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 | By Dan Cellucci

Ownership Rights

Whose Church is It, and What Does That Mean for Us?

I will bottom line it for you. It’s not our church. Don’t stop reading. Yes, we are blessed to belong to this church. Yes, we hopefully feel invested in this faith community. But we don’t own the church. This church belongs to Jesus and, thankfully, we belong to him. This may sound like semantics or nice language, but it’s much more than nuance. It’s a fundamental posture that our research suggests makes a significant difference in not only one’s personal life but in the life and vitality of a parish.

Our apostolate has the blessing to survey parishioners all over the country and, after 10 years and more than 500,000 responses of primarily Mass-going Catholics, we see a clear opportunity to accompany those in the pew into a deeper personal relationship with Jesus and help them grow in discipleship.

Many of the parishes we accompany attempt to work on “stewardship.” I put the word in quotations not because it’s not a real word. Quite the opposite. It’s very big and very real. However, most Catholics have widely different understandings of the word, and a very limited one. For many parishes, stewardship revolves around money or getting people engaged. It certainly includes these things, but these are merely outward signs of a much deeper and significant reality. The church has taught that stewardship is a disciple’s response. It is not a strategy, a talent fair, a way to help collections. Stewardship is our sacrifice in thanksgiving and in ownership over the ultimate gift that Christ gave us – salvation in him and accompaniment in his church.

I’d like to confess some of the traps I fall into personally when it comes to our posture toward stewardship. Perhaps you might resonate with one or two.

Worshiping as a consumer:

 Did the homily speak to me? Was the music well done? Did I feel connected? It wasn’t until a few years ago during a men’s Gospel reflection that I heard for the first time that Mass isn’t really about me. It’s for us to offer sacrifice. I knew that was the case for the priest. I had never considered it as my role in the pew. We want people to be fed spiritually and don’t want them to suffer through poorly coordinated liturgy. But our primary posture is to offer glory and praise to our lord. Are we stewards in the way we respond to the Mass parts, the way we sing, in our attentiveness to the word being proclaimed, or our reverence during the consecration? This is an important and regular opportunity we all have to grow in our role as stewards.

Squeezing it in:

My plate is full. How about you? Four kids, traveling for work, aging parents, the list goes on and on. I like to believe I am responsive to my pastor when he asks for something. I try to get the bedtime and mealtime prayers said every day. If I am honest, however, I look at these as nice to-dos, as things I will get to if the day allows. In seeing stewardship as a sacrifice, we need to give from where it hurts the most—our time, our most precious gift. Whether it’s time, talent, or treasure, stewardship is about offering our first fruits. In the multiplication of the loaves and fish, the child in John’s Gospel didn’t offer the lord his scraps, he gave the lord all he had. When it comes to our time, are we offering the best we have or what we can scrape together? Perhaps some days they are the same, but how we give is as important as what we give.

Declining someone else’s invitation for them:

One of the traps for parish leaders and pastors is denying others the opportunity to make their sacrifice to the lord. Usually, this happens with the best of intentions. In a parish meeting, it goes something like this. “Mary would be great at this,” someone might suggest. Inevitably, someone will retort, “Oh she has a new baby, she can’t do that,” or “Mary’s so involved in the school, she doesn’t have any time for that.” I was facilitating another parish’s planning and someone offered a beautiful vision for a more comprehensive stewardship approach. Several fellow parishioners responded, “Our folks won’t want that.” While we might think we are thinking of others when we make such statements, we are limiting each other. We are declining someone else’s invitation from the lord to give him glory and praise.

We don’t own the church. We own our responsibility to try and cherish a gift that we can’t possibly grasp in full. We are blessed to own our response as disciples to bring our deepest joy, life in the lord, to the world’s deepest hunger. Sacrifice is never easy but the benefits are out of this world.

Dan Cellucci is CEO of the Catholic Leadership Institute.