I will never forget the day my mom dropped me off at Bockman Hall on the Luther Seminary campus in St. Paul a few weeks before I started seminary. It was a warm summer day. We had just moved all of my stuff into my tiny room. My mom had graciously helped me decorate it, so it felt just a little more like home. Right before she left, she let me know that now that I was in graduate school I was going to be responsible to pay for almost all of my bills on my own. My parents would be there to help me financially if I needed it, but for the most part, I would be on my own. I remember thinking to myself: “I know absolutely nothing about money.” I had no idea what bills I’d need to pay, how much my lifestyle really cost, or even how to find a job on campus. While I had learned good practices of saving and giving from my parents growing up, in so many ways I was a financial blank slate.
As I think back on that moment 12 years later so much has changed. I went from being someone who knew almost nothing about money to someone who makes a living by teaching people about money. But, even more than that I’ve experienced profound change in my personal life with money. This transformation of my life with money has afforded me new opportunities to live out my faith in daily life, deepened my trust in God, and strengthened my relationship with my neighbors. In so many ways, it has changed my life and profoundly impacted my faith.
For many people, their relationship with God is divorced from their life with money. And yet, for me, one of the places where I have seen God at work most clearly is in my life with money. In this Easter season, I want to share with you the death, resurrection, and new life I’ve experienced in my relationship with money over the last twelve years since that day in Bockman Hall.
From It All Belongs to Me to It All Belongs to God
As I think back to that fateful day, one of the key things that stands out to me is the weight I felt on my shoulders after my mom left my room. I felt a deep weight of responsibility to provide for myself and to manage the money that I earned. I felt anxious and alone.
It was also very easy for me to look around my dorm room and think of all the things I didn’t have. While so many of my friends were just getting settled into their first real jobs and first apartments, I was living a spartan lifestyle in a tiny dorm room with a bathroom I shared with ten other women. I was jealous that my friends could go out to restaurants without thinking twice, could fly home to see their family without having to ask for money to cover the plane trip, and so much more. I thought about throwing myself a pity party.
About a week after I moved in, through a serendipitous turn of events that could only have happened by God’s hand, I sat down in Rev. Jerry Hoffman’s cube in the Seminary Relations office to learn more about the student worker position available at the Stewardship Leaders Program. Instead of a job interview, Jerry blessed me with a 30-minute stewardship sermon. Out of everything Jerry taught me in that half-hour, he changed my life and deeply impacted my faith with five little words: “it all belongs to God.” He taught me that stewardship is about managing what God has entrusted to my care. It all belongs to God—even my money. God has entrusted us collectively with an abundance of resources and invites us to see the world through the lens of abundance.
In so many ways, that conversation in Jerry’s cube was a baptismal moment. He invited me to put to death the belief that everything I have belongs to me, the weight of responsibility and anxiety I felt, and, most of all, my mindset of scarcity. He invited me into a new life and a new relationship with God where I understood God as the creator, and me as the steward where I could experience authentic, gracious gratitude for what I had, even as I struggled to make ends meet. I began to hear God’s invitation to steward what little I had differently and found new ways to live into my new found call as steward of God’s abundance.
Small Living to Expansive Stewardship
As I lived more deeply into my call to stewardship, I fell into a trap that so many faithful Christians fall into: believing that the only way to live out my call to stewardship was to keep as little as I could for myself and give everything away. I wanted to keep my needs and wants to a minimum so that I could be as generous as possible with my neighbors in need. I so desperately wanted to do this “stewardship thing” right and I thought this was the best way to do that. Didn’t Jesus invite the rich young ruler to give everything away?
I’ll never forget the moment my perspective changed. I was out on a date with my boyfriend (now husband), Tyler, at the Melting Pot in Downtown Minneapolis. I had a coupon to get a free appetizer with an order of drinks—I was so excited for this frugal date! After we sat down, Tyler began pursuing the menu. He looked at me and said, “Grace, I think we should forget the coupon and order a three-course meal.” I thought I was going to faint. Seeing my pallor he said, “Don’t worry Grace, I’ll get the bill. I just want us to sit here and enjoy every moment of our time together this afternoon.” It was an unforgettable meal with exceptional company. We stayed for three hours watching the city go by, trying new dishes, and relishing in our time together. I was surprised to find that at the end of the meal, I didn’t feel deeply convicted, instead I felt deeply grateful. I couldn’t wait to share this experience with friends. I hoped to have the opportunity to bless someone else with an opportunity like this someday.
In that moment, as in the classic movie “Babette’s Feast,” I realized that my portrait of God and my vision of stewardship was too small. I had distilled stewardship down to a transaction “the less I keep for myself, the more my neighbor can have.” God’s vision is so much more extravagant and expansive than ours can ever be! God opened my eyes to the many ways that I could experience the fullness of what life, love, and creation had to offer while also inviting others to join the feast. Like the Israelites in Deuteronomy 14, God was inviting me to rejoice and eat, while making sure all were provided for.
Unlike my first transformation that was a nearly instantaneous death and resurrection experience, this second transformation is one that I have experienced over the course of the last ten years since that dinner at the Melting Pot. As I shared in my article from February, I believe God calls us to live out our call to stewardship in all of the ways we use money: spending, saving, giving, and acquiring. Instead of neglecting my own savings in favor of giving, I have found that using my retirement plan dollars to invest in solar and wind energy can have a bigger impact on God’s creation than any monthly donation I could afford to make. Instead of “playing small” and just accepting what little pay I might receive for my work, I have seen my life and the lives transformed as I have learned to advocate for my own salary and benefits and helped others to do the same. Over the course of the pandemic, I have watched how countless neighborhood businesses have been sustained and even thrived in the midst of economic struggle because of the consistent financial support of their neighbors. What we do with all of our money matters. Giving isn’t the only faithful expression of stewardship.
One of the questions I love to ask the seminary students in my classes is: “Where do you sense the Holy Spirit is leading you in your relationship with money?” As I look back over the past ten years, I see the fingerprints of the Holy Spirit all over my story. God continues to surprise, confound, and expand my view of stewardship. I’m grateful for the death, resurrection, and experience of new life in my relationship with money even as I continue dying every day to my ideas about money that have held me back from my relationship with God.