Association of Bursars of Religious Institutes
Emmaus Conference Centre, November 10, 2014
"Seek First the Kingdom of God": Stewardship and a Culture of Giving
I am grateful for the invitation to speak to the Association of Bursars of Religious Institutes. It is with a certain trepidation that I speak to you, knowing my own limited experience in this field, and imagining the vast range of bursarship that you represent. I congratulate you on this initiative and also that so many of you are here.
I suppose it’s true to say that most people here didn’t apply to be bursars of their order or congregation. It wasn’t how they imagined themselves when they set out in the adventure of following Jesus in missionary discipleship. Being a bursar has become a call within a call. Believing in the work of the Holy Spirit through the charismatic foundation that gave rise to your religious order or congregation, you are both entitled and indeed bound to recognise and explore this call within a call and reflect on its meaning for you and for your congregation. An event such as this gathering should be an occasion for such exploration.
I hope my few comments will be of some value to you. Though they are coming from one who is somewhat inexperienced – though I am learning fast in the past year! – I offer them in a spirit of trust in your goodness and your desire after many years of experience to let yourselves hear that fundamental call that lies behind your current task. Though speaking in a different context, the point made by the French philosopher Paul Ricoeur regarding naivety holds true. Paraphrasing him, we might say that having overcome the first naivety that accompanied us at the beginning of our Christian discipleship within an order or congregation, there is always the need for a second naivety because beyond the desert of our difficulties we all want to be called again.
In reflecting on the theme, I propose four steps.
Firstly, when it comes to a Christian reflection on the role of administration such as being a bursar, it is helpful to pitch it against the broad canvas of the Kingdom of God and its culture of giving.
Secondly, since the bursars here are linked to a very specific experience, that of religious orders and congregations, it is good to remind ourselves that in serving a particular order or congregation, bursars are exercising an ecclesial service for the good of society.
Thirdly, I would like to offer some points that occur to me concerning the role of bursars within religious orders.
Fourthly, a few words on living the tension points today.
Stewardship, the Kingdom of God and the Culture of Giving
Right in the opening pages of the Bible (see Gen 2:15) we are presented with the image of a garden that Adam is placed in order to “till and keep it”. The narrator probably had in mind the work of a Palestinian farmer. But the image wants to help us visualise a dynamic project that God has inscribed in our world – a living space has been given to us in trust to civilise, develop and embellish.
Scripture scholars say there’s a sacred resonance to the words “tilling and keeping”. “Tilling” is linked to the notion of liturgical service and “keeping” echoes the keeping of the Torah. What these first pages of the Bible tell us is that responsible tilling and keeping, mature stewardship, is a sacred duty, always to be carried out in cooperation with God.
We could say that it was the break in truly responsible stewardship in the attempt to withdraw to self-determination, that resulted in things going wrong. Bad stewardship led to rivalry, confusion, senseless ambition, producing Babel, a tower destined to collapse (see Gen 1: 1-11). The shalom, that multi-dimensional peace and harmony intended by God got sundered apart and the gift of the garden ended up a bitter experience of desert for the people of Israel. True stewardship matters!
Turning to the New Testament, we can say that in proclaiming the Kingdom of God, Jesus, the Son of God, wanted to establish mature stewardship. At its core, the mature stewardship Jesus wants involves two conversions. On the one hand, we are to turn around in our relationship with God, to move from a method of calculating that is based on a sense of threat that comes from a fear of a distant deity. Instead, we are to recognise we are children of the loving Father Jesus called “Abba”. This conversion means abandonment to God’s loving and ever present providence. So we read in Mt 6:25-34: "Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you -- you of little faith? Therefore do not worry, saying, 'What will we eat?' or 'What will we drink?' or 'What will we wear?' For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. "So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today's trouble is enough for today. And in Mt 7: 7-11 we read: "Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you.”
