Healthy Church Stewardship

HEALTHY CHURCH STEWARDSHIP
BY JIM REEVE, PH.D

How to impart a vision for giving to your people.

In the last four years the congregation I pastor has purchased and moved onto a multi-million-dollar piece of property with more than 170,000 square feet of interior building space. During this time our annual budget has grown from about $2.5 million a year to a projected $7 million this year. We have not yet launched a school or media ministry so these figures reflect only the income of a local church. Some churches have much larger incomes, others have grown faster, but these numbers do reflect healthy growth.

I do not believe this growth would have taken place without the Lord first enlarging my understanding of biblical stewardship and finances. Though I highly value my years of education, I came into the ministry trained as a theologian, not a businessman.

Like many Bible college and seminary graduates, I found myself more acquainted with Paul Tillich’s ontology and Karl Barth’s neo-orthodoxy than the practical how-toe of leading and running a church.
In more than 25 years of ministry no one has ever asked me one question about either Tillich’s theology or Barth’s eschatology, but there have been–and are–relentless bills to pay!

Nowhere was my lack of practical preparation for the ministry more glaring than in the area of business and finances. I don’t think I had gleaned any information at all about how to lead a business. And like it or not, though the church is much more than a company, it is a business.

Added to my deficiency of business acumen was a genuine sensitivity to the feelings of nonbelievers who often thought all ministers and churches were in ministry only for the money. In the early years of our church, the ushers had to wave offering bags at me to remind me to receive the morning offering. When I did remember. I hurried through that part of the service mumbling a few words I hoped were not too offensive to anyone in attendance. I was extremely uneasy, worried that someone might think we were more interested in money than souls.

My ministry teeth had been cut during the Jesus Movement of the 1970s, and like so many others of my generation, I was “anti” anything that even smacked of the “establishment”–in this case, the traditional
church.

Having been raised in church, I had experienced my share of long-winded and guilt-based pleas for money from ministers, traveling evangelists and missionaries on furlough. Even as a child, I understood it took money to minister in this world, but I tired of the pleas, “If you love Jesus and are sincere in your faith, then you’ll give lots of money.”

Was I suppose to give money to people I hardly knew with causes I did not really understand just to prove that I really loved God and took my faith seriously? If I chose not to give, was I a phony? Were my unchurched friends right in saying church is just about money?

The Jesus Movement was refreshing as I left my teens and entered young adulthood. I learned that if God were really in something, begging and pleading for money was unnecessary–where He guided, He
provided. During those days, offerings were received, but the thoughts and prayers were very low-key, almost apologetic: “If you want to give, great. If not, keep it and buy a Big Mac.” Along with the rest of the
congregation, I would laugh and put a few dollars in the offering, relieved to be out from under high-pressure sales techniques used in the name of Jesus.

PERCEPTIVE PORTRAIT

Healthy Church Finances

By the 1980s, I was the founding pastor of a new and growing church, and I honestly did not know how to handle the real and burgeoning need for money. I did not want to go back to the high-pressure methods of my childhood, nor was I satisfied with the “God doesn’t care about money” approach. My theological education had not seriously addressed the subject, so I had nowhere to turn but to my own independent study of the Bible.

For the first time in my life, I took a serious look at what the Bible says about money. I took extra time to listen and learn from pastors and teachers who seemed to have a balanced word on the subject. I finally became convinced that finances are neither a necessary evil nor a gimmick for building my own kingdom in the name of God. I discovered that God does care about money–because He cares about us!

Though the church is certainly more than the healthy-wealthy-happy-holy club, one cannot read the Bible, either the Old or New Testament, without seeing God’s desire to bless and prosper His people financially.

My wife and I had always been faithful in bringing to the local church our tithes and offerings, but stewardship soon became an integral part of my spiritual growth–as important as prayer, reading the Bible, worshiping the Lord and being planted in a local church. Financial giving no longer was simply a necessary expression of my love for God (one can give without loving, but one cannot love without
giving), it was the foundational step for God’s financial blessings in my life and ministry.

Being persuaded myself was only the first step in leading the congregation into a balanced perspective of stewardship and financial blessing. Now I needed to learn how to teach and motivate people to give without communicating an obsession with money.

When properly taught and practiced, giving to God through faithful stewardship in the local church is the supreme win-win business situation. As God’s people exercise biblical principles concerning their money, they discover God’s blessings on their lives, homes and businesses, as well as see their church able to do and be everything God intends. In short, everybody wins!

