Philanthropic stewardship

October 6, 2011

As a stewardship and development officer in the Episcopal Church I awoke the other day in my Seattle apartment thinking about Francis of Assisi and his spiritual gift to us through his philanthropic stewardship. These thoughts were not just because the church recently celebrated his feast day, but more because of my attendance at the Episcopal Church’s Office of Mission Funding's symposium on the "Spirituality of Philanthropy" held in late September at the Episcopal Church Center in New York City.

This was a rich gathering of development leaders from around the country. The networking alone was worth the five-and-a-half hour flight from the West Coast. Our convener, the Rev. Carol Hoidra, provided us with an excellent lineup of plenary and workshop leaders that framed our work with engaging precision.

Diana Swancutt, associate professor of New Testament at Yale Divinity School, set the context of our work for us through an enlightened theological reflection on scripture that drew us into the equation of the inextricable spiritual and physical implications of philanthropy. Her perspective certainly moves our work in the church away from the secular deep into the sacred, breaking down barriers of reluctance that many feel in entering this work of talking about money. A significant point was her clarity on what it meant to truly thrive in this world: “Thriving is being with the poor, serving the poor and providing for the poor,” giving a pastoral perspective on approaching a donor to participate in the mission of the church through their financial and material gifts. Certainly St. Francis understood this. I see huge implications of this on my work. She left me feeling that the question is not who will act, but rather how will we act on this issue!

Matthew Bishop, the U.S. business editor and New York bureau chief of The Economist gave us an economic window into the work of "philanthrocaptialism," the subject of his recent book with Michael Green on this subject. He gave us a snapshot of the philanthropic philosophies of Andrew Carnegie, Bill Gates, and Michael Bloomberg, which all address eco-justice in entrepreneurial ways. The opportunity here for us is in creating new avenues for economic justice work in the church through philanthropic participation in the proverbial teaching one to fish, instead of merely giving one a fish. I am excited about exploring these possibilities.

Friday morning opened with an engaging presentation by Gary Anderson, the Hesburgh professor of catholic theology at the University of Notre Dame, which challenged the sense that philanthropy truly could be extracted from the spiritual. Anderson deftly established that "utilitarian value is not the only index for measuring the accomplishments of charity in the world." I was particularly moved by his quote from Julian (the apostate) written to a pagan priest: "One fifth of the food I am sending you is to be used by the poor who serve the priests and the remainder to be distributed to strangers and beggars. For it is disgraceful that, when no Jew ever has to beg, and the impious Galileans (Christians) support not only their own poor but ours as well, when all men see that our people lack aid from us." Anderson's linking the financial resources to the actual mission gave an illustrative example of how we can approach what we do.

Thomas Wolf, founder and principal of WolfBrown, closed our plenary sessions with an artful emphasis on developing relationships with donors. But while his point might have been obvious, his 14 points guiding our work offers an invaluable framework for meaningful touch points.

I attended the workshops the "Role of the Rector and Data Analysis." Each of these gave incredibly helpful tools that will benefit me in executing my work. This has truly energized me in this work. I look forward to continuing conversations with my colleagues I met at the symposium and next year's gathering.

-- The Rev. Lance Ousley is the canon for stewardship and development in the Diocese of Olympia, Washington. Before his move to Seattle, he served as rector of St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church in Wharton, Texas, and as chair of the Stewardship Commission in the Diocese of Texas. He is a longstanding board member of The Episcopal Network for Stewardship.