This first conversion does not mean, however, a naïve or irresponsible way of living. God is not a paternalistic figure. Jesus wants us to see clearly that God calls us to maturity and responsibility, creativity and integrity.
Take, for instance, the parable of the talents. Each person is given a different number of talents and are expected to be active in making them produce gains. When the man comes back with his one talent in tact but without having gained anything he says, “Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.” But his master replied, “You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest. So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents. For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away (Mt 25: 24-29).
The second conversion at the root of the mature stewardship that Jesus promotes is expressed in a new way of responsible dealings with others in the network of social relationships that are made new by how we see ourselves in Christ. What I want to propose is that the dynamic of the Kingdom is characterised by a culture of giving and sharing. It expresses the “blessed are the poor” that is at the heart of Jesus’ message. And this is to be operative in all our decisions even if at times the decisions might seem negative.
As Christians we are always called to give. In Lk 6:38 we read: “Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back.” We see many instances of Jesus “giving” – giving food in the multiplication of the loaves; giving healing to the sick; giving hope to the bereaved; giving compassion to the sinful; giving taxes to the state; giving payment for the upper room. What I would like to point out is that Jesus lived his whole life with this attitude of giving. He had come to give his life for us, to lay down his life for us. And even when we see Jesus reproaching the Pharisees or casting out of the Temple or delaying when we might have expected him to act, we know that he is still in this attitude of “giving” his life for others – this can be expressed in saying the truth, being honest, living integrity.
Jesus and his companions operated a form of communion of goods that they shared for their ministry of proclaiming the Kingdom. And he imparts many words of practical wisdom: "Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much, and whoever is dishonest with very little will also be dishonest with much” (Lk 16:10). Or the advice to be prudent and have the oil lamps lit and have enough of stock of oil. Or again learn how to be shrewd from the children of this world “for the sons of this age are more shrewd in relation to their own kind than the sons of light” (Lk 16:8).
Paul often speaks of “giving”. It would be worth exploring Paul’s own stewardship and administration of goods. For instance, Luke describes Paul’s goodbye speech to the elders at Ephesus: “And now I commend you to God and to the message of his grace, a message that is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance among all who are sanctified. I coveted no one’s silver or gold or clothing. You know for yourselves that I worked with my own hands to support myself and my companions. In all this I have given you an example that by such work we must support the weak, remembering the words of the Lord Jesus, for he himself said, “It is more blessed to give than to receive.”’ (Acts 20: 32-35).
In speaking to the Corinthians about his collection for the community in Jerusalem, Paul says: “Now concerning the collection for the saints: you should follow the directions I gave to the churches of Galatia. On the first day of every week, each of you is to put aside and save whatever extra you earn, so that collections need not be taken when I come. And when I arrive, I will send any whom you approve with letters to take your gift to Jerusalem. If it seems advisable that I should go also, they will accompany me” (1 Cor 16: 1-4).
In explaining the source of the culture of giving at the heart of the new life in Christ, Paul reminds us of the gratuitousness of love rooted in Christ: “For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich” (2 Cor 8:9). Paul emphasises the gratuitousness of love. It’s not a giving in order to receive. It is not a giving because we have to. It is a giving that is free, carried out with good cheer and generous.
It is good to note this. There is a "giving" that is contaminated by the desire to have power over another person and that seeks to dominate or oppress individuals. This only appears to be "giving". There is a "giving" that seeks satisfaction and self-gratification from the act of giving. In essence, this is a selfish self-expression and usually is perceived by those who receive it as offensive and humiliating. There is a "giving" that is self-interested, or utilitarian, just giving for the sake of advantage.
The Christian "giving" is governed by “agape-love”. In this giving, the giver opens up to the other person and remains respectful of his or her dignity. It generates openness to God’s providence. It is a giving that is creative. In short, it is a giving that is always to be grounded in love. Paul tells us in 1 Cor 13: 3 writes: “If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.”