There is an old saying that goes: “Those who can do. Those who can’t teach.” I’m not sure that saying is fair to the millions of us who teach, but it does contain a nugget of truth: Learn from the best! I had already discovered that some of the most brilliant professors I had met in seminary were not good communicators. Their theological content often was outstanding, but I knew if I wanted to preach in a way that would not put people to sleep, I needed to observe and learn from those who were actually leading sizeable congregations.

Therefore, during my seminary years I spent as much time visiting the benchmark churches in Southern California as I did in the seminary classrooms. I really believe the early success of the church I founded
had as much to do with my observing great pastors such as Jack Hayford, Charles Swindoll and Chuck Smith, as it did with my studying theology.

POWERFUL PRINCIPLES

Healthy Church Stewardship

I used the same methodology I used to study church life and growth to research financial management. I started by observing preachers who were skilled and mature in receiving offerings. I asked questions, read books, then double-checked everything with God’s Word. Though the styles and approaches varied widely, I found some common threads of health and success:

1. Give a weekly mini-financial seminar. Perhaps the most important key to financial health in the local church is giving a short three to seven minute “minisermon” on biblical finances every week. I found that most successful pastors do not simply offer a single message or brief series on stewardship once a year, as helpful as this might be.

The trouble with using this once-a-year approach by itself is that too many people miss a particular Sunday (or series), and others may join the church when the series is done. Are they going to have to wait until next year to hear this important subject discussed? What about those who are like me, who need to hear the message over and over before they fully comprehend it? Pastors do not preach on love or faith only once a year–such important subjects are wisely woven through many messages throughout the year.

Put as much effort into your weekly mini financial seminar as you do into your sermons. Rather than an impromptu “offering meditation” or “stewardship thought,” actually teach the church important principles
on stewardship. This means the words spoken before receiving the offering cannot simply be thought up at the last minute. They should be as carefully and prayerfully prepared as the full sermon.

2. Emphasize the benefits of giving. Whether we like it or not, people still like listening to station WII-FM–“What’s in it for me?” When you have their attention, you can begin to lead them away from merely selfish motivations. But you have to start where people are, not where you think they should be.

At our church, we made the switch from offering meditation to mini-financial seminar several years ago, and the results have been astonishing! Testimonies of financial miracles are commonplace. With rare exception, people are turned on rather than turned off by short but solid Bible teaching on money. The church has grown numerically and financially. Our annual church budget has almost tripled in four years-
-and all without any special campaign! People now thank me for teaching them about giving.

3. Use the power of testimony. If a picture is worth 1,000 words, one testimony can be more effective than hours of preaching. Local churches would be wise to do what television ministries, and more recently infomercials, have done for years-highlight satisfied customers! The Bible word for this is “testimony.” Testimonies can be presented by way of sermon illustrations (even if the message is not particularly about stewardship), videotaped presentations (it’s easier to control what is said!), or plain, old-fashioned firsthand oral or written reports (make heroes of your sacrificial givers).

4. Make the vision plain. Beyond the expectation of personal benefit and the responsibilities of discipleship, people will give to a cause. Vision is the motivational fuel of any organization–especially
if that organization is largely comprised of volunteers. Many people go to work every day motivated primarily by the paycheck they will receive. They may or may not truly care about the mission statement of
the company. People generally will not freely give of their time or money unless they are motivated by the cause of that organization.

A Stanford University study of volunteer organizations discovered three critical factors in the successful use of volunteer help:

The vision had to be both simple and clear, or people would not give of their time.

People had to be given a genuine opportunity to do something to support the cause, or frustration set in.

A successful experience for the volunteers in their involvement was the key in establishing the organization’s ongoing prosperity.

Although this study was done specifically about the giving of people’s time, I believe these issues are just as critical concerning the giving of people’s money. Do the people clearly understand what they are giving to? Are they given honest and clear opportunities to give? Do they believe the money they have given has been used properly and is truly advancing the cause for which they gave it in the first place?

Churches exist because of the sacrificial giving of time and money by their volunteers. If a truly sacrificial gift is something that “costs one something,” as preachers love to say, then it must be remembered that people are willing to give up something of value if they perceive the cause is of greater value. Why give up what you already have unless you have discovered the “pearl of great price” (see Matt. 13:46)?

5. Explore the various “hot buttons” of your congregation. Even as believers, people are passionate about different things. Often, without compromising leaders can take strategic advantage of these passions. For example, we might be really excited about our new building project. To finish it will take everyone working together. What capital stewardship campaign has not used the phrase, “Not equal gifts, but equal sacrifice”?

Certain members of our church may refuse, however, to participate in the project. No matter how eloquently or passionately we present the need and challenge–even wrapping the project in biblical mandates–these individuals are not going to respond. What is going to be our response?

