As a young person, Rev. Sheryl Johnson got involved in her local United church because she was excited about the church’s work on decolonization, ecological justice, and solidarity with global liberation movements. She didn’t give much thought to church budgets. “I thought of stewardship as primarily about the institution rather than the mission of the church,” she writes. But later, as a church leader herself, Johnson began to see how church finances affected precisely the things she believed in most.
At a time when many churches are preoccupied with declining memberships and making fiscally prudent decisions, Johnson, a United Church minister who serves as a pastor at the Congregational Church of San Mateo in San Mateo, Calif., and a visiting faculty lecturer in ethics at Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary, argues for a daring, justice-oriented approach to church finance in her book Serving Money, Serving God: Aligning Radical Justice, Christian Practice, and Church Life.
Johnson spoke with Josiah Neufeld.
Josiah Neufeld: What led you to write this book?
Sheryl Johnson: For my PhD research, I did a literature review of books about Christian stewardship and there wasn’t very much written from a progressive, justice-oriented perspective. A lot of churches have done good theological work about justice, but when comes to our financial practices, there seems to be a disconnect.
JN: Where does that disconnect come from?
SJ: I think our imagination is limited by some of our assumptions about what church should be: We should grow. We should try to exist as long as possible. Closure is failure. We also mistake the goal of preserving the church as an institution with the goal of preserving faith. It really seems like those are rooted in different values that are not congruent with our stated ethical commitments and beliefs.
JN: Why is it important to talk more about money in church?
SJ: A lot of people are struggling to make ends meet and experiencing stress about money. Scarcity exists because of economic and racial systems, and some people don’t have a very strong social safety net. They shouldn’t suffer alone. We preach that we should bear one another’s burdens, but financial stress is not always something people feel comfortable talking about. There’s huge potential in churches for people to support one another better.
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JN: How, for example?
SJ: Circle of Hope is a church in the Philadelphia area that has a debt annihilation program. People are organized into small trusting circles who practice financial transparency and help each other pay off their debts. The church also has a thrift store and other ministries supported by the budget that help people live more simply. This is an example of a church using the power of community to destigmatize ideas of debt, to help people to realize that debt is not a personal failing, and to ask questions about why we live in such a debt-ridden society and how can we work together toward more sustainable ways of living.
JN: You want churches to talk not just about how they spend money but about how they acquire it.
SJ: We tend to assume that what we own is rightfully ours as long as we didn’t directly steal it from another person. But when we look at things like privilege and colonization, it’s not so clear anymore. People who are white are more likely to inherit money than people of colour. Those of us who are not Indigenous have benefitted from our occupation of the land. A church with a fancy building in a desirable part of town can bring in a lot of rental income that perhaps isn’t possible for a church located somewhere else. So I think we need to ask ourselves, is this money in our budget all ours? Who does the land really belong to? That might help us figure out who needs to be part of the conversation.
JN: Who might churches want to include in their decisions about finance?
SJ: Involve the people who are most passionate about justice. Include people from different economic backgrounds. Church buildings can be really important non-commercial public spaces for rental groups; if we bring some of those groups into the conversation, we might learn a different perspective. If we invite local Indigenous leaders into the conversation, they may bring a different relationship to the land and a different understanding of property.
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JN: You talk about three principles: reparations, jubilee, and commoning. What do you mean by those?
SJ: Reparations means making repair where the church has been implicated in unjust systems. That could look like finding an Indigenous group to pay a land tax to or returning some portion of land or participating in Indigenous-led environmental stewardship practices.
Jubilee is about debt relief, taking a break from participation in a debt economy and releasing people from debt. For example, a church could forgive the debt of a rental group that has encountered an issue and cannot pay their bills. I saw some churches do this with renters impacted by COVID. Or they could provide funds for an individual to get out of a personal debt.
Commoning is about weaving together stronger social safety nets, either within a congregation or between congregations. Moving away from a competition mindset towards a collaboration mindset.
JN: You’re asking churches resist the dominant economic model. That’s not easy, in fact, it could cost a church everything. Why is it worth doing?
SJ: A lot of the stability we may feel is an illusion. I think to really innovate feels risky, but it also can bring new life.
It may bring some new people into the church who might not be so sure about the belief aspects of church but who see the church helping people live more joyful, creative, communally connected lives.
It can also be freeing for people to realize it’s not necessarily a failure if we can’t continue to own a building forever. If we’re not trying to survive by any means necessary, but rather trying to live boldly and faithfully, we might be freed from that fear.
Churches can be really exciting spaces to practice some of the values that we hope for and work for in broader society. It can be heartening to offer a community-oriented model that’s different from society at large. It could give people a refuge.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Josiah Neufeld is a journalist and fiction writer in Winnipeg.
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Ian Sutherland says:
Big problem. Congregations are mostly small groups of octegenarians who don't want anything to change; at least not until they have their funeral. Then you have full-time ministers and other leaders drawing full-time salaries and benefits who are robbing the church coffers, and who a salivating at the massive real estate values that pad the balance sheets. How have we preserved faith if the church's finances and its mandate have been mis-managed and the church closes?
Russell Smith says:
Should social/ economic/moral/environmental education be a primary church function?