Bishops have a unique perspective on congregational health. Few of us who serve in congregational settings have the opportunity to observe so many congregations at the same time. I asked Bishop Erik Gronberg to reflect on what he’s learned about stewardship health, given his lens as bishop in Northern Texas-Northern Louisiana. Thanks to him for bringing us back to the very basics!
Catherine Malotky, Center for Stewardship Leaders
What shall I return to the Lord?
By Rev. Erik Gronberg, Ph.D.
“What shall I return to the Lord for all the Lord’s bounty to me?” Psalm 116
For three years now, I have had the privilege of visiting a wide variety of congregations in my call to the office of bishop in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). I have learned that among these congregations there are a great many perspectives and practices surrounding the concept of stewardship.
Congregations in our synod (ELCA Northern Texas-Northern Louisiana Synod) are planted in cities, suburbs, small towns, and open country. Some are ministering where the population is exploding, some in neighborhoods with quickly changing demographics, some in small towns being swallowed by larger cities, and some in places where entire communities are dying. Resources of people, time, talent, and money are on plentiful display in some areas and could be seen as scarce in others.
I have learned to look deeper than whether a congregation does an annual pledge campaign. I have been somewhat surprised by how many do not engage financial stewardship in any intentional way, but mostly, I have been struck by the variety of ways congregations think about what they have, what their resources are for, to whom those resources belong, and ultimately who they are.
I have learned that the physical location or size of a congregation often has little to do with their sense of what they have or what their resources are for. For example, a small congregation in the open country or small town might seem to have little to work with, and yet I have seen them confidently know what they have and can do for their community. Because they understand the resources they are called to steward and the impact they could have, I see them moving into the future creatively and with a sense of possibility, aware of the abundance they already have.
At the same time, I’ve seen congregations affluent in terms of people, possibility, and finances who find themselves struggling to name and find purpose for the resources they have been given to steward. As a result they worry about their future and their viability as a congregation.
Spending time with our communities and our leaders has brought home to me again and again that healthy stewardship comes from a clear sense of whose resources these are and to whom we belong. I know this is really basic, but it just keeps being true. When the Psalmist asks “what shall I return to the Lord” the assumption is that what the Psalmist has belongs to God. The healthiest congregations are ones that understand the resources they steward are not theirs but God’s. These congregations share time, talent, and finances not just internally, but with the wider church and the community. Why? Because they know that is why God has given them these resources, whatever they are, to steward in the first place.
God’s generosity to us is shown most clearly in the gift of baptism, where God claims and names us as God’s own. Understanding that we belong to God reminds us that we are all called to be stewards, not just to “do stewardship.” All that we have, even our very lives, have been entrusted to us by God for the sake of the well-being of the world.
ELCA Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton likes to remind us that “we are church, we are Lutheran, we are church together, we are church for the sake of the world.” Stewardship comes clearly from this understanding and gives an answer to the Psalmist. What shall we return to the Lord? Everything! There will be enough because God is the giver. As stewards, we lean into this promise for our own sakes and for the sake of the neighbor, eager that all might know God’s generosity and be freed by grace and gratitude to follow Jesus.
About the Author
Rev. Erik Gronberg, Ph.D., serves as bishop of the Northern Texas-Northern Louisiana Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. He received his M.Div. from Luther Seminary in 2005, and served in congregational ministry until his election in 2016.