The Power of Words

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Words have power. I am not really thinking in terms of messaging – where we might “market test” various words and phrases to see what resonates with our audience. Words have power because they go beyond mere persuasion (convincing us to make a purchase or donation). No, the words and images we use also have the power to shape our moral imaginations: how we see the world and engage with others in community and relationship.

That is the potential power of stewardship language for our faith communities and in funding our religious institutions. Not simply market-tested language that makes giving go up, but language that reframes our imaginations to respond to the realities around us. What are the words that we use? Where do they come from and what is their context? How have we used them for our purposes and why?

Too often, stewardship has become shorthand for raising the budget, fundraising, and managing church finances. The framing for many religious leaders is that stewardship “is the work we have to do in order to do the work we feel called to do.” Douglas John Hall, probably the preeminent Christian theologian on stewardship of a generation ago, framed it this way in The Steward: “The term stewardship has a decidedly distasteful connotation. It at once conjures up the horrors of every-person visitations, building projects, financial campaigns, and the seemingly incessant harping of the churches for more money. Ministers cringe at the mention of Stewardship Sundays: must they really lower themselves to the status of fund-raiser once more?”

I take Hall’s point and note that this is so often how many of us came to understand stewardship, but this need not be the case. We hear the same message from hundreds of pastors, religious leaders, and fundraisers that we work with each year at Lake Institute as they are converted to a new way of seeing. If many start with the mindset that Douglas John Hall articulated, they leave understanding the work of cultivating generosity with those in their communities as good work. It’s not just work we have to do in order to do the work we feel called to do. In fact, it is quite the opposite. This work is essential to the work of ministry. Most often the difference is all in how we understand and frame the language and activities of stewardship, fundraising, generosity. Henri Nouwen makes this clear in his little treatise, Spirituality of Fundraising. He reminds us that fundraising is precisely the opposite of begging but rather it is announcing vision. And through this new way of seeing, it should be clear that our stewardship language has the power to inhibit or to enhance the cultivation, expansion, and deepening of our moral imaginations.

If our stewardship language has often stymied the moral imaginations of religious leaders and frontline fundraisers to move beyond bottom-line budgets and capital campaigns, the same is true for those in our pews and mailing lists as well. It is true that when asked, laity will respond that they don’t love to hear sermons on money. At the same time, we also know that they are craving guidance on how to make sense of the right use of money and possessions. Donors of all stripes are seeking help to cultivate values of generosity in their lives and put them to work. These questions become another central aspect of our stewardship language. How do we live in a materialistic, consumerist culture in search of the “good life?” How do we raise a family when everything is at our fingertips? How do we integrate our faith and work? These are the deep questions that shape our moral imaginations and keep many in our faith communities up a night.

Instead as I noted at the outset, words are powerful. For those operating within faith communities or religious traditions, our stewardship language is biblical, it’s theological, it’s layered with meaning. But too often it has fallen victim to becoming jargon. People know what we mean by stewardship – we want to raise the budget. It’s pledge season, commitment Sunday. Relegated in this way, we have obscured the real power of the theological language and imagery that has shaped our holistic understanding of stewardship.

So at the beginning of a new year, if your stewardship language and programs have grown stale, I would encourage you then to try new words. Paint new pictures. Tell new stories. Do not let the power of the words you use be domesticated into jargon. Nouwen’s challenge of fundraising as the work of ministry is too rich to settle for anything less. In announcing a vision within your institution or for your community, how would the lives of those you work with and the world itself look differently in living into this new way of seeing? Our language often sets the tone and guides our actions. How can our words help to open up rather than shut down our imaginations? This year I hope you claim the power of the words that you use in engaging in the work of fundraising and nurturing generosity – it is one of the best assets we have in cultivating generosity.

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David P. King is the Karen Lake Buttrey Director of the Lake Institute on Faith and Giving as well as Assistant Professor of Philanthropic Studies within the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy. He arrived at IUPUI in 2014 after serving as Assistant Professor of Christian History at Memphis Theological Seminary in Memphis,TN. He earned his Ph.D. from Emory University with a specific interest in American religious history and its intersections with the growing field of world Christianity. His recent research focuses on the rise of evangelical relief and development NGOs, religious humanitarianism, and religion’s engagement with international affairs. He is passionate about research and teaching but as an ordained minister having served local churches and national faith-based organizations, he is also fueled by facilitating conversations with faith leaders, donors, and fundraisers (of all generations) around the intersections of faith and giving. Contact the lake institute at lfi@iupui.edu or on twitter @LakeInstitute.

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