Not Your Parents’ Offering Plate:Stewardship 2010 and beyond

If you have been struggling with your own giving to the church or your congregation is having a difficult time raising its annual budget or meeting capital expenses, J. Clif Christopher’s book, Not Your Parents’ Offering Plate, A New Vision for Financial Stewardship (Abingdon Press, 2008) is for you.

It may challenge you, frustrate you, even make you feel guilty, but Christopher’s analysis will most certainly raise your understanding about Christian giving, and help your officers begin a process to reach new levels of stewardship.

Christopher is an ordained pastor and the founder of the Horizons Stewardship Company (1992). He contends that most churches do not raise enough money for their mission because they do not have a clue about what makes people give generously in the 21st century. Using the same methods of stewardship, church officers and pastors wonder why they get the same old results.

Christopher contends that people give to charities and churches, not because they read a budget or hear that the organization does not have enough money, but because they believe in its mission, they trust its leadership (the CEO or the pastor and its other leaders), and they know that it is changing people’s lives and the world in which they live. Successful fundraising groups like the Salvation Army or large colleges/universities never tell people that they need bigger pledges because they are in the middle of tough financial times and are going broke. “Do they send out a message that they are dying on the vine and must have one more contribution to stay afloat? No, they say, ‘We took your money last year and we did great things with it. If you will give us more, we will do more great things.’ And people give and give to them.  People want results and these institutions give positive results!”

Christopher argues that the main responsibility for creating generous giving in the church belongs to the pastor and to the church officers. Most of us do not want to hear this (especially those of us who are pastors) because we are uncomfortable asking for money and we believe in the old myth that leaders should not know how much members give. From the perspective of successful fund-raising, however, these arguments are deadly. Members and its leaders must be taught the principles of Christian giving. They must understand that one of the chief obstacles to having a deep spiritual life is crass materialism and the desire to keep your own money at the expense of God’s kingdom. If people learn that the pastor and officers believe in the mission of the church, if they make it clear that they are willing to give to it sacrificially, and if leaders testify personally how the church is changing their own lives, others will be encouraged to give and will actually be excited about being part of God’s plan for the future. A basic principle is involved here: if the pastor and leaders do not ask people to increase their pledges in God’s name, members will either decide not to give more money to the church or they will give it somewhere else.

Christopher has developed ten principles of Christian stewardship that may seem revolutionary to many Presbyterians.

1. Pray, Study And Get My Act Together First. Pastors must pray about their own giving, study the Scriptures carefully and honestly examine their own lives. When they decide to make sacrificial giving a priority in their own lives and in the church they will begin to share this with the church officers and in their sermons.

2. Build a High-Expectation Culture. Pastors and officers must create high standards for members in regard to giving (using the tithe as a basic guide) and let people know that the church expects to see significant spiritual growth and new levels of dedication to serve society. New members need to be told that if they are going to join they are expected to give significantly both in terms of money and time,” These expectations, at a minimum, should be regular attendance, tithing, and service beyond self. These are simple spiritual disciplines that do not save us, but can help keep us in relationship with God.”  If all members are repeatedly reminded that much is expected of them, the chances are that they will rise to a new level, and much will be given.

3.  Have Weekly Testimonies. One of the keys to effective stewardship in the 21st century is the telling of personal stories of how the church has changed the lives of members by helping them encounter Jesus Christ. This does not mean testimonies in the old-fashioned soul-saving way but the honest sharing of why the church is important. Last fall each member of our Stewardship Committee shared their stories on successive weeks for about five minutes and the members were deeply moved. They had no idea that our church was making such an impact because no one had ever told them before.

4. Have Regular, Ongoing Christian Financial Planning Classes. Learning about good stewardship is not just an individual matter. It is a commitment that involves the whole church. Since love of money is the root of evil and materialism often dominates our lives, since living beyond our means in the clutches of huge debt destroys our relationships and our vitality, the church has to be a leader in helping people learn how God really wants us to live.

5. Preach Directly on Money Four Times A Year. Christopher contends that the pastor is the key to effective stewardship. It is not enough to give one sermon once a year. Since money is an important part of our lives, our giving and spending must be re-examined continually. In this educational process the pastor must lead through sermons and personal example.

