregation.

          As awesome as this task is, there is almost no doubt among scientists that a unifying principle will be found.  Borrowing both the concept and the confidence, I would like to explore this unifying principle for Christian stewardship – a stewardship theory of everything (TOE).  This theory may be correct or wrong, but if nothing else it offers a challenge to the way we think about stewardship.

          If this concept is radical at all, it is because of its simplicity.  The TOE for stewardship is the concept of “ultimate concern.”  Ultimate concern, by definition, is the essence that binds together our core values, sense of purpose, shared vision, and commitment to achievement as a congregation.

          Too often in the life of the church stewardship is reduced to a function, program, or behavior.  We hold stewardship “campaigns,” speak of the stewardship of “time, talent, and treasure,” or stewardship of the environment.  Each of these relates to a whole picture of stewardship, but each individually is grossly inadequate.  Each function of stewardship is a valid means to a greater end, but a poor end in itself.  What is it that underlies all stewardship activity?  What is the essence of stewardship that gives ultimate meaning to our doing?  The answer is our ultimate concern.

          Each gathering of people – every church, therefore – is a diverse congregation of values.  Values are the core attitudes, beliefs, opinions, and desires that people possess.  They are not behaviors, but the motivating factors that explain behaviors.  In churches, we often assume that we all share the same values because we are all believers in God and Jesus Christ.  This is a false assumption.  Most disagreements in the church are more than arguments about behavior or purpose; they are conflicts of values.  Values are the key building blocks to who we are as individuals, congregations, and communities.  Values define our sense of what is important.

          Mission defines our sense of purpose and states our reason for being.  A mission communicates what it is that we exist to accomplish.  For The United Methodist Church, our stated mission is “to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”  This is what we do.  However, simply defining the what is not enough, we must also define the how, and that is our vision.

          Shared vision is an essential component of community life.  Vision provides the picture of what it looks like to fulfill our purpose or mission.  One congregation may participate in the mission of making disciples through evangelistic, faith sharing efforts.  Another may effectively transform lives through spiritual worship.  Still another community of faith may facilitate discipleship through acts of kindness and service to the community. Vision is that mission looks like lived out.

          Lastly, the level of commitment (passion) to participate in the achievement of the mission is important.  As the why (values) and the what (mission) and the how (vision) are established, it still remains to clarify the who (commitment).  Let me say clearly, this is not a linear process – one thing does not precede the others in some clean fashion.  All these factors exist in a complex and dynamic dance all the time.  Where they fail to result in exceptional results is that often these factors are treated individually rather than as connected aspects of a larger process.  We may focus on commitment of time and talent, or on developing new programs, or holding member drives or fundraising campaigns, but nothing basic seems to change.  The explanation is that all of these factors are important and we are busy attending to each of them to the very best of our abilities, but they are disconnected.  They are not aligned toward a greater objective.

          Most congregations have not considered the meaning of ultimate concern.  One way to discuss ultimate concern is to ask, “Based on the values that are vitally important to the members of this community of faith, why is it important for us to make disciples of Jesus Christ in the way we do?  To what end are we ‘making disciples of Jesus Christ’?”

          For John Wesley, disciples were a means to a greater end, not an end in themselves.  Taking extreme license, Wesley might have said, “Because we earnestly believe that God is loving, and all people are deserving of such love (values), our purpose (mission) – for each and every one of us (commitment) — is to make disciples of Jesus Christ who will spread scriptural holiness across the land (vision) for the transformation of the world into the very kingdom of God (ultimate concern).”  In this frame, ultimate concern defines the values behind the values, the mission beneath the mission, and the vision beyond the vision for most of our churches.

          This is not just theory.  There are churches that have organized themselves around a clear sense of ultimate concern.  They can articulate in concise terms “this we believe, this we exist to do, this is the way we do it, this is who does what, and this explains why we believe it is so important.”  This is transformative work — offering a compelling unifying principle around which powerful ministry can be performed.

4 replies

  1. Dan,

    to do this type of visioning and planning and introspection requires a lot of work..I am not so sure that many of our pastors or our churches are willing or equipped to put this much thought into T.O.E.

    As a 2nd career, newly ordained pastor this is my main concern… lack of time given to visioning…its SO much easier to be a chaplain and dish out a little worship on Sunday mornings or at the nursing home. sigh…

    • Yes, to all. It is hard work, it is time consuming, it cannot be done by the pastor for the congregation — the leadership of the congregation (both lay and clergy) must see the value, and it needs to become central to the work, not something that is done in addition to everything else. So, impossible? No, just difficult. Some churches are doing it, but they are doing it over years rather than weeks and months — and in the UMC, they are doing it over a couple pastoral appointments. Where I see it break down is at the core values end. Values are fuzzy, at best, and we tend not to talk much about them in the church. But without a clear sense of the shared values (rather than the contested ones…) the rest of the “formula” falls apart. If the “world transforming” work we are doing doesn’t align with our values, it will be hard to get people invested, engaged, or committed. It really is amazing how values, mission, vision, and commitment are so tightly linked — and when they are aligned, they are incredibly powerful in combination. But, yes, it takes a huge amount of work and willingness to get there.

  2. So, this is stewardship? Everything we do in church is stewardship? What you define is basically everything we do, and the basis for everything we do. This doesn’t address money at all. It doesn’t help describe how we are supposed to support the ministry of the church. Your description doesn’t track with any tradtional approach to stewardship I am aware of.

    • Yes, this is stewardship. Just because we allowed stewardship to be co-opted by short-sighted leaders who are more interested in paying bills and making the budget doesn’t mean we should buy into it. Stewardship has virtually nothing to do with “giving money to the church,” and everything to do with what we are willing to commit to being Christ for the world. Churches that get this are doing fine; those that don’t struggle. It’s that simple.

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