As we grew up, many of us learned that the world would give us all that we need, without our having to worry about limits. Now we know we need to curb our appetite for mineral, vegetable, and animal resources. Resources are indeed abundant; they are also finite,and sometimes toxic to extract, especially when we try to suck or scrape out the last drop.
The notion of abundant resources has embedded itself into our theologies of stewardship. “God has blessed me with abundance, so with gratitude I bless God back.” Many preachers believe that this idea has stood as the cornerstone of church finance since the Apostles. In reality, the “abundance” formula, while based on a reading of 2 Corinthians, is uniquely American. It was first articulated late in the 1800s, just as the nation’s wealth was starting to take off. As the temper of the times shifts from the old emphasis on abundant possibilities to the new consciousness of limits, we need to find a new sales pitch, perhaps even a new theology, for fund-drive time.
In the 1990s, the longest period of economic expansion in American history, “abundance” was the temper of the times. Optimism pumped up the price of dot-com stocks and encouraged us to pay too much for houses that, we thought, were good investments: “good as gold.” (An ounce of gold, worth $285 in 1998, fetches $1250 at this writing. Houses, as you may have heard, did worse. So did sanctuaries.)
The upbeat temper of the 1990s found expression in a boom in congregational budgets, building programs, and the popularity of “abundance theology.” With God, all things were possible, you see: faith helps us overcome caution and think big. “Abundance” appealed to people thinking about quitting one job in the certain faith that the next one would pay more, and to congregations flush from success at their third ambitious pledge drive in a row.
There is no shortage of proof-texts. John’s Jesus, for example, says, “I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly.” (John 10, King James Version) But does this mean we can strip this world to the bones because we have another waiting? Does it mean scarcity is an illusion, a veil the eyes of faith will tear away? Both of these interpretations have done more than enough damage; it is time to renounce both.
But wait: Jesus then says something that might be more helpful in our time: A “hireling” shepherd, he points out, flees when the wolf comes. But Jesus is the “good shepherd.” “I lay down my life for the sheep,” he says.
John’s main point in telling this story is that Jesus’ care extends to non-Jews—those “other sheep I have, which are not of this fold.” In John’s time the immediate issue was how and whether to include Gentiles among Jesus’ followers. In our time the immediate issue is how and whether to take risks and make sacrifices to protect the world from its main predator. That predator, as it now appears, is us.
For wolves, a good theology might be: “So many sheep, so little time.” Human beings living in the third millennium need a theology that teaches our connections with our fellow humans, with the wider web of living beings, and with nonliving resources on which we all depend. Above all, it requires a heightened consciousness of our connection to the future. “In the long run,” the economist John Maynard Keynes remarked, “we’re all dead.” But faith calls us to include those who will live after us among our flock. It is as hard a task as Jesus ever set for his disciples.
A new theology of stewardship need not be joyless or ascetic. But it does need to be hard-headedly aware that religious institutions, too, are under judgment for their unchecked wants. Congregations need to make a case to their financial donors that makes sense when all consumption—even theirs—must be considered for its impact on a wider flock than most of us have chosen in the past to care about.
Some congregations have begun to shift their emphasis. Many teach their children conservation as a religious virtue; a few have invested heavily in “green” architecture and technology. It is not always clear, however, where concern for the environment comes from. Is it an import from the secular world? Or does it reflect a deeper shift at the spiritual center?
I believe that clergy who are willing to question the conventional theology of stewardship will find support for their labors. Here are some reasons why:
- People are more skeptical of glib claims on their generosity than they once were. Even donors for whom church support is an unquestioned obligation don’t assume they need to give to your church. Congregations need to make a case for themselves as worthy recipients of generosity. As global warming, resource depletion, and species extinction become pressing concerns, the people in the pews will expect clergy to address these moral issues, and the church to set a good example.
- The limitless growth of affluence no longer is a widely shared American experience. Personal incomes have stagnated since the mid-1970s. There is little reason to expect the 1950s to return soon, at least not to the western hemisphere.
- The moral goodness of consumption has come into question in new ways. Global warming and the depletion of resources like oil and drinking water have shifted our metaphors for moral living. In place of the expansive and triumphal vision of the good life, we are—or should be—shifting to a more conserving and sustaining vision.
Like any project in theology, constructing a new vision to support fundraising in the church must be a collective project, with theologians and grassroots religious people all contributing their bit. But for changing people’s minds about important things like how to manage resources, there’s no pulpit like the pulpit.
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Dan Hotchkiss is a senior consultant with the Alban Institute. “Scarcity and God’s Abundance” originally appeared in the Sept/Oct 2010 issue of Clergy Journal (logosproductions.com)
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Leading Practices for Job-Seekers and Employers
Networking, Resumes, Interviews
Webinars: Wednesdays, October 12, 19, 26, 2010
12:00 pm EDT
Facilitator: Bradford Agry, career consultant and leadership trainer
Three online-learning opportunities addressing essential skills for a tight economy, whether you’re a job-seeker or an employer expecting to hire new staff. Share this with someone in your congregation who could benefit by registering. Can be viewed individually or as a series.
Networking Secrets: The Informational Interview
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