A Look in the Mirror

By Ken Sloane

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34992721 – handsome young man looking at his reflection in the mirror in living room at home

...I remind people that a key characteristic of a faithful steward and a disciple growing in generosity is begin able to survive some critical self-examination. A look at ourselves in the mirror, and to imagine Jesus asking us but what is money doing in your life

There is a shift going on in the circle of those who feel called to teach stewardship in the church. It is a push back against the view that stewardship about running a strong annual campaign, so the budget gets met and the bills get paid. In many places, it has moved some to abandon the word “stewardship” entirely and use instead the word generosity.

I’m reminded of the great opening line of Charles (Chick) Lane’s wonderful book, “Ask, Thank, Tell: Improving the Stewardship Ministry in Your Congregation.” His introduction begins:

“Stewardship has been kidnapped and is being held hostage

by a sinister villain named “Paying the Bills.”

The word stewardship has been so compromised by this narrow focus on raising money that it has been relegated to a couple of weeks in the fall. Those who are lucky enough to run a successful campaign, and come reasonably close to covering the budget needs, feel confident they can put stewardship back on the shelf until it gets pulled out the next year. In most cases, the congregation could not be happier with that plan.

All that would probably be fine, if we didn’t bring the Gospels and Jesus into the picture. Christ spoke about money and possessions more than just about any other subject. Yet I haven’t been able to him sharing wisdom in terms of making a budget or getting bills paid. Most often what I read in the Gospels is Jesus looking into the eyes of a believer and saying, “but what is money doing in your life?” Jesus spoke to individuals who longed for salvation but hung tight to wealth. He spoke to those whose greed had built great walls to keep them separated from their community and their God. He challenged the wealthy and blessed the poor and made the point time and time again of the folly of believing that we could secure our lives through the abundance of our possessions.

For all these reasons as well as the pressure our culture puts on us to move in a contrary direction, I remind people that a key characteristic of a faithful steward and a disciple growing in generosity is begin able to survive some critical self-examination. A look at ourselves in the mirror, and to imagine Jesus asking us “but what is money doing in your life?”

Dan Dick, one of my predecessors in the Stewardship office at Discipleship Ministries of The United Methodist Church, authored so many resources that are still as relevant and helpful today. His book “Revolutionizing Christian Stewardship for the 21stCentury: Lessons from Copernicus,” published in 1997 is one for which I still get requests. I recently discovered his piece “Money Autobiography”designed as a four week, daily exercise regime to get a clearer understanding of our values, our managing money, and it’s role in sharing our lifestyle. Dan does this through daily questions, answered privately and confidentially, to help us see ourselves better and how we might connect with that which really matters and brings real joy, regardless of the balance in our checking account.

So that’s how I found myself walking through the questions of the money autobiography as we entered the new year of 2019. The first group of questions took me back to my childhood on Long Island, NY, the youngest of four children of depression-era parents. My Dad worked three jobs when I was young, but we had all we needed. I did connect though, with a memory about clothes. There were three boys and one girl, and my Dad was in charge of the boys’ clothes, and he always had the last word. Lots of my clothes were hand-me-downs, which sometimes was OK and sometimes not. When he would take me to get new clothes (back to school) he would make us get larger sizes so we wouldn’t grow out of them so soon, and that made me so angry! Not surprisingly, my earliest memory of wanting my own money and saving was to buy clothes I wanted, in the size I wanted.

The second group of questions in Dan’s guide allows us to reflect on our money values, asking whether we see ourselves as more of a spender or saver, generous or stingy? How important is money in our lives, how is it tied to happiness or self-worth? This is the section where we need to dig deep to be honest, and the more honest we are the more helpful the self-examination. I like to think of myself as growing in generosity and frugality (I like that word so much better than cheap or stingy). Part of my frugality comes from the influence of parents who lived through the Great Depression (I have a memory of my mom using tea bags more than once, my Dad with jars of nailed he pulled out of things and reused). The other part is out of a desire to take less, to use less of the resources of this world.

How we manage money is the focus of the questions in third section (budgeting, saving, feelings about credit) and the fourth section challenges us with inquiries about money and our lifestyle. To the dismay of people like Dave Ramsey, I confess I do use a variety of credit cards to feed an obsession I have for accumulating frequent flyer miles (I probably take more pride in these balances than what’s in my bank accounts) At this point in my life I’m blessed that I can pay off balances before having to pay any interest charges. Lifestyle questions tend to hit me right between the eyes: does the way I live and use my money reflect, in a consistent way, my faith in Christ for salvation, and my compassion and concern for those who have no enough? These are the questions that will keep me awake at night, as they should.

For the sake of inviting you to the self-examination of the money autobiography, I have shared with you some of the revelations the questions have brought to my mind. Remember, though, that the money autobiography is not a group activity, but more effectively something done privately -- an opportunity to get to know yourself better. Being more in touch with our experiences of our upbringing and how those events and others shape our money values, management of money and lifestyle choices, can only help us live more faithfully with all God has given us, growing in generosity and in our discipleship and joy in our living.

Note: this article was written for inclusion in the July 2019 edition of Giving Magazine, a resource published by the Ecumenical Stewardship Center. Be sure to check out their website.