Believe it or not, there are churches that have virtually no financial concerns — and they are not all big, growing, or led by Pastor Popular. Instead, they are healthy. And how did they get healthy? Intentionally, slowly and deliberately. And one of the key areas they focused on was money. But not money FOR the church. Instead, they focus on our relationship with money and material possessions. They address money as a whole lifestyle issue — not just the giving of money, but the earning, managing, spending, and value of money as well. (Sound Wesleyan? Gain all you can, save all you can, give all you can? Of course his advise was to escape the fires of hell, but we try not to bring that up…) In our healthiest churches, money is about the whole person — it is as much a spiritual and emotional issue as it is a practical/material one.
When I conducted the Vital Signs study, I noted that of the 111 healthiest churches, only three used annual financial “stewardship” campaigns. All of these churches were financially sound — in fact, many found themselves with a surplus at the end of the year and were seeking ways to use the money for new missions and ministry. Seventeen of these churches paid more than 100% of their apportionments to their conferences, and 29 of them used their surpluses to help less financially viable ministries in their areas. How is it possible to receive this kind of giving revenue without campaigns? I identified five fundamental practices or approaches to financial stewardship in these vital congregations different from “normal”:
focus on generosity instead of giving
took a “preach, teach, heal” approach to money
offered a “ministry of money” to the congregation and community
differentiated their messages about giving
aligned everything in the church around vision
Generosity over Giving
Generosity and giving are not the same thing, and we shouldn’t use the terms interchangeably. I can talk a person into giving some money away, but I have not necessarily helped that person become more generous. However, if I can help cultivate the deep value of generosity in a person, one of the fruits will be increased giving. Giving is behavior. Generosity is an orientation grounded in a value. Generosity flows from spirit and passion. The English word derives from the concept of “noble birth,” but even that concept comes from the same root as genus, gender, generate — “to give birth or bring to life.” To be generous is to create something — to make something new happen. Generosity gives life, offers hope, creates energy and spirit. It cannot help but lead to giving of one’s heart, mind, soul, and possessions. There is within almost every heart a deep desire to make a difference, to do something significant, to create something good. This is the spark we fan into flame when we help people live generously.
But generosity touches so much more than material possessions. One church I visited had fourteen sheets of newsprint framed in its fellowship hall — each sheet covered with fifty or more ways the congregation came up with that they could be generous. Generous with words, complements, respect, attention, listening, patience, kindness, attitude, money, time, guidance, love… on and on. The lay leader of this congregation explained that the focus on generosity completely turned the congregation around. One day they held a meeting to lament their lack of resources, when they were interrupted by a young woman — with a car full of little children — having car trouble. Everyone in the room rose to help — some welcoming the woman in, someone showing her to a phone, some going out to look at her car, some going to play with the children — and before long the woman and her kids were on their way. When they settled back to their meeting, everyone was more cheerful, and a long time member said, “Just because we can’t give money doesn’t mean we shouldn’t give what we DO have.” From that simple observation, the congregation began a journey of exploration and celebration of what they did have to offer, and the creation of a culture of generosity ensued. Interestingly, the pastor notes, “For year’s we lacked money and people said they were giving all they could. In just three years we have almost doubled giving in this church and we haven’t ASKED once. We don’t give in order to be generous, we give because we are becoming generous.”
Preach, Teach & Heal (Join the P.T.H.)
Cultivating generosity takes time. It also takes openness and honesty and intentionality. In one church I visited, every room had the letters P.T.H. prominently displayed. It was explained to me that P.T.H. stood for “Preach, Teach & Heal” and that this reminder infused everything the church tried to do. No matter what the issue or topic, if it was important to the Christian life then the church would preach about it, teach about it, and work to bring people to wholeness and well-being. This extended to the issue of money and our relationship to our possessions. “There is not a month that goes by that we don’t preach something about people’s relationship to material possessions. You can’t preach the Bible and avoid it,” reported one lay speaker from the congregation. “I preach in other people’s churches on a regular basis, and I would say I preach more on our relationship to “stuff” than anything else. It is about core values.” The pastor adds, “And we don’t just focus on giving, though that is important. We focus on the whole larger issue of what our possessions mean to us. The rich young ruler and Zaccheus and the parable of the talents and the widow’s mite and the unfaithful steward — these aren’t stories about giving, and shame on us for doing violence to them by using them for fund raising. They are stories about what is truly important in our lives, our values, and what we are willing to do to live balanced, holy lives.”
The issues of faith and material possessions are preached on and taught consistently and regularly in healthy churches — they are not a once a year phenomenon. Year-round stewardship has become a kind of catch-phrase and alternative to a once-a-year fall campaign, but a truly integrated approach makes the most sense and lays the groundwork for radical transformation. But beyond preaching and teaching lies an underappreciated and undeveloped need for healing. In our culture, there are few more widespread and insidious causes of brokenness, stress, and dis-ease than around debt and financial worry. If the church is honestly offering to be a source of healing and comfort it cannot avoid dealing with people and their financial situation. Healthy churches don’t just ask for money from people, but they work with people to develop a healthy, sustainable, and spiritually grounded relationship with money and material possessions.
