BY HERB MILLER
“A business associate attends the Bethel Church over in Aurora,” said the stewardship chairperson to a regional denominational staff member. “Bethel is the same size as our church. Their members earn similar incomes. Why do their members give an average of $400 more per year than our members give?”
Before she could answer, the layman added, “Everyone likes the pastor, so it isn’t that. Attendance is at an all time high. And we do a good job of building the budget each fall.”
“There are at least two reasons,” she replied. “First, Bethel Church has used an effective stewardship campaign every fall for several years. Second, Bethel talks about financial
stewardship as a spiritual issue, not as bill-paying or budget-building procedure.”.
She added, “Recent research has shed new light on this subject. If you’d like, I can send you some information about what causes high per-capita giving in churches. Would that be helpful?”
“You bet,” he replied. It’s time we got our act together on this!” Later that week he received the following information.
Three Kinds of Churches
The financial conditions of churches correlate with the procedures by which they ask parishioners to support their mission and ministries. A study of financial giving in Protestant and Catholic congregations across the United States puts churches into three categories:
Offering congregations. Churches that appeal for offerings but have no annual stewardship campaign have the lowest percapita giving levels (their members contribute an average of 1.5 percent of their incomes).
Pledging congregations. People whose churches conduct annual campaigns that ask them to write their intentions on paper gave an average of twice as much as people in “offering” churches (on average, 2.9 percent of their income).
Percentage-giving congregations. People whose churches ask them to base their financial commitments on a percentage of their incomes give an average of three times as much as “offering” churches (4.6 percent of their income). [Hoge, Zech, McNamara, and Donahue, Money Matters (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press)]
When they began using these ten principles, thousands of mainline congregations saw increased financial giving of 15-to-30 percent each year for several years.
1. Avoid substituting secular fund-raising methods for Christian stewardship procedures. Some of the people who serve on church stewardship committees also serve on the fund-raising committees of community service organizations. Thus, when stewardship committee members decide how to ask their church’s members to support its ministries, they often opt for fund-raising procedures that they have seen work in The United Way. While quite effective in financing other nonprofit organizations, these methods hold down the per-capita giving level in congregations.
2. Talk about the need of the giver to give for his or her spiritual benefit, not the church’s need to receive. Fund raising gets money from people to underwrite the cost of operating a philanthropic organization. Stewardship is an attitude with which Christians approach life, stemming from their spiritual relationship with God. Paradoxically, churches that focus on paying their bills have less money with which to pay those bills. Churches that focus on increasing their members’ spiritual growth through financial giving need not as frequently discuss how to pay their bills.
3. Instead of talking about how much money your church needs to balance its budget, ask, What is God calling you to give as a percentage of your income?” The latter approach makes financial giving a spiritual issue that fits the differing income levels of each household. Jesus summed up the spiritual connection between money and God this way: “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” (Luke 12:34). That defines Christian stewardship: Treasure management that helps people to escape the trap of selfishness by keeping themselves spiritually focused on God.
4. Teach and preach tithing and percentage giving, not as an outdated legalism but as an appropriate faith commitment for which God’s grace empowers us. Effective pastors teach and preach financial giving in ways that are biblical and spiritual without being legalistic or judgmental. The following outline avoids those dangers while stimulating people to think of financial stewardship in spiritual rather than merely monetary terms:
“As we prepare for an important spiritual decision on Stewardship Sunday, each of us will be reflecting on this question: `What is God calling me to give as a percentage of my income?’ Three kinds of people answer in three different ways.
” Some people answer it by saying, `I feel God is calling me to give 10 percent of my income to the Lord’s work. I have been thinking about tithing for several years, and I want to begin that spiritual journey this year.’
“Another kind of person responds to the question like this: `Eventually, I want to begin tithing, but I am not ready to do that this year. I feel God is calling me to start somewhere-to drive my tent pegs in the ground at 5 percent or 6 percent or 4 percent-knowing that God will bless that decision by helping me to increase my giving in coming years.’ “A third kind of person has been tithing for many years. For example, one couple said years ago when they were just getting started, `We’ll tithe now; later we’ll do more.’ The years rolled by and now they say, `Wow! Do we ever have more! So much more that we cannot fathom how we arrived at such a high annual income that 10 percent does not even come close to a sacrifice for us. We feel God is calling us to give 15 percent or 20
percent of our income to the Lord’s work.’