As we have already said, our giving is in the dynamic of the paschal mystery of Christ that gave his life for us. But this dynamic is nothing less than the life of the Trinity being explained to us. The Three Persons of the Trinity live a culture of giving. This culture of giving, as lived in God is a giving and receiving that are two sides of the one coin. In other words, giving and receiving are both expressions of the one dynamic of love. Jesus expresses this culture on earth. The culture of giving to which Jesus calls us is nothing less than translating in our day to day dealings the life of the Trinity on earth. Saint John Paul once wrote that we are called to “live the Trinity”. When we underline notions of helping the poor, subsidarity, solidarity, equality, co-responsibility, it is always important to recall these are dynamics that should be alive in a Christian community in a particular way – they are to be lived within the horizon of the Trinitarian Kingdom of God with its culture of giving that Jesus gave us.
Stewardship and Religious Orders
What I have presented so far is the grand design. How has the Church lived it? It is with this question that I want to consider stewardship and religious orders. I should say straightaway that we have fine writings, already from the fourth century, that are very clear on how earthly goods are to be viewed and it is clear that the culture of giving is very much to the fore. For instance, Basil of Caesarea, writing in 370 tells us the “Wells that are drawn from flow the better; left unused, they go foul…Money kept standing idle is worthless; but moving and changing hands it benefits the community and brings increase”. We know of John Chrysostom writing about giving money for beautiful chalices but ignoring the poor: “Now, in saying this I am not forbidding you to make such gifts; I am only demanding that along with such gifts and before them you give alms. He accepts the former, but he is much more pleased with the latter. In the former, only the giver profits; in the latter, the recipient does too. A gift to the church may be taken as a form of ostentation, but an alms is pure kindness. Of what use is it to weigh down Christ’s table with golden cups, when he himself is dying of hunger? First, fill him when he is hungry; then use the means you have left to adorn his table. Will you have a golden cup made but not give a cup of water?”
What I want to highlight here, however, is that alongside the writings of the Christian tradition there has been a rich history of laboratory-like experiments of the Christian view of stewardship, community life and indeed economics. And religious orders such as yours fits into this history. I’m referring to that charismatic-prophetic profile of the Church that is “co-essential” with the hierarchical-ministerial side of the Church. This was rediscovered at the Second Vatican Council.
The experiences of this charismatic/prophetic profile of the Church have been essential and valuable not only to the Church but to society. Monasteries and religious orders and movements have come to life through outpourings of the Spirit in what we call “charisms”. It is good to recall that charisms have played a major role both in the life of the Church and also in civil society.
It’s enough to think of St. Benedict. His “ora et labora” (work and pray) wasn’t simply an ethic of individual holiness. It became the basis of an ethic of work based on the nobility of work. In the Greek-Roman world work wasn’t really considered as something good. It was the Benedictine-Cistercian monasticism that highlighted the positive value of work and earning your keep. It is not enough to contemplate. We must also work.
Francis of Assisi took up this conviction and injected into it the centrality of fraternity. Indeed some of the first economic theorists were influenced by the Franciscan tradition.
It would be difficult to calculate just how much bearers of charisms have animated economic and social life with their works of charity, justice and mercy. Through these charisms agape irrupts into history. They are an expression of Church. It is important to recognise this “ecclesial” sense of congregations.
And it is also important to recognise their contribution to society. Fabio Ciardi writes that “in giving a charism the Spirit leads the founders to see the urgent needs of the Church and society and brings them to really see concrete needs and hopes, yearnings and cries, and moves them to give practical responses, marking the journey of the Church and society”. The orders have lived a culture of giving. They have received providence. They have been creative in the way they have used their goods. They have been trail blazers in opening new social outreach and activity. It isn’t always acknowledged – and, of course, we are all only too well aware of many glaring limits, faults and sins – but orders and congregations have also shaped society in a myriad of ways. As Pope Francis remarked last year, religious are called to wake the world up!
