When I first stepped foot on the Luther Seminary campus nearly ten years ago, I’d never heard the word “stewardship” before in a church context. I grew up in an Assemblies of God church where we talked about tithes and offering but never stewardship. I stumbled into stewardship ministry because I needed a job to help me pay my bills as a seminary student. The Center for Stewardship Leaders (Center) was hiring, so I answered the call. Little did I know, I would receive so much more than a paycheck.
Stewardship radically changed my life, transformed my faith, and shaped my vocation. I was drawn in by the belief that everything belongs to God—all that we have and all that we are—and we are called to be good managers of all that God has entrusted to our care. It is one of the primary ways we can live out our faith in daily life and be love in action to our neighbors. It’s grounded in our baptismal identity.
When I worked in the Center as a student worker and later as the Assistant Director, the movement to connect the church’s money to its mission (in contrast to just paying the bills) was still fairly new. There was an emerging focus on year-round stewardship and a growing desire to incorporate online giving methods. However, all of these innovations still mainly focused on congregations whose primary income came in through the offering plate during Sunday morning service(s).
In the six years since I left the Center, the economic condition of many congregations has changed dramatically. According to the Lake Institute’s National Study of Congregations Economic Practices (NSCEP), 42% of congregations’ attendance and revenue either decreased or stayed the same over the past three years. On average 81% of church revenue comes in from individual donations, with 40% of congregations depending 100% on individual donations. With continued decline in church attendance and religious affiliation, it’s clear that this long-held process of using the offering plate to solely fund the mission is no longer enough. There’s a need for a shift to a more sustainable economic model for ministry that encompasses not only how money is being brought in but also how it is spent after it is received.
What’s next for church funding?
Honestly, I’m not sure, but I’m beginning to see glimmers on the horizon in new-start congregations who have resisted the urge to yoke themselves to a building, in long-standing congregations who have found ways to use their buildings to serve the broader community, and in entrepreneurial faith leaders seeking out creative income sources to fund God’s mission in the world. Over the next year or two, the Center (now called the Stewardship Leaders Program) will focus on how faith communities can create more sustainable, economic models for ministry that are rooted in their context and aligned with their mission.
Beginning this summer, I’ll be leading an independent study with ten seminary students where we’ll be exploring what sustainability looks like for missional ministries, designing a “funding forward” process congregations and nonprofits can use, and assembling case studies. I will use what we learn to create a course that will be offered to students beginning next January.
We invite you to participate in this work by:
- Joining the Learning Community: In the coming weeks, we’ll be inviting twelve congregations who are ready to engage deeply in this work to join us in our first funding forward learning community cohort hosted on Faith+Lead. We’re looking for faith leaders who are ready to discern where the Spirit is leading them and what funding sources might be required, seek out creative and conventional funding sources that align with and further the mission, and engage in contextual experiments. This isn’t about surviving in the post-pandemic economy or creating a better stewardship program—although those are both worthy causes. It’s about fundamentally rethinking your business model for ministry. We will share more information about this learning community when we begin accepting applications.
- Connecting Us with Others: We’re looking to connect with faith leaders, congregations, non-profits, and entrepreneurs who are on the leading edge of this work. If you have ideas to contribute or know someone we should be in conversation with as we’re pursuing this work, let us know at firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Taking Advantage of Faith+Lead Resources: Faith+Lead is Luther Seminary’s connected learning hub for Christian leaders. If you haven’t taken a look at this comprehensive and innovative platform yet, I thoroughly encourage you to do so. We hope you’ll join the conversation in our private social network for Christian leaders, the Faith+Lead Learning Lab, so we can learn from the innovative work you are doing in your community. In time, we hope to take full advantage of the Faith+Lead platform to offer you resources and training so you can put this into action in your own context. We do not know yet what form this will take, but we are very excited to share what we are learning along the way in this newsletter.
While so much has changed since I started seminary ten years ago, there are two things that have not, our call to love God and neighbor with all that God has entrusted to our care (money and so much more) and our collective call to be good stewards of the mission and ministry God has placed in our midst. It is a privilege to serve in this role; I look forward to partnering with you in this work.
P.S. – A note about our name change: The long-standing work of the Center has been folded into Luther Seminary’s Innovation Team and Faith+Lead. We’ve changed our name to the “Stewardship Leaders Program” to reflect our collaborative partnership in the broader innovation work.