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November 22, 2009

Cultivating stewards: St. Stephen Deacon and Martyr grows with 45 ministries and counting

By Pam DeFiglio


A Christian steward is someone who receives God’s gifts gratefully, cherishes and tends God’s gifts responsibly, shares God’s gifts in love and justice and returns God’s gifts to him with increase, according to “Stewardship: A Disciple’s Response,” a pastoral letter published by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in 1992. The theology of stewardship goes beyond asking people to give more time, talent and treasure – it means helping people understand that all the gifts they have came from God, and it is up to them to use them wisely, in ways that show our love for God and one another. Stewardship involves not only money and material gifts, but also care for God’s creation, the proper vocations of all people and of the church itself. This package, in the season of Thanksgiving, looks at some ways parishes and the Archdiocese of Chicago are working to practice better stewardship and to increase stewardship among their people.  

Stewardship can start with a cup of coffee, a warm greeting or a heart-to-heart conversation at St. Stephen, Deacon and Martyr Parish in Tinley Park.

“Stewardship is making people feel welcome and comfortable,” said Deacon Joe Stalcup.

From those small beginnings, the parish engages people. Priests and deacons often talk about how stewardship means sharing the gifts God has given you with others, and encourage them to become involved in ministries and charitable activities. As parishioners do, they make friends, feel the reward of volunteering and become more invested, leading to a healthy dynamic of parish life.

While the average parish has a core group of 2 to 3 percent of highly active parishioners, Stalcup said, that number has reached 7 to 9 percent at St. Stephens.

“We have about 45 active ministries and if you want help to form a new ministry, we’re open to help you,” Stalcup said. The two priests and six deacons at this young parish, which is celebrating its 10th anniversary this month, are enthusiastic about doing things, not just maintaining the status quo, he said.

The ministries and good works arise from an understanding that all the gifts we have are from God, and that we are grateful and want to share them with those around us.

“When someone, in this case God, does something nice for you, you want to respond in kind, right?” Stalcup asked. “We talk a lot about sharing time, talent and treasure — to use the gifts God has given us for other people.”

The parish tries to match people’s skills, interests and availability to a ministry. Those without much free time might be able to spare 15 minutes before a Mass to be a greeter. Those who can crochet can take part in the shawl ministry, which knits shawls for hospital patients and attaches notes saying, “We wrap you in prayer.” Those with the gift of gab can do fellowship, serving cookies while chatting with others, and drawing them in to the parish family.

Time and talent are emphasized over treasure, Stalcup said. When people share in the life of the parish, they gladly share in the financial support.

“It’s something they want to do. People want to reciprocate because God has been good to us. And per registered family, we collect more money because we don’t nag people and we don’t nickel and dime them,” he said.

The church does not take second collections or run pledge drives, and its donations have only slightly dipped during the recession. The Annual Catholic Appeal donations were up this year, to $175,000, and St. Vincent De Paul donations increased, from about $25,000 to $42,000 in this middle to slightly-abovemiddle income parish of about 3,500 families.

People give generously because, as stewards, they’re invested in the church, he said.

St. Stephen plants the idea of stewardship in people’s minds early on. When people register to become parishioners, volunteers chat with them over coffee after Mass, ask them privately if they have any concerns, such as a need for marriage counseling, and give them gifts — a crucifix and a Christmas ornament.

“We make joining the parish a pleasant experience, not just, ‘have the usher give you a form,’” Stalcup explains.

Parishioner Barbara Black said she definitely felt this personal touch when she came to the parish.

“They’re warm and welcoming people, and you feel like they’re your family,” she said.

Stalcup got her involved from the day she joined. When he learned she worked in marketing, he asked her to come to a meeting. Today, she participates in several ministries: the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, the parish council and the bereavement ministry. She also serves as a lector and a minister of care and just graduated from a lay ministry program at Mundelein Seminary.

“I think of stewardship as that everything we have is a gift from God and we can share it with others. When you do that, you’re returning it to God,” she said. The ministries also help people to pray, and prayer is a big part of stewardship, she added.

Another parishioner, Laura Schmidt, participates in the marriage preparation ministry. About four times a year, she and her husband welcome engaged couples into their home to prepare them for the realities and joys of marriage from a Catholic perspective.

Schmidt also takes part in the Elizabeth ministry, which makes and delivers meals for parents with a newborn or families in which a serious illness prevents people from cooking. When she had a baby a year and a half ago, she was grateful to be on the receiving end of the home-cooked food.

Of her work in the ministries, she said, “For us, this is definitely stewardship. It’s a way we can give back our time, and some of our talent, too. We’ve been so fortunate and blessed, this is a way to pay it forward.“