There is an important point to make here. A founder is someone endowed with a charism. It is true that they have a specific focus in mind in their dealings – teaching, healing the sick, looking after prisoners, educating clergy… What we might forget is that founders are bigger than how we so easily categorise them. Ultimately, founders wanted to bring about a social revolution. We should never reduce the founder to easy formulae or the projects that were established at the time of foundation.
I imagine that if we investigate it, most founders were also people who gave consideration to the shape and order of the workings of their community, including its financial aspect. They may have had a lively charismatic side to them, but sensitivity to the institutional is also found in them. They rejoiced in providence. They were attentive to the interventions of God. They valued even the smallest contributions. They also knew how to think big and expect much. Facing financial stress and difficulties is probably as much part of the congregation’s story as the major activities and breakthroughs in mission.
What I want to suggest is that in religious orders administration is not to be viewed as an appendix, a necessary evil, something less pure than the charism in its public missionary guise. We probably need to recognise it as much more intrinsic to the actual life of the charism and its mission. It has to do with the dynamic of incarnation. The Son of God became flesh, taking on our history. A charism is an incarnation of some aspect of the Gospel. If it’s true to the aspect of incarnation, a religious order will see the administration also as a feature of the charismatic mission itself. Perhaps we need to rediscover that the “how” of our congregation’s (or community’s) administration is linked to the effectiveness of our mission as both express the one and the same dynamic of incarnation of the charism. This administrative incarnation of the charism, expressed in the details of the congregation or order’s practical arrangements, is not something just for the bursar. It is a dynamic that engages all members of the congregation just as Paul involved the whole of his communities in his financial endeavours.
What is the role of Bursars?
At this point I would like to reflect on the role of the bursar within a congregation. The horizon is what we have outlined – the Kingdom of God, the culture of giving, the prophetic nature of the experiences of religious orders. I would like to suggest a few points that emerge for the role of bursars.
A bursar serves both the communion and mission of the order. While the congregation leader has the particular responsibility of the cohesion and unity of the members with a view to mission, nevertheless, the bursar, because of the very practical role he or she carries out, is in a key position to be an instrument of communion among the members of the religious order in serving the mission of the order. If he or she lives the role as one of service and not dominance, then the facts and figures that have to be dealt with can become occasions for opening up a dialogue with members of the congregation. They are “real” and perhaps provide the opportunities for real discussion. We need to take these opportunities for conversation.
A bursar is called to promote a sense of common ownership. I read an article last year and it struck me by indicating how religious communities often began with some form of pact between its founding members. It was a common “ownership” of the project that was its initial and continuing strength. It is important to keep this alive – to steward together in communion the practical dimensions of economics and budgeting, planning and targets as well as working through the crises that emerge. It will be important for the bursar to foster a sense of common ownership by all the members of the Congregation. That might mean resisting the temptation to do things by oneself because it would be quicker and simpler!
Linked to this is the call to make an option for the poor. This is a theme in Pope Francis that is resonating throughout the Catholic Church. He writes, “I want a Church which is poor and for the poor. They have much to teach us. Not only do they share in the sensus fidei, but in their difficulties they know the suffering Christ. We need to let ourselves be evangelized by them” (EG, 198), and “No one must say that they cannot be close to the poor because their own lifestyle demands more attention to other areas. This is an excuse commonly heard in academic, business or professional, and even ecclesial circles.” (EG, 202). In his promotion of the way of poverty, Pope Francis also highlights our need to protect creation. Bursars are called to lead reflection and action in the light of a genuine Christian understanding of poverty in terms of a culture of giving and also in terms of protecting creation.
A bursar can play a key role in assisting the Congregation discern the direction God is indicating. Financial and administrative challenges are part of the “signs of the times” that indicate the will of God. Bursars need to become experts in discerning and helping others to discern God’s voice in the midst of circumstances. What is God saying through recent developments? How can we best “give”? The art of discernment is something we have to learn. It requires also that we need to be professionaly competent or at least know we need to rely on competent advice.