6. Target Market Your Correspondence. Learning from principles that marketing experts have developed, it should be obvious that sending out the same stewardship letter to all church members is a recipe for failure. Last fall our committee prepared one brochure for all the members of the church but we added a different insert for three different age groups: those born before World War II; for Baby Boomers; and for the Gen Xers. We realized that people in these groups give to the church for different reasons, have different expectations about the mission of the church, and require different types of communication. “Almost all non-profits know that what motivates a person of World War II is not what motivates a Baby Boomer or Gen Xer — don’t even waste the paper on sending a WW II letter to a Gen Xer.”

7. Spend More Time With Major Donors. Members of the church bring different gifts to the church. Some are trained as educators and make excellent church school teachers and administrators. Others are musicians and join the choir and help strengthen worship. It is unthinkable that the pastor or church officers would ignore these gifts and not recognize the people who have them to offer. Similarly, Christopher argues, the pastor should be willing to develop a special relationship with those who can make large gifts, who have the means to propel the financial work of the church forward in significant way. The pastor should meet with them regularly, consult with them about the major mission directions of the church, and be prepared to offer them new opportunities to give large gifts to God’s work.

The chances are that if the pastor does not ask, they will not give, or they certainly will not give as much.

8. Write Ten Thank-You Notes A Week. Successful non-profit groups keep in close contact with their donors. So do political groups, as the recent presidential campaigns have demonstrated. And people need to be thanked, they need to know why their continuing gifts and needed and appreciated. In the church this means that the pastor knows what members give and recognizes those members who have made special contributions, large or small. In today’s world this type of recognition can be even easier than writing a note on church letterhead. Sometimes even an e-mail, a phone call or a tweet will be gratefully received.

9. Review Individual Giving Once A Month. Although this directive runs against the prejudices of pastors and many church members, i.e. that giving is a matter between God and the individual giver, it really does not make much sense in today’s world. We may not know everything about a member’s financial responsibilities and burdens but it is a matter of public knowledge how much money a person has in general. We know that by the area of town in which they live, by the cars they drive, where they spend vacations, and how they dress. Christopher argues that the pastor (and maybe selected church officers) should review the giving patterns of all members every month. By doing so they have one more indicator of a person’s spiritual health and if a significant change is seen it may be time for some careful pastoral attention. As he puts it, “Giving is the closest thing we have on a daily basis to getting a true picture of a person’s character. It is in giving that individuals must make a conscious decision to risk that which they value greatly.  When you see them overcome the fear of parting with that which the world values so much, then you know that Jesus must have their heart.”

10. Never Send Out A Line-Item Budget Again. Most members are not going to read a detailed budget of the church, even when it is made available. Recently one of our members insisted on knowing the exact amounts that staff members made, suggesting that not providing this information made it appear that the church was trying to hide something. The session decided to make this information available to anyone who wanted to see it but we did not put it in the stewardship budget. Only one person looked at it, the man who requested it, and we had to remind him that it was available.

For stewardship purposes, it is much more effective to provide a Missional Budget, one that describes the different areas of the church’s work, what they all accomplish, how much time staff and volunteers spend making them work, and how much they cost. If this information is accompanied by digital photos, audio commentary, and music, and is made available on-line it is much more likely to appeal to all the members and reach more people. Today it would be inexpensive and effective to send all this information on a DVD that members could look at on their computer or DVD player.

No doubt it is challenging and threatening to many pastors and church officers to consider the possibility of revamping tried-and-tested stewardship methods. But Christopher’s directives are based on solid research, the ways in which people send and receive information today, and Biblical principles of giving. Why not look at his book and see what you think? And when you are done reading it, give it to your pastor and make an appointment to get his or her assessment. And if it appears to be a resource that could potentially change the life of your church, give it to the session and the members of your stewardship committee and prepare to make Christian stewardship the hallmark of who your church is and what it does.


Earl S. Johnson Jr. is pastor of First Church in Johnstown, N.Y., and adjunct professor of religious studies at Siena College.