About this time of the year, when I was serving a local congregation, I would be in the midst of planning out my preaching schedule for the first six months of the following calendar year. And then about February, I would plan out the second six months of my preaching schedule for that calendar year.
It was my practice to preach from the Old Testament in the fall and the New Testament in the spring because I wanted to present a healthy pulpit diet to the people under my care. It was my desire that the congregation(s) I was called to serve be as healthy and biblically literate as possible.
The opening chapters of Genesis are filled with an abundance of spiritual, life-giving principles. Even how I expressed myself in the previous paragraph has been formed by a principle found in the opening pages of our Bibles. “People under my care” and “congregation(s) I was called to serve” express my understanding that I am not an owner. Rather, I am a steward. The congregation was not filled with “MY people” and it was not “MY church.” That is owner language, and how one understands this principle greatly affects how he/she lives and ministers.
If I am the owner, then I am likely to feel a greater sense of entitlement. I am more likely to believe and act in ways that I want, because the people or the church is mine! However, if I am not the owner but a steward who has been entrusted with the care of a congregation and the people, then I am constantly aware that I am accountable to others.
This principle has affected how I have been a husband and father as well. My wife and kids are gifts from God and God has entrusted them to me. I would have been a very different parent and spouse had I moved through these past years from an ownership perspective.
In Genesis, we find that Adam and Eve are not owners of the Garden; rather, they are stewards…care takers. They were free to eat of any tree except one. And as we are all aware, they chose to behave as owners and not stewards by taking from that tree as well.
Much of life’s struggles and lack of congregational vitality center around this basic principle—stewardship verses ownership.
How important is this principle? All three of the synoptic gospels record Jesus’ “Parable of the Bad Tenants” which has this principle as the central message. The tenants stop living as stewards and try to behave as owners of the vineyard. “But when the tenants saw the son, they said to each other, ‘this is the heir. Come, let’s kill him and take his inheritance.’” (MT 21:38)
Bishop Beard has exemplified through word and deed the life of a steward and not an owner. Bishops are not owners of the Annual Conferences to which they are appointed. If a Bishop seeks to move the Annual Conference to which he/she is appointed in a direction that is not in line with General Conference (the only group that is authorized to speak for the UMC) then he/she is behaving more like an owner than a steward…and it is wrong.
If a pastor seeks to lead “MY” congregation in a way that is outside of the Book of Discipline, then he/she is behaving more like an owner than a steward…and it is wrong. If congregants function from a “THEIR” church perspective, then they are living out of an owner mindset rather than a steward mindset…and it is wrong.
Grasping, raiding, taking, and/or seeking to be the owner are not congruent with the way of our Leader and Forgiver, Jesus the Christ. On the contrary, Paul writes to the Philippians, “Though he was God, he did not think of equality with God as something to cling to. Instead, he gave up his divine privileges; he took the humble position of a slave and was born as a human being” (Philippians 2: 6-7, NLT). And as a human being Jesus was not the owner, but a steward.
How are you doing in your personal life? Remember one’s body and even one’s breath is a gift of God. Do you live your life as a steward of that body and breath or as an owner? What you do and say is affected greatly by this distinction.
How are you doing in your ministry life? Do you see the church from an ownership perspective or a stewardship perspective? This difference affects how pastors relate to the people they have been called to serve, and it affects how congregants speak and treat the pastor and fellow parishioners.
Until General Conference approves new ways for Bishops, pastors, and congregations to continue as stewards, then “raiding trees,” grasping, clinging, and seeking to own are wrong because they are beyond what God has made permissible for stewards.
Nevertheless, from my almost three decades experience in the Illinois Great Rivers Conference, most of us know this and are following in the way of Christ by seeking to be stewards who serve the will of the One who is the Owner of all; and I am grateful to be a fellow steward with you!