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Don’t think of an elephant!

Don’t think of an elephant!
Cynthia McChesney

Don’t think of an elephant!

How'd that work out?

Once that word "elephant" is out, it's in your head, even if it's preceded by "Don't think." Already there.

George Lakoff, linguist and political scientist, used this example in his book of the same name to analyze how political framing sways public opinion, determines voting patterns and even changes people’s political orientation. It's a technique we see in politics, and beyond. It works because of how we as humans use and understand language.

Language has power. Words have power. We need to think about their power when we communicate important matters. In communication about Stewardship, we should be aware of how "framing," the preconception that may exist in our fellow parishioners' minds may affect the meaning they hear. "Stewardship" has tended to be "framed" in our casual church parlance as a synonym for the annual pledge campaign instead of as a way of living one’s life as a steward, in gratitude for the gifts God has given us and in responsibility for taking care of something of value, something we treasure.

How we talk about Stewardship matters. Consider these two statements:

I give to my church.

I give to God through my church.

The first sentence is accurate as far as it goes. Your check, your offering, your digital pledge payment does physically go to your church. But when we think about the act of giving that way, and when we talk about it in that (limited) way, we set up the idea that it's a simple transaction between you and the church. Nothing more.

When I say "I give to God through my church," what you hear is both more expansive, but also more accurate – because, after all, that is why I give.

This expansiveness, this opening up of the equation to include God, is supported by the communication style described in Charles Lane's book on Stewardship, Ask, Thank, Tell. Asking and thanking are obvious, but the third part – telling – can get left out in our Stewardship communications.

Without “telling” you have a closed loop. You ask for the gift and thank the person when it comes in. That pattern supports “I give to my church.” When we remember how important the “Tell” is, we show how giving to the church ultimately is giving to God, because it supports God’s work. My understanding of giving evolves into "I give to God through my church."

In Stewardship, when we tell stories of ministry that our churches are doing, that are made possible because of the financial support of our parishioners, we help articulate that expansiveness, the wonder of God’s works in the world, and our participation in helping make those works possible.

Similarly, when we do the work of narrative (or ministry) budgeting, translating a line item budget into a something visual that helps show how dollars pledged are transformed into church ministries, we help our parishioners see their role within a framework that includes God and God’s Kingdom.

Language matters. How might you use language differently to reframe the way you talk about Stewardship?


P.S. Speaking of Facebook, click here to join our private Stewardship Matters Facebook Group and our more general page here. Check them out!