Rather than getting frustrated, we may want to consider that some people are simply not excited by building programs. Instead of concluding such people are not givers, we may notice at another time
how enthusiastic these same people seem to be about a particular missions program or effort to help the homeless. If properly informed and challenged the same brothers and sisters we assumed were overly
selfish or stingy are now the first ones to give.

Do you know the spiritual “hot buttons” of your congregation? Many are completely satisfied giving toward the ongoing ministries of the church. Others notice details–programs that could use some financial assistance or flaws in the facilities they would like to see fixed or upgraded.

There are always those who think supporting particular missionaries or overseas missions is the highest and best use of church funds. Still others like to give toward local evangelistic outreaches. Some get excited about benevolent opportunities such as helping the poor, feeding the hungry or providing for the homeless. Certain believers are issue-driven, preferring to financially support social or moral causes.

Please understand, I am not advocating being so diverse in our approach to raising money that we virtually allow members to vote with their pocketbooks by designating exactly where their charitable donation goes. No, believers need to be taught that the tithe belongs to the local church and is not intended as a tax write-off for their pet peeves, no matter how right and just their concerns may be. These different “hot buttons” must be supported in addition to the regular tithes, gifts and offerings to the local assembly.

Still, pastors would do well to know the various giving passions of their congregations. Leaders have pet passions, too, and sometimes we try to force God’s people to let go of their own causes to get behind ours. This seldom works. What can happen, however, is that when believers see how God blesses their generosity in one particular area, their hearts become open to exploring new ones.

6. Release the power of prayer. John Wesley said we can and should do other things besides pray, but we should do nothing with out prayer. Praying for financial breakthroughs and fiscal miracles are now
as much a part of healthy churches as praying for healing, restoration and changed lives. Nothing gets the church more excited about giving than seeing God at work in the finances of His people.

Work hard, be diligent and get wise counsel, but do nothing without prayer. In more ways than one, prayer pays off!

7. Keep finances in perspective. No matter how carefully and gracefully it is discussed, money is a sensitive issue. Not only is there the controversy of the so-called “prosperity teaching” within church circles, the unchurched and unsaved remain skeptical about the church’s motivations and methods when it comes to money. So, whether they are being scrutinized by saints or sinners, pastors are faced with the challenge of teaching stewardship in what can be a very suspicious and skeptical environment.

Healthy churches are able to communicate need and raise funds without unduly raising people’s fear of being taken advantage of or simply being ripped off. They effectively change the way people think, which is really what repentance is all about. (Repentance does not just happen at the altar when people fall to their faces in tears. It happens when they have actually changed the way they think and therefore changed their life habits.)

PERSONAL PERSPECTIVES

Healthy Church Stewardship

In helping the congregation keep their finances in perspective, I like to talk about our four priorities. Our highest priority is God’s purpose. Numerous believers think they themselves are the highest priority in the church. “The church is here to minister to and take care of me,” is the attitude of much of the body of Christ today. Not true. The Bible says David “served his own generation by the will of God” (Acts 13:36, NKJV). Likewise, the church today does not exist for itself but to fulfill the will of God.

The people are the second priority. Remember the hand motion some of us were taught as kids that goes: “Here is the church. Here is the steeple. Open the door, and see all the people”? That’s cute, but wrong. The church is the people. The church can, and often has, existed without buildings or facilities. Although not the top priority, people are a priority in any healthy church.
The next priority is the programs. I know this can be a negative word in some circles today, but by programs I mean the ministries and functions we offer to build up the people. From home groups to Sunday school classes to choirs to countless other things, healthy churches are full of activities geared toward building Christians. Call them cells, call them ministries, call them whatever seems best, but keep
the focus not on the programs but on the people. People do not exist to serve our programs; our programs exist to serve the people, who exist to fulfill God’s purpose.

The last priority is the property, or the buildings and facilities. What leader while trying to lead his congregation in a building program has not heard, “You’re putting buildings ahead of people!” My answer to this stereotyped criticism is a resounding no!

The only reason we even have property and facilities is to provide for the ministries to build up the believers to fulfill the will of God. When relocating to new facilities or enlarging current ones it is important to keep the focus not simply on the size or magnificence of the building but on the ministries and services to people these edifices will facilitate. That is why we call them “facilities”–they facilitate ministry.

So, property does not exist for it’s own sake, but to provide a place for the programs, which only exist to strengthen, build up and grow the people, who are there to carry out God’s purpose in this generation. I promise you, by keeping finances in perspective, people get excited, and the cries of, “You’re just getting into money and buildings,” are overwhelmed by the enthusiasm of God’s people energized by vision.

