A Generosity Project Reflection: Generosity is Learned

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A Generosity Project Reflection: Generosity is Learned

The Generosity Project is a collaborative effort between ABCUSA, regions, and local congregations. The Generosity Project aims to help pastors re-frame the conversation around stewardship and generosity in their congregations. Bi-monthly blogs help support new growth and understanding as we deepen our ministry and discipleship. The reflection below was provided by Rev. Stacy Emerson.

I was recently introduced to the work of Professor Christian Smith from Notre Dame University who is studying the science of generosity.  This is his working definition of generosity:

“Generosity is the virtue of giving things to others freely and abundantly.  It is a learned character trait that involves attitude and action entailing both the inclination and actual practice of giving liberally.  It is not a haphazard behavior but a basic orientation to life.  What generosity gives can vary: money, possessions, time, attention, aid, encouragement, and more but always intends to enhance the true wellbeing of the receiver.  Like all virtues, generosity is in people’s genuine enlightened self-interest to learn and practice.”

~Christian Smith, Professor of Sociology and Director of the Center for the Study of Religion and Society at the University of Notre Dame

What is striking about this statement is that generosity is not something inherently unique to certain individuals with the right genetics or disposition, but something available to everyone to learn.  Generosity, like faith, is something that is nurtured and formed over time.

Think about what you were taught as a child about money or giving.  What are the images and phrases that come to mind?  In my family with one income and 5 children, money was tight.  And while I don’t think my parents were considering the long-term impression they were making, my key learning growing up was “money doesn’t grow on trees.”  Scarcity and stress around finances were the focus as they did their best to support our family.  However, we were also often offering hospitality to friends who needed a place to go for Thanksgiving or who needed a place to stay for a few months while they got back on their feet.  Generosity isn’t always about money, but a “basic orientation to life” as Smith says.

So how do we pass on that learning?  How do we help nurture generosity as a character trait in our children, our families, our congregations and communities?  So much of generosity is rooted in relationships, and so that is where we need to begin.  Teaching how to be in relationship with each other, how to be caring, how to forgive, and how to be invested in each other’s well-being is a good place to start.  Generosity doesn’t start with money.  It starts with the understanding of our connectedness in God’s creation, God’s abundant love for that creation, and the ways in which God’s love flows through us to become a reality that transforms the world.  All of which makes the practice of stewardship and generosity fundamental to our living out the call to be disciples of Jesus.

Rev. Stacy Emerson is the senior pastor of the First Baptist Church in West Hartford, CT and the Stewardship Consultant for ABCUSA.  She is also the Coordinator for The Generosity Project which is about helping congregations deepen their understanding of stewardship as a call to generosity as disciples of Jesus; re-framing the stewardship conversation; and cultivating generosity in pastors, lay people, and congregations.