Stewards of Relationships
By Larry Strenge
This article was originally published in Giving Magazine Vol. 21, No. 2 in 2019. You can access the full issue here.
When I lead a course from the Lake Institute on Faith and Giving called Cultivating Generous Congregations, designed to change the culture of a congregation through the practice of cultivating generosity in people’s lives, one of the goals is seeing stewardship as discipleship. To get into how that culture of generosity is cultivated, I’ll often include this question: “What are the three most important words in real estate?” It doesn’t take long for someone, or often a chorus of voices, to shout out, “Location, location, location.” And we laugh over this mantra so well known in the real estate world.
Then I ask a follow-up question: “Using that same single word mantra as a guide, what are the three most important words to cultivate generosity today?” I hear several good answers. “Invite, invite, invite.” “Thank, thank, thank.” Yes, good answers! And all true. But I’m looking for one more, one so vital that I persist by using a coaching technique. I ask that powerful coaching question, “What else?” People dig deeper. Before long someone will say, “Relationship, relationship, relationship.” Yes! And we all give a cheer! We know it is true.
Relationship is key to cultivating generosity, or stewardship, as discipleship
It seems everywhere we turn these days, the word relationship—or words related to it, like connect, relate, or belong—are popping up. In fact, the importance of relationship can hardly be overemphasized as we live into this changing world, one that is ripe with adaptive challenges for the church as it pursues living out God’s preferred future for “the healing of the nations” (Rev. 22:2).
Relationship, relationship, relationship. I suppose it shouldn’t surprise us that relationship is such an important word as we live into, and live out, our faith in daily life as generous people. The biblical story is one of relationship. The biblical story begins with God’s relationship with God’s creation, cosmos, earth and earth’s creatures, especially you and me. And the story moves to our response to that relationship with God— and one another—living into the role Rhodes Thompson describes as stewards shaped by God’s grace.1
At least it seems that’s what God wants to see happen, that we become stewards of healthy relationships for the sake of God’s world!
In the biblical story, we are called to be stewards of relationships.
When that primary biblical the world around us (others and the planet) is lived out well, lived through love, forgiveness, and gratitude, life is simply healthier. Brene’ Brown has taught us that as we steward relationships with transparency and vulnerability, along with forgiveness and gratitude, we witness dissipation of the world’s brokenness, fear, and shame.2 A whole- hearted being emerges. In short, when we steward relationships in this way, we witness trust and intimacy as it blossoms into God’s vision for healing of the nations.
More so, when we live as stewards of relationships, we cultivate generosity, a desire to live and give generously.
I have been deeply influenced in my journey with practicing generosity by the work of Henri J. M. Nouwen. His short talk, edited for publication as A Spirituality of Fundraising,3 gets to the core of how stewarding relationships is at the heart of fund-raising as ministry. When I teach Cultivating Generous Congregations, one of the key moments comes when pastors and other leaders begin to see that asking a question like, Who taught you to be generous? is not a question to get more money. It is a practice of stewardship as discipleship and being a steward of relationship, one that draws people into a different relationship with money, a healthier relationship. The honor to be invited into being able to ask that intimate question comes from how we steward a relationship with our donors or members.
Stewarding relationships happens in all kinds of settings. One of my favorite stories of how stewarding relationships is lived out in worship comes from a Sunday morning worship experience in the summer of 2017. My wife and I are both pastors. However, we serve in different settings. It is a special Sunday when we can worship together. On one of those rare Sundays, we were visiting friends who attend Lord of Life Lutheran Church in Maple Grove, Minnesota. Worship had gone well— outstanding music, excellent preaching. Our relationship with God had grown. Then it came time for the offering. But before the offering was received, something else happened. There was a Moment of Thanksgiving.
The Moment of Thanksgiving was created by Charles “Chick” Lane.4 Chick, well- known for his wise counsel on matters of generosity, is a part-time staff member at Lord of Life. When it was time for the offering, the presiding pastor spoke from a prepared script. It went something like this: “Do you see that picture on the screen [four young adults surrounded by children]? Those four young adults are interns working with our children. They are teaching them about who they are as children of God. Their lives, as well as those of our children, will never be the same. Why? Because of this relationship. And so I want to invite you to support this ministry. And I want to thank you for your offering today. Your generosity makes this ministry possible.”
When the pastor finished speaking, I was motivated to generously give. Why? Out of a relationship stewarded well in worship, I could now see myself being in relationship with this important ministry. I wanted to give generously to support God’s work in this place!
Relationship, relationship, relationship
Where do you see yourself living into being one of God’s stewards of relationships? Wherever that is, in your many relationships, it is a holy calling. May God bless you as you live into being part of God’s healing of the nations.
1 Rhodes Thompson, Stewards Shaped by God’s Grace (Chalice Press, 1990)
2 Brene’ Brown’s TED Talks on vulnerability and shame are thought of here.
3 Henri J. M. Nouwen, A Spirituality of Fundraising (Upper Room Books, 2010)
4 Charles “Chick” Lane is the author of several outstanding books on stewardship, including Ask, Thank, Tell and co-author of Embracing Stewardship.
Rev. Larry Strenge is an ordained minister in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). He is Director of Evangelical Mission for the Southwestern Minnesota Synod of the ELCA.
Giving Magazine was a premier stewardship resource published by the Ecumenical Stewardship Center (ESC) from 1999 until 2020. The magazine served Christian faith communities throughout North America, providing thoughtful, practical, and inspirational content on faith and giving from thought leaders and practitioners alike. Giving was published annually from 1999 until 2018 (volumes 1-20), and then quarterly in 2019 and 2020 (volumes 21-28) in digital form only. In 2021 ESC closed its doors and committed its archives to the care of Lake Institute on Faith & Giving. For further information on ESC or its archives, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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