One of the most common questions I receive when I’m presenting on stewardship is, “How do we get people to give more to the church?” This question often arises when churches are stuck in “survival mode” hoping to just get enough money to pay the bills. While I know this question comes from a well meaning place, I’m more interested in what is behind the question. What are these church leaders really asking?
Is wanting people (maybe even expecting people) to give to the church about the church’s need for money to pay its bills or the givers’ need to give as an expression of discipleship? How do we know people aren’t being as generous as they can be, particularly in the midst of a pandemic? I wonder if a more helpful question might be: Why does our church deserve to be a recipient, and likely the primary recipient, of our members’ financial gifts? If the answer is: “Because we’re a church,” I’m not sure that’s enough. I don’t think the church has a right to continue to be funded in its current form simply because of its institutional identity.
It’s not because I don’t care about the church or think the church is worth funding—quite the opposite. It’s because I believe God calls churches to be communities that partner in God’s work of transforming lives both inside and outside the walls of the physical building. This is how we live out the gospel. This is how we live out our call as stewards to be love in action to our neighbors. And if we are in the business of joining God in transforming lives, I believe we should have something to show for it.
Studies have shown that donors, particularly younger donors, want to see the impact of their giving. They want to know that their giving is making a difference. While that may come off as “self-centered” or “self-motivated” to some, I believe it’s entirely within the donor’s right to ask about how the money is being used and how the mission is being lived out in real and tangible ways. First, because they believe in the church’s mission and are excited to see how their individual financial contributions are strengthening its impact. Second, because the church is not the only place that is transforming lives. There are countless non-profits doing God’s transforming work—even if they aren’t always doing it explicitly in Jesus’ name. If the church isn’t doing this work, it’s likely that its members may turn elsewhere to other places where their giving can make a deeper impact.
So, what is a church to do if it is struggling to maintain financial stability, particularly during these rocky times? Is it possible to let go of a “survival mode” mentality and embrace a more sustainable model for ministry? Yes, I believe that it is. Here are a few steps you can take to begin stepping out of survival mode and into sustainability:
- Find the bright spots where God is transforming lives: Begin by shining a light on what’s already working. Find the places where God is actively transforming lives in and through your congregation and begin telling these stories. They don’t need to be grandiose. A story from a long-time member of how their life has changed by being a part of the congregation or a story from a neighbor who was able to receive the help they needed in the midst of the pandemic can be very impactful. Encourage people to share these stories with one another on a regular basis. It may be challenging at first, but over time it will become part of the fabric of your community.
- Let go of old models that are no longer serving you: Maybe it’s time to let go of a piece of your property that was designed for a different model of ministry, consider changing a stewardship practice where you ask for money once a year and hope that people step up throughout the year, or imagine what community partnerships might look like instead of having a singular focus on bringing in all of the church’s income through tithes and offerings. Take the time to acknowledge how well these models served you in the past, honor them, grieve their loss, and let them go so you can create space for innovative ideas to emerge.
- Shift your orientation: When you’re fighting hard to survive, it’s easy to focus in on what you can control rather than looking outward to new opportunities. So many churches find themselves in survival mode because they have lost track of their mission and the neighborhood God has called them to serve. Spend some time discovering what God is up to in your community and really listening to your neighbors. Don’t expect people to come to you—go out to them. I love the way ELCA Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton puts it, “We are church for the sake of the world.” Yet, so often we get that backwards. We want to bring the neighborhood to us so we can have “more butts in seats and money in the plate.” Instead we are called to live out the gospel by joining what God is already up to in our neighborhood with people who may never pass through the doors of our church.
- Focus on new ways to bring money in, in addition to budget reductions: Survival mode often leads to an obsession with balancing the budget and “being in the black” by cutting expenses and salaries. Don’t get me wrong—I’m a financially-minded person and see real value in pruning back a budget to include only the things centered on the organization’s mission. But this obsession with cutting back may also leave us blind to opportunities for partnership in our neighborhood, creative ways to use our buildings, social enterprise, or even untapped potential for giving amongst our congregation’s members and friends.
While they may sound similar, survival (fighting to make ends meet in the short term) and sustainability (creating a model that can grow and thrive for years to come) are very different. An organization seeking sustainability plants itself in the neighborhood asking the question: “Who and how are we called to serve? What funding do we need to make this possible? How might we fund our work in a way that aligns with our mission?” The focus is on sustaining the mission, not the structure. The physical and funding structures will grow, change, and adapt as needs of the community shift. Sustainability isn’t something the church deserves “just because.” It takes hard emotional, missional, mental, and even physical labor to bring this vision to life.
Is your congregation or judicatory body ready to let go of survival mode and embrace sustainability? We’d love to have you join us in the Funding Forward Learning Community. This ecumenical cohort of church leaders will equip you with breakthrough practices in church funding, missional engagement, and innovation.
Interested in hearing more? Join us for an info session on Thursday October 15 from 7-7:30pm (Central) so you can get the inside scoop on what this community is all about and see if it’s right for you. We’ll walk you through the topics we’ll be covering, the outcomes you can expect, and the signs that this community might be right for your congregation. Sign up today!
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