Stewardship: what money has to do with spirituality

Stewardship: what money has to do with spirituality

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When I was a kid, my sisters and brother and I would often play a game of “if we were rich.” You know the game, right? “If we were rich, we’d have a house with 100 rooms.” “If we were rich, we’d have a pool on the roof.” “If we were rich, we’d hire a maid.” And, of course, if we were rich, we’d help all of the homeless people and the hungry people and the sick people.

I had no idea at the time what “being rich” meant, I just knew that if I were rich, I’d have enough money to do all of those things.

A recent poll showed that the definition of “rich” changes depending on how much money you have. That is, the more money you have, the more money you think you need to be rich. What this says to be is that we never feel like we have enough—let alone, more than enough. Our expectations for what we “need” is a moving target.

I think it’s important to recognize this relationship we have with money. Chances are, we will never feel completely “secure” about how much money we have. Unless we confront ourselves this, we’ll find it very hard to make a spiritually sound decision about giving. I know, because I’ve made fear-based budgeting decisions myself. Sometimes in situations when I really had good reason to be careful with my finances and other times when I was simply letting my sense of scarcity outweigh my sense of gratitude.

In Christian tradition, we call monetary decisions “stewardship.” That’s an important distinction from the regular old “budgeting”. Stewardship means that we look at our finances with a spiritual eye. Our budgets are the place where the rubber meets the road when it comes to living out our values. We may believe that God is at work here in our families, we may believe that God is calling us into new and courageous acts of ministry, but unless we are willing to live into that idea in practical, real ways, those things will simply remain beliefs.

What separates “belief” from “faith” is whether we are willing to act on it.

I’ll never forget an article that a pastor and friend, Lary Diehl wrote. Lary was the pastor at the church I interned at and during stewardship season one year, he asked this: “Is your stewardship pledge a white elephant swap or a secret Santa gift?” I ponder that every month now when I pay bills and examine our family monthly budget. Is my giving coming out of what’s left over once all the good stuff is gone—like a white elephant gift exchange? Or is it coming out of the generosity of wanting to make someone else happy, like a Secret Santa swap? Am I calculating what I’m going to get back, or comparing what others are giving, or am I just giving as much as I can and trusting that others will do the same?

Although Lary was talking specifically about church giving (and indeed, this post is heavily based on a stewardship sermon I gave last week), the principles remain the same whether you’re part of a church or not.  For spiritually minded people, money is another way to practice spirituality.

What does this look like practically? Part of it is about intention. Like a good yoga practice, every bill paying session can be transformed into a spiritual exercise if we set our intention for it to be that way. During the recession, which was also when we had a baby, changed jobs and moved across the country, fear was getting the best of me. After months of carrying dread along with my wallet, I learned to center myself on a favorite hymn before I paid bills or checked our investment accounts. Others have suggested these spiritual money practices:

  • Stretch yourself to give a certain amount. A wise steward and mentor shared with me her method for increasing her giving by upping the percentage she donated by 1% every year.  Her original goal was to be able to make a 10% tithe but she found that the challenge was engaging enough to continue long after she hit that amount.
  • Donate 50% of every non-necessary purchase you make. Buy a new party dress? Plan on spending half of that amount in a donation to a worthy cause.
  • Take advantage of those “round up” plans offered by some debit cards but donate that savings account at the end of the year. It’s a modern version of the Christmas Jar for those of us who rarely carry cash anymore.
  • Inspect your financial plan with a spiritual eye. Look at your budget and see what it says about you. If a stranger looked at it, could they tell what your values are?
  • Give spontaneously. All of this talk of planned generosity is important but don’t forget that sometimes generosity sneaks up on us. When that happens, sometimes the craziest thing we can do is throw away the plan. What if you met the next worthy cause with wild abandon? What would it shift in you if you gave recklessly, just once?

I’m collecting ideas about stewardship and would love to hear your stories. How have you transformed your boring old money into a spiritual practice? What keeps you centered when money is tight and fear closes in? If you have more room in your budget, how have you embraced your abundance and used it to deepen your generosity?  Or, if this whole money-as-spiritual-practice thing is a new idea, let me know in a month or two what you try and how it works. You can comment here or email me privately–I read them all!

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