“As we prepare for our annual stewardship Sunday, I know each of us will be praying for God’s guidance as we prepare to answer the spiritual question, `What percentage of my income is God calling me to give?”‘
Contrary to popular myth, young-adult givers respond even better than older-generation givers to this spiritually focused stewardship approach.
5. Conduct a stewardship campaign every year. People do not drift into good giving habits. They decide into them, and they are more likely to decide when someone asks them to decide. An effective annual stewardship campaign is the best way to do that. Unfortunately, only four out of ten Protestant congregations conduct any sort of annual stewardship campaign, which keeps them in the poverty syndrome category. Small congregations, whose ministries have been most obviously marginalized by steeply rising energy costs for building heating and cooling, plus sharply rising clergy health insurance costs are the least likely to develop any kind of holistic stewardship strategy. [George Barna, How to Increase Giving in Your Church (Ventura, CA: Regal Books)]
6. Complete the annual stewardship campaign before you create the church budget. Publishing the budget first puts a ceiling on giving by motivating members to remember the “fair share” motto of many secular organizations. Thus, those members respond with minor increases in their giving when they see that the new budget is only 3-to-5 percent higher than last year. Building the budget after the campaign takes the lid off potential increases (a) by eliminating the “my fair share” syndrome, (b) by eliminating the inevitable negative reaction everyone has to one or two items in the printed budget proposal, and (c) by enabling the campaign to straightforwardly concentrate on raising the question, “What percentage of my income is God calling me to give?” This lays a biblical foundation on which many donors build percentage increases that far exceed typical 3-to-5 percent-per-year pittances.
7. Talk about time-talent stewardship during a different month than you schedule the annual financial campaign. When you talk about these issues simultaneously, a few people inevitably treat them like a multiple-choice question. “I’ll give time instead of money” is not an appropriate spiritual decision. Congregations should never create the impression of offering that kind of choice.
8. Focus equal energy on all members/attendees, not just on households with poor giving records. A prevalent myth says, “Our people are giving all they can.” Research indicates that 26 percent of churchgoers consistently give 10 percent of their incomes to God’s work through their congregation. [USA Today, “USA Snapshots,” February 23, 2000] Few church members are at “the red line,” in danger of giving too much.
9. Stifle the temptation to invent your own stewardship campaign. Find a program that has proven itself in other churches. Do it “by the book,” no shortcuts. Three examples: New Consecration Sunday (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 800/672-1789 or 615/749-6113) often produces a 20 percent annual increase in financial giving. Grow One Sunday (Nashville: Abingdon Press, downloadable from cokesbury.com) is especially helpful in small churches that have never used an annual stewardship program. Many churches whose leaders are dead set against conducting any kind of annual pledging campaign have benefited from the year-around procedure titled Effective Stewardship: Building on Biblical Principles (Belleville, Illinois, KLW Enterprises). Obtain a free video and
explanation from 800/805-8702. For a longer list of programs plus more detailed information that stewardship committees can discuss, obtain How to Increase Financial Stewardship from UMR Communications, 800/947-0207.
10 Assume that people can enjoy rather than feel negative about the annual stewardship program. Contrary to opinions often expressed by leaders of poverty congregations, church members report positive feelings about annual stewardship campaigns. When churches place biblical teachings about financial stewardship on the same spiritual level as Jesus’ other teachings, people respond to them as learning, growing opportunities.
The Bottom Line
In financial stewardship, as in so many other aspects of ministry, churches tend to reap what they sow. What is your church sowing?
THE ABOVE MATERIAL WAS PUBLISHED BY INFORM, FEBRUARY 2002. THIS MATERIAL IS COPYRIGHTED AND MAY BE USED FOR STUDY & RESEARCH PURPOSES ONLY.