I've spent most of the past week at a conference, "Rethinking Stewardship Practices." I wanted to go to this workshop partly because I want to be more comfortable about doing stewardship in my own congregation. But I also went to the workshop because (I'll confess), stewardship and I have a sort of checkered relationship. This may be a bad thing for a pastor to confess, but it's true.
I started off very seriously and earnestly, as a young adult, just out of college. I was a pretty serious Christian back then; I went to church on Sunday and to various prayer meetings. And I had really gotten the message about tithing. I did tithe net, not gross, as I looked at my paycheck and just took ten percent of that every two weeks. That's what I did.
My life was simple, though. I did not own a car. I had a modest student loan. I bought a sofa bed from a department store and made payments on it until my federal tax refund came back and I could pay it off. I did not have a major credit card.
When I first got to Japan to begin my missionary work, I was paid in dollars, and I did send a tithe back to my home church during those first six months. I was very embarrassed to hear that someone from our congregation actually got up and used me as an example during their annual stewardship drive.
Things got more complicated when we started getting paid in yen. We were cautioned that we shouldn't be too generous with our Japanese congregations, so that they would not get dependent on our offerings. So, I didn't give very much. And, to be honest, there were many beautiful things I was tempted to buy while I lived in Japan. I gave in to temptation many times. I came home with a LOT more than I left with. a LOT more.
When I returned to the U.S., a lot of things happened, too complicated to go into here. But I bought a car, which I probably couldn't afford on my salary. I got an apartment (eventually). I got a major credit card. Life became more complicated. My tithing habits had been long gone by then. I found it very difficult to look at my check and just do the 10 percent math. It seems like the rent, the insurance, the car payment, the credit card, and groceries (and oh yes, those unanticipated car repairs) took almost everything I made. (I was not making a large salary.)
I had gotten my finances in order by the time I went to seminary, but afterwards, the high cost of my seminary loans was a wake up call. Getting used to the discipline of putting something away for quarterly tax payments was a learning curve too.
As I said, stewardship and I have had a checkered history. And even though I'm talking about giving to my church right now, I realize that my financial responsibility to my congregation is really only a small part of how I steward the whole life God has given me. It's the work I do, how I use my time, the way I treat people. It has to do with credit cards, and student loans, but it also to do wtih making time for conversation and prayer and making meals from scratch.
As I said, stewardship and I have had a checkered history. I am generous and I am stingy, sometimes frugal and sometimes wasteful.
A friend recently reminded me that stewardship really means, "our lives are not our own."
Which, I think is good news, when I consider the alternatives....