When the focus of our money talk is the needs of the institutional church it sends the message that “church” is something people “support.” When the focus is on living as generous people in Christian community, “church” is who we are. A barrage of giving messages makes people feel used, manipulated, and pressured. Integrating messages of giving with messages of wholeness, balance, spiritual growth, and purpose engages people’s hearts and minds as well as wallets and purses. “We used to have people threaten to leave the church if we didn’t stop talking about money,” one pastor shared. “Now we have people who come to our church because we speak about money. Truth be told, I prefer the ones we have now.”
Offer A Ministry of Money to the Congregation and Community
The majority of adults in the United States have never been taught about money. Personal finance, using and managing credit cards, loans, balancing a check book, investing, insurance, wills, pensions, mortgages — these things most people learn by doing, and often find themselves unwilling servants to debt and unwitting victims of their own ignorance. Churches can help to change that. Healthy churches don’t only pick up the pieces after personal tragedy strikes people’s lives — they work to develop preventative, productive practices. Personal finance and financial planning courses, debt counseling, seminars on wills and planned giving, and workshops on values and lifestyle choices are just a few of the things that are offered as ministry to broken and battered people — in the church, but in the larger community as well. The majority of American adults are in debt. A signficant segment owe more than they make each year. In what universe does it make sense to ask a person to “tithe” who is already spending 133% of their annual income? If we want to help people become generous givers, it makes sense that we help them have something to give.
Twenty years ago, this was rarely an issue and there were scant resources to address it. When I worked for the General Board of Discipleship in the early 1990s I offered “Faith, Money & Spirituality” and “Your Money Or Your Life” workshops and retreats to help people better understand their relationship to money and material possessions, and to develop structured plans for improvement. A decade later, Willow Creek launched their “Good Sense” program, and just recently Adam Hamilton produced his “Enough” campaign. The focus of all these resources is to teach people about managing their money, dealing with debt and credit, balancing wants with needs and values, and to help develop healthy, sustainable financial practices — based and grounded in biblical and theological principles. Churches that want to be about the healing of financial distress have many wonderful resources from which to draw, but most important of all is the commitment and vision to do it.
Differentiate Messages About Giving
Healthy churches speak the truth in love. Running a church costs money. Fixed costs cannot be denied or ignored. But they shouldn’t drive the church’s vision — or limit the church’s impact. It is a good and holy thing to make people aware of what running the church costs, but don’t expect this to be motivational to the vast majority of people. The most deeply committed members of a church, those who receive the majority of its benefits, and those who hold positions of power, decision-making and control are willing to support the institution. This accounts for fewer than 20% in most congregations — but following Pareto’s Law, this 20% provides upwards of 80% of the total financial support. Appeals to “give to the church,” “support the church,” of “keep the doors open and the lights on” will fall on deaf ears beyond this inner core. For the vast majority of church givers, the motivation center is the heart, not the head. Attempts to “talk people into” giving, or providing them with more information to convince them to give are wasted efforts. Budgets, bulletin (bullying?) boxes with financial updates, sincere/severe letters explaining the dire financial picture are generally counter productive with 80% of charitable givers most interested in “backing a winner.”
What motivates most givers is an emotional response — people give to the things they care about. They respond to human hurt and need. They respond to real people in real places. The more they know and care about something or someone the more giving and generous they tend to be. As pictures of the devastation of the Indonesian tsunami and hurricane Katrina rolled in, money poured out — much of it from congregations who traditionally cry poverty. Touching the heart will work much better than touching the head when it comes to inspiring people to touch their pocketbooks.
Healthy churches take seriously the admonition, “Ask, and you shall receive.” One church I visited received over 150 special offerings each year. Each week the church highlighted three ministries or charities or Advance Specials in their worship bulletin, with this instruction: “Please don’t give just to give. Give only to those things that are meaningful and important to you. If there is nothing here that touches your heart, then just wait. Something will come along that you will truly want to support. And when that something special comes along, don’t just give a dollar, but prayerfully make a commitment that reflects how important this work is to you. Shalom!” In a church of just under 100 people, the average gift per person is $12.50, the average received for each appeal is $150, the average received each week is over $500, and the average “special” (unbudgeted) offering raised each year exceeds $28,000 — above normal giving! There is always a fear that if you ask too often, people will shut down and give less. The reality is, when people are encouraged to give when they want to, what they want to, and are offered abundant options, giving goes up.
