Early in my pastoral career, when my sons were still young, I had an awkward moment that has become a favorite story. I was still pretty new to the congregation and was hosting a Bible study in the parsonage living room, when all of a sudden, Jason (the youngest) came down the stairs holding back tears. “Michael called me the s-word!” he blurted out. Looking around the room at the looks of some shocked church members, I quickly announced to the group, “the s-word is stupid!”
It was a word we didn’t allow, because it was a word meant to hurt, to degrade. We know our society is full of words like that, ones that may seem harmless to some, but not so harmless to others. I’ve heard people say, “they are just words”; but words often do shape perceptions and sometimes even our actions, and they do matter.
Recently, I’ve received two emails from readers of the Generous Living e-newsletter we send out monthly about our use of the phrase “stewardship campaign.” Our readers say that using these two words together reinforces the idea that stewardship is something that can be relegated to a campaign, to a season, to a few weeks of the year. These emails have reminded me that we do need to be careful about the words we put together.
The intended audience for the newsletter is local church leaders in stewardship and finance (both clergy and lay). The phrase “stewardship campaign” has been commonly used for years to refer to the programs that build up to people making (and hopefully increasing) a commitment of giving for the coming year. My normal practice in communicating with an audience is to use language most familiar to them; but in this case, I think the two readers who have written me have made a very good point.
The concept of shifting our focus on stewardship from being something seasonal (a couple of weeks in the fall) to continual (a year-round strategy for keeping stewardship themes before congregations) is something I share in every workshop I do — I can’t think of any one topic I stress more. (Check out this piece, “A Twelve Month Plan for Stewardship” on our website.)
So from here on, I’m going to work harder to “watch my words” and find other language so we don’t connect the word stewardship with campaigns or short-term programs. I will say that many of the annual campaign materials that are available today do include study materials that can be excellent resources for developing discussion and growth in the area of stewardship. However, I do not want to imply to anyone that conducting a fall campaign satisfies the need to teach stewardship to a congregation of disciples of Jesus Christ.
And maybe the stewardship of words, or our role as stewards of our message, is something that needs more of my attention. Yes, words do matter!