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Stewards of God's gifts: lessons from the AIDS campaign.

I NEVER THOUGHT that it would be easier to talk about sex in the church than it would be to talk about money. After all, Jesus had a lot more to say about our relationship with money and possessions than he did about sex, so it would seem like a natural topic for the church. But when I moved into the stewardship portfolio after years of working on the Presbyterian Church in Canada's Towards a World Without AIDS campaign, I discovered that people are more uncomfortable talking about money. What I learned working on the AIDS campaign prepared me for work in stewardship.

A steward is someone who manages resources on behalf of another; and although it's getting a bit of a rebirth in the secular world--both in the environmental movement and non-profit and corporate boardrooms--it is still little understood.

The biblical concept of stewardship is rooted in the belief that we are to manage the resources God has given us--time, talent and treasure--in ways that reflect God's purpose. In the church, there has traditionally been an emphasis on tithes and offerings. However, just as the issues surrounding HIV and AIDS are complex, varied and diverse, with a quagmire of causes and effects, stewardship is about more than encouraging people to put money on the offering plate; it is also about how we use all of our resources, and what values that use reflects.

DISCOVERING THE CHALLENGES. Much of what Jesus taught about our relationship with money and possessions was, and still is, countercultural to the messages we hear in society. Contrast the words of Christ about the birds of the air and the lilies of the field in Matthew 6:26-33, with the constant messages we hear that we need to buy more, newer, better. Consumer culture impacts our spiritual life, as peer pressure and advertising drive our decisions around consumption.

It is easy to think, "I don't have enough to give, I will give later." The brilliance of the principle of the tithe--giving a proportion of your income to God first, before all else--is it shows that every person is capable of sharing, according to their means. But how and why we give is rarely talked about in our churches, let alone our society. Unfortunately, too many churches, particularly churches in financial crises, tend to focus energy and dialogue on the church's need to receive, rather than the spiritual benefits of giving or the social and spiritual implications of consumerism.


BUCKING THE TRENDS. When I visited congregations to talk about the AIDS campaign, I thought people would be squirming in their seats as we talked about sex. I was often surprised that people wanted to talk about it and that talking about it made the church relevant. Embracing the prophetic voice that cries for alternatives in our consumer-driven society and helps us rediscover a culture of generosity can be another way for the church to be relevant today.

In the AIDS campaign, people discovered that giving was one way to respond to a horrific epidemic. Called to give, compelled to give, people found many different ways to be part of the campaign. People gave money as they were able--from a few loonies to donating stock worth hundreds of thousands. Some shared what they learned, raising awareness about the issue. Others gave time to work with people affected and advocated for change. Some organized walks, concerts, art shows and talks. It not only made a difference in the lives of the people who received, it made a difference in the lives of the people who gave.

In Malawi, I was taken to the home of a woman being cared for by home-based care workers supported by the AIDS campaign. Two of her children watched from a distance as we bent down to enter the low-slung door of her house. Her eldest daughter propped her up against a wall. She didn't have much strength to talk, but she wanted to thank us for supporting the volunteers who brought her medicine, cut her firewood, helped her with the children. These volunteers didn't have much themselves--but they shared what they had even if it meant they all went a little hungry at times. They were stewards of God's gifts.

Karen Plater is associate secretary for Stewardship: Using God's Resources to do God's Mission. The AIDS campaign raised over $1.6 million.




ACCORDING to the Vanier Institute of the Family, in the past decade the debt per household for Canadian families has advanced by 45 per cent, with a debt to income ratio currently at 145 per cent. At the same time, there has been a steady decline in the savings rate in the past two decades. (The current recession did see the saving rate move from two per cent to five per cent, but it is still significantly less than it was a decade ago.)

Add to this a new report, A Canadian Culture of Generosity by Cardus, a think tank on social innovation, which shows "that while many Canadians are very generous, the great majority of citizens donated very little or nothing thoughout the year." Cardus found 10 per cent of givers account for two-thirds of all charitable donations. In addition "many who have the means to give do not appear to give much."

In his book, Nathan Dungan has written a compelling argument for the connections between increased debt load, decreased saving, minimal philanthropy and our society's obsession with consumption. He argues that from a young age we are bombarded with messages to start spending and never stop. These messages have us struggling to differentiate between the things we need and those we want and too easily embracing debt to get both.


His book argues that we need to go back to first principles when it comes to money--teaching our youth to share, save and spend. He offers practical ways for us to ensure that our financial habits reflect our values. He sees a role for the church to "inspire young people to question the social implications of blatant consumer manipulation." He argues that it is time for our values, rather than peer pressure and advertising, to drive our decisions around consumption. "By adjusting our priorities, we can both help more people through sharing and help ourselves by clarifiying the role money plays in our lives."

Prodigal Sons and Material Girls:

How Not to Be Your Child's ATM

by Nathan Dungan. Wiley.
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Title Annotation:COVER PACKAGE
Author:Plater, Karen
Publication:Presbyterian Record
Date:May 1, 2010
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