Paying for Our Stewardship Sins

debtLet’s see a show of hands.  How many of you have all the money and resources you need?  Hold them up high while we count you on the fingers of one hand.  Most of us do not have all we need, and in fact over 50% are wondering whether there will be enough just to make it through the year (let alone pay the apportionments…)  So, what do we do about it?  If we’re like most churches, we do some pretty self-defeated and short-sighted things — like distributing line-item budgets, holding once a year pledge campaigns, operating from a unified budget, or printing pesky little “updates” in our bulletins and newsletters.  What?  Tried, true, tested, and traditional practices self-defeating and short-sighted?  Yep, pretty much.  What we think we’re doing and what actually happens are usually two very different things.  Read on.

Sharing the Budget as a Tool for Stewardship — Budgets are incredibly helpful tools, but they are just that — tools.  They are helpful and necessary equipment for successful ministry.  But just as a butcher’s tools are important for the creation of wonderful meals, no one really wants to see the tools.  They just want to dine at the table.  Most people in our churches will gain little benefit from seeing the budget tool (though like the butcher’s tools it may make them feel a little queasy…) but they may be inspired by what the budget represents.  Budgets are information, and information makes less of an impact on giving that experiences and emotions do.  People give to what they care about.  Where the treasure is, there the heart will be also.  When people see money make a difference, they give more.  We want to see a dollar make a dollar’s worth of difference.  $1 written on a paper isn’t nearly as inspiring as a Sunday school book or a cup of milk feeding a starving child.  Even $1 paid to the heating oil company isn’t as appealing as a warm pew on a Sunday morning.  Plus the fact that only about 5% of people in the United States can read and understand a line item budget.  We can misinterpret easily — and we do — making a budget less a tool and more a weapon in many people’s hands. 

Talking about money is less important than telling the story that money can write.  How lives are changed, how faith is built, how the world is transformed — these are the end results of a well-funded budget.  So, finance folks NEED budgets to do their work, but very few people in a congregation need to see a budget in order to fund ministry.  What the people need are strong, positive, compelling images that motivate them to share generously to fulfill the mission of the church.  Nobody budgeted for Hurricane Katrina, but it was the greatest source of United Methodist charity and support in this new millennium.

Gathering Pledge/Estimate of Giving/Commitment Cards — call them what you will, these resilient little pests keep sticking around long since they have proven unsuccessful.  Oh, sure, people who fill them out are nominally better givers than those who don’t — but which explains what?  Do people who fill out cards give more or are those who give more likely to fill out a card?  There is some fairly impressive evidence that indicates that people who are motivated to fill out a pledge are more likely to keep the pledge.  But when people feel manipulated or pressured into filling out a card, they are less likely to keep their promise.  And what percentage of people actually fill these cards out?  Some research done back in the 1960s for a variety of charities indicated that without a 60+% response rate, there is no valid data/information upon which to make projections or plans.  I rarely ever find a church where 60% of the giving units fill out a card.  Five- and ten-year giving patterns/trends are much more reliable (and easier to obtain) information for budgeting and planning.

Besides, pledges/commitments/estimates etc., should be grounded in spiritual formation and growth in Christian discipleship and stewardship.  Pledging shouldn’t be about the need of the institution to receive, but about helping the giver to grow in his or her faith.  The commitment isn’t to the institution, but to God and to the community of faith.  Writing it down on a card is generally a sign that we don’t trust each other enough to talk about what we give and why.  In some churches — generally the most toxic and dysfunctional — money is a taboo subject, and leaders need to desperately proclaim that NO ONE will know what you give to the church, especially THE PASTOR.  When this level of distrust and disrespect occurs, getting people to fill out a card should be the least of your worries.

Dialogue is the key characteristic of healthy, thriving congregations able to address financial concerns.  People talk freely and openly about both the needs of the church to do important work and how our investment in the ministry is both transformative for those served as well as those serving.  There is no magic wand, no shortcut, for developing healthy communication skills where money is concerned.  It is hard, deliberate work necessitating honesty, respect, trust, and a commitment to put God and the community of faith before our own personal needs and desires.

The other problem we create for ourselves is turning the life and practice of the Christian steward into a once a year campaign.  This makes as much sense as exercising for six weeks each fall or rehearsing on a musical instrument only each November.  Good health or musical proficiency cannot be achieved in such a slipshod manner.  Neither can a culture of generosity be created one month each autumn.  There are times when a well-timed, well-themed campaign can be a wonderful tool for stewardship education and development, but not if it is only a ploy to fund a church budget.

The Unified Fiasco — following World War II, as corporate America divided companies into divisions and regional offices, income and outgo became a challenge to track and control.  One attempt to navigate the challenges of decentralization was a unified budget — pool revenues to cover total expenses.  This experiment in budgeting lasted in the corporate world for only a few years, but once adopted by churches it became the budget of choice.  Giving was less about supporting specific ministries and missions of the church than it was dumping an offering in a generic plate with the assurance that church leaders would do good things with the money.  From the general pool of income, expenses would be covered.  The giver was offered no control or discretion about how the gift would be used.  Almost every charity and philanthropic organization has learned the value of allowing people some latitude of control in their giving.  Designated giving is generally higher across the board in almost every category.  Yet, churches resist allowing people to designate their gifts because leaders are afraid the fixed costs won’t be covered.  This is why United Methodists give a substantial portion of their charitable giving to sources other than the church.

