When Father Marcel Bouchard talks about stewardship, it's clear he's not repeating some development buzzword. For this Cape Cod, Mass., pastor and others like him, stewardship has been more than a fundraising tool or even a parish philosophy. It is a true spirituality.

"Stewardship is an acceptance of the fact that everything we have is a gift from God, and the only way we can show gratitude for it is returning those gifts in service to others," he said.

While the term "stewardship" has come to be synonymous to many people with raising cash, its adherents define it as something much greater -- the commitment of "time, talent and treasure" in a way that pervades their spiritual life.

Converting hearts

For Father Bouchard and many priests across the country, embracing stewardship has been a personal, life-changing experience.

"The pastor's heart has to be converted," he said. "I really feel I had a conversion experience along the way, and that's what plunged me into it head over heels."

Father Bouchard has been pastor of Corpus Christi Parish in East Sandwich, Mass., in the Fall River diocese, since 1998, but his experience with stewardship dates back to a previous pastorate. "I wasn't thrilled with the assignment," he said bluntly. But as the parish began to embrace the concept of stewardship, the priest's heart was opened.

"Along the way, I learned, because of stewardship, to trust in God and trust I was where he wanted me to be," he told Our Sunday Visitor. As a result, he grew to enjoy his assignment, and said when he was transferred to Corpus Christi, "I was sad to leave."

Coming to Corpus Christi in 1998, Father Bouchard was faced with the task of paying off the parish's existing debt, purchasing land and building a new church. It's all been accomplished.

But what's more, Corpus Christi has embraced Father Bouchard's commitment to "total stewardship," which he defines as a yearly appeal to people, first of all, to volunteer their time and talent, as well as to make a sacrificial gift of their offering, and, second, not having any second collections for anything, so that the parish itself follows the example of the parishioners by making a sacrificial tithe of 6 percent of its collection to whatever the normal second collection would have been. He's hoping to get the tithe to 10 percent before he's through.

It was not easy to create the stewardship mindset, but Father Bouchard, who is also the diocesan director of stewardship, said it would have been impossible without his full commitment as pastor.

"It's like the father of the family, so you're responsible for setting the tone," he said. "If you're not interested or not behind something, it really isn't going to succeed. Stewardship without the support of the pastor would be very limited in its success. The pastor has to really get it, and sometimes that's difficult."

Spiritual way of life

In his approach, Father Bouchard has much in common with the founding father of stewardship in this country, Msgr. Thomas McGread, who created the concept at his former parish of St. Francis of Assisi in Wichita, Kan., and is credited with coining the signature term: "time, talent and treasure."

Msgr. McGread took his success at St. Francis of Assisi in the late 1960s and '70s and helped institute it across the diocese and to parishes around the country. Following the stewardship model, St. Francis of Assisi was able to operate a completely free Catholic school. Today, all of the Wichita Catholic schools are free, supported by the stewardship of their parishes.

Now retired and living in Wichita, Msgr. McGread told OSV. "Nothing will happen in a parish without the pastor. Nothing at all." He added: "It's a spiritual way of life. Most of them think it's a program like many other things, and it's not a program at all. It's an experience, ... a change of heart."

Though slowed by age and infirmity, Msgr. McGread is still preaching the stewardship message. He has lent his name and endorsement to Catholic Stewardship Consultants, which works with parishes around the country in developing and maintaining stewardship.

Eric McArdle, president and co-founder of the Augusta, Ga., firm, has seen all levels of commitment from pastors, and says without question that the firm support of the pastor is of "utmost importance."

"We even tell priests, if the pastor doesn't believe in developing stewardship as a way of life in a holistic sense, it's not going to go anywhere," McArdle said, adding that he has seen parishes with vibrant stewardship programs where "a change in pastor upsets that."

"Unless the [new] pastor winds up being converted...what was once alive, vibrant and growing, it dies on the vine."

Countercultural message

Oftentimes, McArdle said, the barrier to the pastor's buy-in is simply a misunderstanding about what stewardship really is. Because the term has become a buzzword in the development community for fundraising, oftentimes pastors think that's all there is to it. Rather, he said, it is a spirituality that is based completely on Scripture.

"They think they have to preach about money all the time, and nothing could be further from the truth," McArdle said. "And, truthfully, if they were trying to preach about getting money for the parish all the time, that right there is going to kill stewardship, no two ways about it. A lot of them end up having that perception, but what we try to get them to understand is...when we're focusing on the money aspect, it's more that the pastor should be preaching about the use of money, not about how much the parish needs to get, but how we utilize the money that God has given to us as individuals or couples. And that right there says a lot about what's really important to us."

When Catholic Stewardship Consultants works with a parish, the company focuses on the commitment of "time, talent and treasure." McArdle explained that time primarily relates to a commitment to prayer -- personal prayer, family prayer, reception of the sacraments, regular Mass attendance. Talent refers to service to the parish and to the greater community, and treasure includes not only making a sacrificial gift to the parish offertory but "how we use money all across the board."

Successful parishes, he said, will see an increase in Mass attendance, parish life and oftentimes vocations, as well as in offertory collections.

Father Bill Schooler, pastor of St. Pius X Parish in Granger, Ind., in the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend, echoed the "critical" role pastors play and cautioned how they must "be careful to keep the philosophy alive, being careful to avoid fundraisers, which cut into the message of stewardship."

He explained: "It is easier to go for the quick fixes, the fundraisers with which people bombard us constantly. The message of stewardship is very countercultural, and it is sometimes tough to fight our consumer-oriented culture."

Slowly but surely, though, the message seems to be resonating, and the philosophy is spreading. Father Bouchard in East Sandwich proudly pointed to what has occurred since he left his last parish more than 10 years ago.

"Not only did my successor continue stewardship, but his successor has continued stewardship," he said. "So there are two pastors after me who have kept the ball rolling."

Dennis Poust writes from upstate New York.