Ken Carter: Rediscovering ancient-future practices of stewardship

There are three New Testament models of stewardship: the beggar, the patron and the tentmaker. Can we re-imagine these roles for a new age? asks a UMC bishop.

The numerical decline of the mainline churches in the United States is by now well-documented, as are the implications for structural reform, worship, recruitment and retention of younger generations, and the training of clergy.

My sense, however, is that we have given less attention to the funding shifts in our present reality. Because of our demographics (an aging membership with accumulated assets), our financial resources have remained somewhat constant. However, this too is beginning to change, as a consequence of the economic collapse as well as growing human needs and diminishing social services. Each of these trends has affected funding patterns of congregations and ministries.

Recently, I was listening to a lecture by Grant Wacker of Duke Divinity School, and, almost as an aside, he noted three stewardship models in the New Testament: the beggar, the patron and the tentmaker (or bivocational ministry). He returned at once to his topic, but I was inspired to reflect on these ancient-future practices for funding mission today.

My growing conviction is that we will need to rediscover these practices if we are to support and sustain vital witness in the years ahead. Here are some of the problems and possibilities of each model:

The beggar. We have all encountered a person on a street corner seeking money for a basic need. The beggar has a passionate stake in the mission (personal survival or support for others). Some people are moved by the appeals of beggars; others are not. The strength of this model for stewardship lies in its passion and intensity, and the immediate relationship between the message and the need. In the New Testament, Paul appeals to the church at Corinth to support the needs of their brothers and sisters in Jerusalem (2 Corinthians 9).

The weakness of this model lies in its sustainability; over time, we often become deaf to the appeals of the beggar -- note the cultural stereotype of the televangelist! Donor fatigue limits the ability to respond to continuing crises.

The patron.The patron is someone with means who is inspired to fund a cause. It is clear that Jesus traveled with patrons, often women, who helped to support his ministry (Luke 8). Those who lead Christian institutions are well-aware of the impact of an infusion of resources: an innovative initiative can begin, a neglected area of ministry can be served, a new population can be reached.

In the past generation, Lilly Endowment Inc., The Duke Endowment and others have made significant contributions toward theological education and lifelong formation of clergy. Most congregational and judicatory leaders over time develop relationships with patrons who make significant mission possible. While the typical pastor has little training in development, along the way the skill of cultivating patrons becomes as integral to the practice of effective ministry as preaching, teaching and shepherding.

There are, however, some weaknesses in the patron model: the leader or organization can become dependent on an individual or an endowment; over time, the actual mission can become distant from the original intent of the donor; and the presence of an influential patron can have a flattening effect on the participation of persons at the grass-roots level.

The tentmaker. In his letters to the earliest churches, Paul clearly states at times that he is supporting himself and taking no funds from the actual congregations (Acts 18; 1 Corinthians 9). In the New Testament we find a model for ministry that is bivocational; at times the leader is supported by the congregation, and at times he or she is sustained by some other livelihood.

A great strength of the tentmaker model is purity of motive. Paul writes that he is doing the mission for its own sake and not for personal gain.

I think that the bivocational model is one that the mainline churches of the United States will increasingly embrace. In my own tradition, United Methodism, more than one-third of our local churches in the United States have fewer than 35 persons in worship on a given Sunday. These communities are often vital expressions of fellowship and service in their contexts; at the same time, they cannot sustain full-time clergy leadership.

An additional strength of bivocational ministry is its stability. As a pastor develops a business or assumes an additional professional role in the community, he or she is more rooted there and is able to give smaller congregations continuity.

The churches of the New Testament flourished in a disorderly, chaotic and missional environment. In contrast, the mainline churches of the United States have depended, for more than a generation, on a predictable stream of revenue that flowed from individuals shaped by a church culture.

This church culture itself was a product of a society composed of healthy institutions, and such a context assumed financial giving as an act of social conformity. I recall, from early in my ministry, the “circuit rider” stewardship model, in which laity would choose the names of their friends, visit them, take the “saddlebag,” which would contain a blank pledge card, and ask for their promise of giving for the coming year. As a member of a civic club, I participated in a similar practice. We were a homogeneous group. A few basic institutions were central to our lives, and financial giving to them was expected.

We find ourselves now in a culture more closely aligned with the first-century communities where the earliest churches and missions were planted. A changed context calls for a fresh exploration of models for funding ministry.

Rediscovering the ancient-future practices of a missional movement, and re-imagining the roles of beggar, patron and tentmaker in our own time, may help us to support and sustain the renewal of our congregations and institutions.