The most financially secure churches offer a hybrid — asking for general support, but offering a small selection of specific ministries for people to support.  In addition, they provide dozens of special offering opportunities and regularly make specific appeals for specific goals.  Here’s rocket science: the churches that ask the most for money receive the most money.  Chew on that one for a while.  There’s something in the Bible about asking in order to receive…

Thinking Outside the Box — if you do the following, I have a simple piece of advice: stop it!  In the weekly bulletin or monthly newsletter you put in a box that contains some form of this information: $$$ received last week, $$$ needed to fund budget, $$$ short or over.  This seems like it would be good information, right?  Helpful to let people know how far behind the church is will motivate them to give more.  Except it doesn’t.  In fact, it has just the opposite effect.  Givers tend not to support charities — including churches — that operate consistently in the red.  Organizations constantly managing a shortfall are seldom viewed as successful.  Charitable givers love to support winners.  They want to give to organizations that show evidence of good, sound management and leadership.  Shortfalls send troubling messages.  Oh, almost all charities have them, but it is only churches that feel the need to promote them.  Smarter charities know to focus on what they will do with the money when they get it instead of complaining about what they can’t do if they don’t.  Churches believe if they can guilt and shame people into feeling bad about letting the church fail, they will cough up more dough.

And there is a basic tragic flaw in this kind of thinking for churches, however.  Revenue does not come into churches in an even flow.  In fact, for many churches 25-40% of total giving comes in the last six weeks of the year.  Yet, they divide the expenses evenly in 52 or 12 increments.  If you follow a calendar year, this means you will send the message no fewer than 40 times during the year that expenses are ahead of costs — and even when you get to the high revenue weeks it doesn’t look good because it is basically just covering the shortfall.  Our unintentional, explicit message is: we don’t know what we’re doing, but we’d like you to give us more anyway.

Once again, messages about what is being done and what more could be accomplished were the resources available is much more motivational than any message saying “we never have enough.”  When people see a charity basically breaking even, they are willing to give more.  Only when charities run a large surplus or a regular deficit are people likely to give less.  So, whatever you do, if you want MORE money, don’t advertise that you don’t have enough (counterintuitive, I know, but true…).  Instead, present a hopeful vision of how good things can be the more faithful everyone is in their support.  See if it doesn’t make a difference.

Bottom line: don’t abuse the tools and don’t lose sight of the bigger picture.  Stewardship is about lifestyle transformation not behavior modification.  You can’t build a healthy church on unhealthy, unsustainable practices.  Work on building healthy stewards, and stewardship will take care of itself.  Tomorrow, I conclude my week of stewardship reflections with the practices and processes of our financially healthiest congregations.

5 replies

  1. I served two years as an associate pastor at a church that I always refer to as The Church of the Unlimited Resources. Although the lead pastor did fall into some of the traps you name, the one thing that he got right was that stewardship wasn’t a season or a program. It made people crazy that he preached on stewardship all year, even mentioning it in a sermon on Christamas Eve. People were vocal about their dislike for that, but after 20 years of his leadership they were a very generous congregation, meeting an almost $1 million budget with 23% going to missions. The pastor who followed him heard the complaints about all that giving talk and went back to the stewardship season/program model. He lasted two years for a variety of reasons, but one was that the church did not come close to reaching its budget goals and fell off dramatically in mission giving.

  2. Anytime stewardship or generosity is reduced to once a year, that’s a problem. It’s like talking about the resurrection only at Easter. Both are ongoing realities that affect daily life.

    I serve a small church that has faced years of decline for a number of reasons. I can’t imagine telling people to designate their giving funds to whatever part of the church they want. First, most people really don’t seem to care that much about the details. Second, I wonder if the fixed expenses would be met. It was most telling to me that when our church leadership discussed this very issue, loud voices rose up for people to designate their funds for “building maintenance.” Oddly, no one clamored to direct their money to specific ministries.

    Also, the commitment cards have worked in my experience when done within a good framework of stewardship.

  3. Dan,

    I have been looking for a conversation starter in regard to fiscal stewardship for churches. The above meets our need as Overdale United Methodist Church in Lousiville, KY implements Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations. In your Blog you have actually covered three of the practices: Intentional Faith Development; Risk-Taking Mission & Service; and Extravagant Generosity.

    Many of the “improvements” listed above do work. For example, “if you don’t ask, you don’t get” was instructed to me years ago. This practice of “asking” is critical to a natural sales cycle or process to make “the close” and it is human nature – the way God made us – to expect to be aksed! Consequently, I applaud your reflections and candor to begin a dialog toward health change for us mighty Meth-Od-ists.

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