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Create a Climate for Giving

"Help us with financial stewardship!" That's the urgent cry of many congregations today. Stewardship is typically a priority issue for local congregations.

The entire United Methodist Church is experiencing "tight money," and the same cry is heard locally, regionally, and nationally: "Help! The same old ways are no longer working!"

The financial times are changing. Maybe there was a time when people had no place to give (their time or finances) other than through the church. In earlier times, the church had only to say, "We need," and enough money came in. There are a few remnants of that kind of giving today, but fewer and fewer people are responding to that type of "fundraising."

Today, charitable giving is big business. With government progressively getting out of community work, more organizations have come into being to meet needs. The church must recognize that it has competition for donated dollars. Research shows that the churchgoer — not the non-churchgoer — is the person most likely to give to any charitable cause. Data also show that many people give to more than one local congregation, sometimes in the same community.

Many church leaders think about financial stewardship the same way they have for the last forty years. Financial stewardship is not a new issue. It has just caught up with us! Symptoms of "tight money" began showing up in the early 1980s. The church solved the problem by cutting programs and pinching pennies. The problem today is that we have cut as much as we can, and we have pinched as many pennies as we can. Where do we go from here?

Remember the phrase, "The system is designed for the results it is getting"? Are you satisfied with the results your church is getting — in membership, in attendance, in participation, in giving? If not, look at your church's system of operation.

Every organization has one or more systems out of which it operates. It is the system that creates a climate for people to respond favorably or unfavorably to the church. Each local congregation has a system for encouraging (or discouraging) gifts, receiving gifts, and managing gifts. It is easy to design and promote an excellent annual commitment campaign that is "guaranteed" to increase commitments. However, if the system does not create a climate for giving, no program will solve the problems.

Most church finance systems focus on money and getting it into the church. The goal is to find ways to get members to give, even if the leaders believe that members do not want to give. When this philosophy guides church finance, the focus is on money and the need of the church. Sharing the budget or finance statistics is paramount. Members are urged to give for special causes, but often the money received is spent for bills, not mission.

The guiding theology (if you can call it that) of this system is that people do not want to give. "After all," the leaders hypothesize, "people work hard for what they have, and they have a right to spend it as they please. And they do not please to spend it at the church." Then they design gimmicks and ploys to get people to "give up" their money. The image is one of a tight fist, with the church trying to pry out the money. The finance committee might describe the process of raising the budget as "getting blood out of a turnip."

In this kind of congregation, members feel the church is always asking for money. Members give out of loyalty or obligation. They are blamed for not giving enough, and financial crises are frequent. I call this the "Televangelist Fundraising Syndrome": "If you don't give so much by a certain date, the church will close." Who wants to give, or give generously, to a church that might close?

A new paradigm, or way of operating, influenced by a balanced understanding of stewardship, focuses not on the church, but on the individual. People need to give! Christian stewards want to give! How can local congregational leaders help stewards respond to the call of God in their lives?

The old paradigm identified external problems as the cause of decreased giving:

  • People (inadequate commitment),
  • Economy (not enough money),
  • Age (all our people are on fixed incomes)
  • Politics (don't like what the general church is doing).

People are not the problem, nor is the economy. Money is not the problem. The reason people are not giving is that the system has created a climate for people to give elsewhere. How can we create a climate for giving through the church?

One place to begin is with the assumptions that guide our financial giving system. Assumptions guide the way we operate. What assumptions guide your church's financial system? Clarify the assumptions you hold. What are the logical consequences of your assumptions? If you assume people do not want to give (or don't have funds to give), then you will create a climate that discourages giving. And they won't give — at least not through your church. If you assume people want to give, the possibilities are endless.

Believe that people want to give, and the giving climate in your church will change. Shift the focus away from the church and toward helping people fulfill their giving needs, and the church will prosper. Any congregation has enough money to do everything God wants it to do. That's the new paradigm!

Focus on the lives of givers or the beneficiaries of your church's ministries, not on budgets or money.

  • What are the results of giving through your church?
  • How have people been touched by the ministries of your church?

Instead of giving a stewardship report about the money that is needed to pay bills, give someone a chance to tell why he or she is a member of the church. In one church, an eight-year-old girl stood before the church and expressed gratitude for the Bibles that had been given to the third grade the week before. She said, "That is the only Bible in our home." That's the new paradigm!

When people see the results of ministry, they approach giving with a spirit of excitement and celebration. When the giving theology shifts from people hoarding "their money" to a theology that celebrates a covenant or partnership with God, people become excited about giving. That's the new paradigm!

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