Most healthy churches ask people to give general support, but they also designate four or five giving options — for example, education, family ministries, an outreach mission, mission trips, children, youth, young adults, older adults — and encourage people to support those things that mean the most to them. Then these churches constantly tell the story of the great and wonderful accomplishments made through the generosity of the givers. They will set specific goals and identify tangible gifts for people to reach or give. Asking a person to give to the youth ministry may generate a handful of $5, $10, and $20 bills, but the request for someone to purchase and donate a television, dvd player, whiteboard, computer, etc., may get you what you need a lot faster.
The key here? Ask. Openly, honestly, without apology… and often. Let people know that what they give matters. Help them see what actually occurs through their generosity. Talk about not only “needs” but hopes, wishes, visions, desires, possibilities, potential, and goals. Most churches set the budget as a floor, not a ceiling — the minimum needed to keep doing what we’ve always done. There is nothing inspiring or motivating about that. How hard is it to reach the floor? Gravity will take care of that, and our floors just keep sinking lower and lower. Healthy congregations are trying to raise the roof — setting stretch goals tied to real, tangible objectives. A number of churches promote a three-tiered vision: if we get $x we can achieve these goals, but with $y we could do this much more, and if we could only receive $z this is the wonderful work we could do. In almost every case, there are enough people wanting to see y & z come to fruition that they will find a way to give, raise, share, or earn enough to make it happen.
Tie Gift and Giver to God’s Vision
Bottom line: give people good reasons to be generous. Don’t focus on what we don’t have. Don’t moan about what we lack. Don’t fixate on what we aren’t doing. Envision the Promised Land, the land flowing with milk and honey for your church and community. Don’t ask, “Can we or can’t we?” Ask, “HOW can we?” One church I worked with (unfortunately not United Methodist…) tried a wonderful experiment. Every person — including children — in a 75 member church covenanted to give a minimum of $10,000 each to the church so they could start a ministry for people with special needs. Crazy, right? (Stupid? Insane?) But together they began strategizing how to reach the goal. The kids started recycling campaigns. Some groups began fundraising. A local restaurant owner took on three of the church people to work as “volunteers” at his eatery, then donated the money to the church in their name that they would have “earned.” The men got some sponsorship to do clean-up work for the community, and donated the money from their contract to the church. For a year, people worked specifically to “earn” their commitment to the church. Alas, they failed. These 75 people from a blue-collar, industrial town only gave $696,000. The kicker to this story? This was in addition to their normal giving and contributions — that had stalled out and stuck at around $160,000 for a decade. This was a church whose mantra was, “We’re giving all we can and we can’t give any more.” This church discussed ministry to special needs adults for years, but never saw a way to do it, because they were always limited by what they already had in their pockets. With a larger vision and an encouragement to find a way, the whole church was transformed. In the following year, with no special program and no additional encouragement, normal giving rose to almost $300,000.
One interesting note about our healthiest and most fiscally sound churches is that they are pursuing a vision too large for them to accomplish by themselves. In almost every case, the church requires partners to be effective. When churches engage in ministries that require them to cooperate with others from their own denomination, ecumenically, in inter-faith relationships, or in partnership with community and social agencies, the resources available to ministry increase exponentially. Ministries transform into movements. Congregations serve communities, and what was once impossible becomes eminently doable in partnership. If something is worth doing — if we really believe something to be God’s will — then our question isn’t “Do we/don’t we,” but “how?” What is beyond the means of any one congregation is well within the means of a coalition of churches and agencies committed to a common goal.
And nothing succeeds like success. Many vital churches report that the increase in their member’s giving had nothing to do with anything they said, but only in what they did. “We had a woman in our church named Millie who was rich as Midas, but gave $5 a week. We had a campaign to buy books for poorer kids in our neighborhood, then had a party to distribute them to the children. We asked Millie to come in and help pass the books out. Now, mind you, Millie hadn’t purchased any of the books. It took a lot to talk her into coming, but she did. Nobody said anything to Millie, but the next week we started getting letters and phone calls from all over the state. Some woman named Millie was sending 20-30 children’s books to children’s services all over everywhere in the name of our church! We estimated that she must have spent more than $5,000 on kids books. A few months ago she made a $50,000 gift to the church for children’s education. We’re completely redoing our Sunday school, and now more people are giving to the kids ministries. It’s been amazing. In the past, we would take a special offering for the Sunday school and get $350. Now, it isn’t unusual to get a check for that amount show up in the morning mail.”
Maybe we make this all harder than it needs to be. Maybe we work too hard to change people’s minds when we should be working on their hearts and spirits. Maybe we are trying to pry out a gift or two through behavior modification instead of offering transformative pathways into a generous lifestyle. It is ironic to me that the churches who are most financially sound focus on giving the least. Focusing on a healthy relationship with God, with material possessions, and with the work of the community of faith seems much more effective. I wonder how much longer it will take for the rest of us to learn this lesson?