Is Stewardship the Antidote to Scarcity?

CornucopiaWe long to be a people with abundant resources, people who dare to dream and engage expansive ministry, without worry about how those dreams will be funded. Without the burden of figuring out how we will pay our staff or maintain our buildings. Most days, it seems we just don’t have enough to engage the dream. We spend our energy making less go further, trying to allocate too few dollars, and begging people to engage more deeply in the life of the church. It’s exhausting and we feel robbed of our capacity to imagine.

Everywhere, I hear church leaders worry about scarcity, dream about abundance, and look to stewardship as the primary vehicle for closing the gap.

Can better stewardship actually bridge the gap between scarcity and abundance? Can you convince people to contribute more time, attention, and money when available resources feel scarce? In a culture of scarcity, stewardship degenerates into sharing too few resources, like Scrooge sorting coins in his counting house. We stop expecting that what we have might be enough, might actually be abundant.

Replacing a scarcity mindset with an abundance mindset requires much more than a stewardship campaign. It requires an all-out culture shift.

In Organizational Culture and Leadership, Edgar Schein teaches six primary mechanisms for evolving a culture, for embedding new values, practices and assumptions into an organization. With a little interpretation, we can apply these six mechanisms towards the nurture of abundance thinking.

What leaders pay attention to, measure and control: The most powerful mechanism that leaders have to redirect the attention and energy of the congregation, is what they pay attention to. If all of your time goes into noticing, measuring and controlling the gap between giving and need, the attention of your congregation will go there as well.  

What if you delegated the allocation and control of spending to the finance and trustee function of the congregation, with guidance about what to emphasize? What if you got busy noticing and talking about breakthroughs in abundance; pointing out places where the Holy Spirit is showing up, and people and conditions are being transformed?

How leaders react to critical incidents and organizational crisis: When an organization faces a financial crisis or windfall, the manner in which leaders deal with it reveals important underlying assumptions and creates new norms, values, and working procedures. Crisis are especially significant in culture creation because the crisis heightens anxiety and the need to reduce anxiety is a powerful motivator of new learning.

Consider the last significant financial or participation crisis in your congregation. How do leaders now talk about that crisis, what caused it and how it was resolved? What values and norms are reinforced by the way the story is told? Does the story reinforce a scarcity or an abundant mindset? Can you re-story the event to teach more helpful lessons?  How can you frame the challenges in the current environment in light of that event?

How leaders allocate resources: How budgets are created reveals assumptions and beliefs about money and scarcity. What does your budget say about the distinctive competence of your congregation, about how much you rely on faith over certainty, about how unified the congregation is in their giving approach, and about how you balance innovation with tradition?  

In addition to where money gets allocated, the process used to allocate money reflects your values. Does every ministry get a standard percentage increase over the prior year, or is the budget built from the ground up each year, ensuring that legitimate new ideas are being funded alongside long standing commitments?

Deliberate role modeling, teaching and coaching: There is a difference between the formal stewardship message delivered to the congregation, and the message received by watching the informal behavior of leaders. The informal messages are the more powerful teaching and coaching mechanism.

For example, the staff team that reacts to a financial crunch by working absurd hours and not taking days off is teaching a lesson, but what kind? You may be demonstrating your diligence and the importance of your role, but you are also demonstrating that there isn’t enough time, energy and resource to accomplish ministry while also honoring Sabbath rest. Over-functioning on behalf of the congregation reinforces scarcity thinking.

How leaders allocate rewards and status: In congregational life, the primary way that we reward behavior is through recognition. What kinds of behavior do your leaders tend to praise?  Who has the most status in your congregation? Are they people who limit expectations so that we all get by with what little we have, or are they people who approach their work with great possibility thinking? What can you do to help the latter group get more recognition and gain more status?

How leaders select, promote and fire: How we select and nominate leaders for service says a lot about scarcity and abundance thinking. Do we grudgingly cull the phone directory looking for any warm body to fill an endless array of open slots? Do we promise people that if they agree to serve, very little will be required of them? Do we accept any level of quality that is offered because you can’t really expect much from volunteers? These practices all reinforce scarcity thinking.

What if we reduced the size and number of our committees so that the invitation to serve was balanced with opportunity for rest? What if we formed volunteer position job descriptions that communicated the full range of our expectations and led people to believe that their time commitment was both important and significant? What if we dismissed volunteers who weren’t serving well in their position, because the work is important enough to need someone who does it right? These are practices that promote an abundant mindset about participating in the life of a congregation.

How much is enough?  When we have less than we used to have it is easy to get trapped in scarcity thinking. We don’t need to stay stuck there. Abundance is in the eye of the beholder. Do your part to keep a clear eye.