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Shift Ministry Models

Grief, Money Narratives, and Annual Giving

Sharing grief changes reasons for giving
by Erin Weber-Johnson | August 22, 2022

Me

I thought I lost you

But you were just hanging out

In the dirt waiting.

(D.S. Hollie,  “Haiku’s and Me”)

What do we do now? 

As someone who guides faith communities and institutions in the work of discerning how to follow God’s call, and how they can best steward their resources to serve their mission in a given context, this question has long held relevance. As we think about raising money and leading congregations – especially when we know that the “now” is riddled with grief – this question feels more relevant than ever. 

What does it look like to give voice to this experience of grief and lead in light of the changes and losses our collective grief points toward? My experience tells me that deep questions like this need answers that meet the real world challenges faith communities and their leaders face. So it is the question, “What do we do now?” that shows up and is articulated out of the real dirt, the down to earth, lived experiences of ministry. 

  • What do leaders say when we don’t know our future or the shape of the Church in the years ahead? 
  • What do we say when we are not feeling excited all the time, but instead feel the grief of so much loss? 
  • What do we do now, in light of collective grief?

Donor motivations are shifting

One way to answer these questions was to look at what motivates donors to give. Studies have shown a marked rise in giving motivated by feelings of anger, pain, a desire for meaning making, and feelings of hopelessness in response to mortality. You might notice that all of these new motivations align with stages of grief. What do we do now?

Newer ways of responding to this age old question have emerged. Faith communities are able to speak authentically to a rare collective experience of loss. Drawing on a shared sense of grief, leaders can invite their members to serve, participate, and even give, as a faithful and holy response to the pain of loss. Such an approach opens up space for ambiguity, healing, and for the Divine to lead us forward into the unknown.

These emerging responses highlight the need to acknowledge the experience of those in our (virtual and literal) pews and to constantly assess and reassess our operating theologies. Frankly, old theologies of abundance, often born more of privilege and from communities out of touch with suffering, will not hold the theological or spiritual depth to meet the groundswell of collective suffering and grief we are all experiencing. Rather than reflecting on the abundance given in our individual lives, what if the past few years have shown us that we don’t belong just to ourselves, but to one another? How could this new sense of belonging and the solidarity that comes from a collective experience of loss change our motivations for giving? Our giving allows us to set a larger table for others and to work to repair a world in need of healing. 

A Minnesota story

Last fall, Vandersall Collective, the faith-based firm I work for, partnered with a church in Minnesota who saw a significant deficit in their budget in 2020 due to Covid-19. More than a year of not gathering in person, and a combination of factors compounded by the pandemic led to a significant economic shortfall; quite simply, people could not and did not pledge at their previous rates. Meanwhile, the needs of the congregation did not shrink with the pledges, but, rather grew. Ultimately, in the fall of 2021, the church was seeing a 14% increase to their budget and, to make up the previous year’s loss, would need people to increase their giving by 20%. The clergy and lay leadership were left wondering “What do we do now?” So, they got to work.

  • They realized early on that their campaign needed to be about more than a financial benchmark. 
  • The clergy and lay leaders saw the large financial need, and the implied fundraising goal, as an opportunity to expand their members’ understanding about how money works in their faith lives and shapes their own collective and individual senses of self.
  • Working together we provided members with a chance to own their individual money narratives and share collectively with one another their sense of grief. 
  • We had an opportunity to think together about their relationships to money and God. 
  • Some of their former ways of thinking about how God moved in the world and the connections between faith and money had shifted as a community. 
  • As they shared with one another, reconnecting after a long season apart, they found that grief had become a significant part of their story. 

With all of these realizations, their invitation for their annual campaign became, “We are all in the midst of grieving together what has been and what we have lost. And now we have a choice. Join us in giving to our church as we choose how to make meaning of this grief…as we give and work to repair a world that needs love.”

It was in this profound statement, marking what had been lost, that they found themselves again, together, and as a faith community they found their way. This was their answer to the question: What do we do now? What’s more, their answer was an invitation to discover and participate in a renewed and collective identity. Yes, there had been much loss in the years past. But, here was a chance to set down old ways of being and identifying, and to plant something new.

Often, we connect burial with grief. It is in the dirt where we remember our losses and we find our God-given selves. One thing is laid to rest, set down in the earth, and a new thing is raised. It is such a model of dying and rising, burial and new life, which God calls us to, and bids us invite others to join. Through this way, we and those who accept the invitation discover our most authentic selves and here we are empowered to give our resources and work for repair of the world.

About the Author

Erin Weber-Johnson

Erin Weber-Johnson is Senior Consultant at Vandersall Collective, a faith based, woman-led consulting firm and Primary Faculty of Project Resource. Her recent co-edited book, “Crisis and Care: Meditations on Faith and Philanthropy” is available at Wipf & Stock. She lives in St. Paul, MN with her husband, Jered, and two sons, Jude and Simon Henri.

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