This next point might surprise! A bursar is called to keep the sense of enchantment alive within the Congregation. He or she can do so in a number of ways. Firstly, a religious order is a work of God. Founders always had a lively sense of God’s involvement also through providence. A bursar is someone who should help the other members continue to appreciate that the congregation’s economy is an expression of God’s capital entrusted to them. And providence is always at work even in the smallest of ways. We should always keep alive the enchantment of the small surprises. In today’s economics, there are some who are beginning to speak of relational goods within our economy, in other words, those aspects of economics that aren’t the easily quantifiable euro and properties. A bursar in a congregation is called to be a specialist in recognising these relational goods within the communion – the bonds of communion, the value of the community itself in a social context, the talents of particular members for the good and wellbeing of all the members of the community etc.
A bursar can also help to train the members of the community to hear the voices and see faces behind bureaucracy. And this applies to the choices of purchases and dealings. On the one hand, this means living a spirituality of seeing Jesus in each person – including those you are dealing with through paperwork! And in this light, the bursar should be the specialist in asking for the stories of people and circumstances behind the facts and figures. We appreciate much more today how the stories behind so much of the goods we buy and the choices we make relate to issues of justice, respect and rights.
As one economist, Luigino Bruni, puts it: “Our capitalistic culture is making us attribute growing importance to calories, salts and sugars. But we cannot and should not forget that there exist social calories, salts of justice and other types of excessive sugars that may cause civil and moral heart attack, obesity and diabetes.” In other words, we need to ask ourselves – is this business transaction the best not just in terms of cost effectiveness but in terms of the social, cultural and ecological implications of our dealings. Pope Benedict has written, “what is needed is an effective shift in mentality which can lead to the adoption of new lifestyles in which the quest for truth, beauty, goodness and communion with others, for the sake of common growth are the factors which determine consumer choices, savings and investments”.
A bursar needs to be open to newness. A charism is about newness and new ways. And even if there is decline, we should be open to newness especially in view of today’s call to evangelisation. Pope Francis has said, ““Newness always makes us a bit fearful, because we feel more secure if we have everything under control, if we are the ones who build, programme and plan our lives in accordance with our own ideas, our own comfort, our own preferences. This is also the case when it comes to God. Often we follow him, we accept him, but only up to a certain point. It is hard to abandon ourselves to him with complete trust, allowing the Holy Spirit to be the soul and guide of our lives in our every decision. We fear that God may force us to strike out on new paths and leave behind our all too narrow, closed and selfish horizons in order to become open to his own. Yet throughout the history of salvation, whenever God reveals himself, he brings newness - God always brings newness…. This is not a question of novelty for novelty’s sake… Do we have the courage to strike out along the new paths which God’s newness sets before us, or do we resist, barricaded in transient structures which have lost their capacity for openness to what is new? (19 May, 2013)
Bursar in a time of change
It is true that we are in a time of change. Houses have to be closed; projects wound up; elderly to be catered for; hard decisions to be made. It is easy to be despondent. A bursar can often find him/herself at the point of tensions about future decisions or current implementation of decisions. How are we to view our role at this time of change?
Perhaps we can take some inspiration from Pope Francis words when he says “Let us not say, then, that things are harder today; they are simply different.” (EG, 263). The charism has no age in itself. The Spirit is still present. A bursar needs fidelity to the institute’s statutes and founding vision. But that means a creative fidelity. It can happen that there are activities going on that are not really relevant to the expression of the congregation’s mission today. There can be properties that do not express the charism today. There are initiatives that might better express the charism.
The bursar need not fear creative fidelity. After all, it’s not that the Franciscans follow Francis or the Dominicans St. Dominic. Rather, the Franciscans together with Francis share a charism and become Francis in their world today. I was in Assisi recently and our guide, Fr. Egidio, said something that struck me about Francis. The original calling came about in the Crucified Christ’s words to Francis: “re