Our weather report predicted “fall-like” weather for today. As summer winds down, many of us see Stewardship campaigns lying just ahead. If you’re wondering how to approach things differently this year, take a look at Not Your Parents’ Offering Plate: A New Vision for Financial Stewardship, by J. Clif Christopher.
Christopher is ordained in the United Methodist Church and began his career in parish ministry. In 1992 he founded the Horizons Stewardship Company, a consulting business that works with churches and other faith-based institutions to meet financial goals. He writes from both his experience as a pastor and as a consultant, and his underlying principle is that being a proper steward of what God has given us is our primary call. It leads us to loving care of the church, of the earth, and of ourselves and our families.
It also leads to a lot more work for the pastor, and Christopher ends the book with a note to pastors saying he wouldn’t blame us for throwing the book away for that reason alone.
But I put this book into the hands of my Stewardship committee, and we found it enlightening, even if in some areas a bit overwhelming, and we’re hoping to begin putting some of Christopher’s principles into practice.
He begins by sketching a picture of the world of giving, and how much it has changed since the days when “everyone” went to church and we could simply expect people to give to the work of the church. Today, he says, people have a huge variety of worthy causes to support, and some will choose a non-profit over the church because the non-profit will know what to do with the money! This is the larger version of something we’ve probably all begun to notice. Many people, especially younger people, in our congregations, will willingly give for something concrete, but will not necessarily feel called to give to the support of the institution of church itself. People will text to give $10 to earthquake victims, or click a button on a website, or even invest in a micro-loan through Kiva, as long as they feel the money is going where they want it to go. Christopher encourages us to be able to tell our story better, to explain why giving to the church and its ministries matters, to stop being afraid to talk about the money.
Donors are saying to our churches today that you have to earn our gifts. No longer can you just preach a sermon on tithing and think the members will give 10 percent to the church. They will hear your message that tithing is what God wants them to do, and they they will go home and decide to give the church 2 percent, the youth center 2 percent, the homeless shelter 2 percent, and their college 4 percent. They will then look you right in the eye when say that it all should go to the church, and they will ask you, “Do you not believe that Jesus is working in the youth center and the homeless shelter and with our college students?” If you are not prepared to compete with over one million nonprofits, you will lose. (Christopher, p. 7)
He also illustrates the ways in which non-profits outshine churches at showing appreciation to donors. We expect giving and sometimes don’t even think of saying thank you to the givers. And one of the reasons that happens, in my experience, is that we don’t know for sure who is giving, much less how much. In some of our traditions it is verboten for the pastor to know who gives. Christopher insists this is disastrous, because he understands a person’s giving as a measure of his or her spiritual health. He makes a strong and detailed case for bringing the pastor into the loop about who is giving — and how much.
I especially liked the chapter Reasons People Give. Here’s a quote:
If you are on the finance committee of your church, I hope you will take this chapter to your next meeting, and when they whip out the line item budget to start trimming things because you are running behind, stop them and say, “Hey, the top three reasons people give are (1) belief in the mission, (2) regard for staff leadership, and (3) fiscal responsibility. Instead of just cutting out budget, could we review how well we tell our donors about how we do our job of changing lives? Could we review how well we utilize our staff and pastor when it comes to relating to our donors? Could we look to see if we are sending signals that we are fiscally sound or fiscally unsound? It may be that if we could fix these three areas, we would not have to cut the budget again.” (p. 30)
This is not a new version of Pony Express. It is not a canned program to guide your fundraising for one season. It’s a provocative, theologically-grounded re-write of the rules of stewardship as we have understood them in the mainline church. I will offer the caveat that many of the suggestions he makes are large church-oriented, and when I read this:
I believe each pastor should intentionally invite the top five to ten donors to his or her home about three times a year. (p. 100)
I wrote this in the margin:
Is my wife fixing dinner?
And when I saw the suggestion that the pastor write ten thank you notes a week, I laughed. In the smaller church I serve, I would be writing to the same people almost every week, and it would quickly seem like spam. But I will admit it got me writing more notes by hand, even if not ten a week.
On the whole, the enthusiastic lay people on my Stewardship committee and I found plenty to spur our thinking in this book and came away wanting to pry open the privacy doors so that we can show appreciation to our givers and find out what is making them tick. We also appreciated the narrative budget example in the book, a big help when you’re in a church that gets hung up on the line items or a church where things are tight and the pastor is viewed as part of the overwhelming staff line item instead of as the driver of the church’s programs.
I highly recommend the book as a discussion-starter and look forward to hearing from any of you who have also read the book.