PRACTICAL PROPOSAL

Healthy Church Finances

When all is said and done, there are only two ways to increase giving in the local church: (1) Motivate your current people to give more; (2) attract new people who will become givers. Either way, the pastor needs to know how to motivate the congregation and move them from observers to participants, from an audience to an army.

Pastors ask me all the time, “What makes your church grow?” I typically answer that this is the wrong question. The question is not, What will make my church grow? Rather, the right question is, What is
keeping my church from growing? Here is the point: Healthy things grow.

When raising our children, for example, we never ask what will make them grow. Instead, we innately know that growth will naturally take place as long as nutrition, care and nurture is provided. If in
any way growth is stunted we are surprised and want to find out what is hindering natural growth.

I believe this same principle applies to both church growth and finances. The focus, then, is not so much on numerical growth or dollars and cents, but on the spiritual health of the people. If the congregation is not giving financially as well as it should, the leader must ask, What is stunting healthy financial giving in my church?

Most of the time the answer to this question has to do with ignorance and spiritual malnutrition (see Hosea 4:6). Let’s be frank, people do not give because they think their money is their own. Fancy programs or gimmicks will not, in the long run, correct this fundamental flaw in people’s thinking.

The answer to this challenge is to teach biblical stewardship. At the very heart of the concept of stewardship is the fact that everything we are and have belongs to God. As believers, we are no longer our own, we have been “bought at a price” (1 Cor. 6:20). Stewardship is learning how to be faithful and trustworthy with that which is not ours.

Jesus provided three foundational pillars of stewardship in Luke 16:10-12.

Faithful in little, faithful in much. If people cannot faithfully handle the wealth (or lack thereof) they have right now, they should not expect God to bless them with more.

Faithful with money, faithful with greater blessings. I agree with critics who want to argue that money is not all that important. The fact remains, however, that God uses money as a test to see how we will handle the kinds of blessings that money cannot buy.

Faithful with God’s, faithful with our own. Faithfully handling money and related material blessings is God’s key prerequisite for giving us what is truly our own. How can we someday “judge angels” if
we cannot even be trusted to give God just a portion of what belongs to Him anyway (see 1 Cor. 6:3)?

Finally, when it comes to training disciples in healthy stewardship, I offer a few dos and don’ts.

A Few Don’ts

1. Don’t beg. People like to give to success. They do not want to pour money into a sinking ship. Note: What sometimes works for television and traveling ministers does not necessarily work in the local church! “We’ll be off the air next week if you don’t give today” is never used by pastors of healthy churches.

2. Don’t beat the sheep. Don’t wear the people out with constant nagging. We have to live with them!

3. Don’t spin. Politicians may use “spin doctors” to distort truth, but I have found that pastors who do this eventually lose credibility.

4. Don’t brag. A healthy church wants its pastor to be blessed, but boasting about your luxury car or designer clothes can turn members off in a hurry. Modeling healthy prosperity for the people can easily
be perverted into an ostentatious caricature of the stereotyped televangelist.

5. Don’t be long-winded. Motivate the people regarding financial giving, don’t agitate them. Good sales people know when to shut up. I wish more preachers did!

A Few Dos

1. Do think big. The question is not, How much will it cost? Rather it is: Is God in this? What will be accomplished for the glory of God? Remember that big dreams attract big givers.

2. Do think creative’. Predictability promotes apathy and generates little enthusiasm and financial support.

3. Do be bold. Don’t let the excesses of the few create timidity for fear of offending people regarding money. Boldness generates confidence as faith is activated.

4. Do consider a series on stewardship. Though I believe there need to be weekly “mini-financial seminars” at offering time, there also is a place for seasons of teaching on stewardship and commitment, which can take the church to a new level.

Being a leader is not always easy, but it’s always worth it. Jesus is still actively building His church, and the best is yet to come. Press on!

JIM REEVE, PH.D. is senior pastor of Faith Community Church in West Covina, California. He received his master’s and doctoral degrees from Fuller Theological Seminary.

Editor’s Note: Much of this material was adapted from Dr. Reeve’s hook, If You’re Looking for One Good Way to Receive an Offering “We’ll Give You 21! For more information, call (626) 858-8400.

THE ABOVE MATERIAL WAS PUBLISHED BY MINISTRIES TODAY, SEPTEMBER/OCTOBER 1999, PAGES 63-66. THIS MATERIAL IS COPYRIGHTED AND MAY BE USED FOR STUDY & RESEARCH PURPOSES ONLY.

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