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Shift Ministry Models

Traditional and Emerging Paradigms (Part One)

Attend to the differences in those who give to better connect with your congregation.
by Meredith McNabb | May 18, 2020

The world of religiously-motivated giving—particularly to and through congregations—is changing rapidly.  Even before the 2020 coronavirus interruptions to in-person worship, congregational givers demonstrated different constellations of values and practices, differences that should be attended to by congregational leaders who are responsible for stewardship.  Without attention to the different values and practices of those who give, congregations are missing connections and opportunities—and would-be givers miss out as well. 

Drawing on close to 20 years of observation with thousands of congregations, Lake Institute on Faith and Giving identifies these different sets of values and practices as the Traditional Paradigm and the Emerging Paradigm.  It’s important to emphasize that these are not synonymous with either the “good ol’ days” or the “shiny new thing”—each paradigm represents a meaningful, generous approach to congregational giving that’s worthy of respect, nurture, and gratitude.  However, these two different paradigms of giving require different approaches and invitations—and too often, congregations overlook one in favor of the other.  It’s also important to note that many givers and certainly many giving households may find themselves somewhere along a spectrum between these two paradigms—but for the sake of analyzing congregational and individual practice, it may be helpful to separate them clearly.

At a basic level, the Traditional Paradigm is a giving orientation that’s rooted in a religious duty to give from one’s resources.  Congregational members, particularly, feel a sense of belonging to their house of worship and have a desire to contribute to the budget of the congregation because it’s the right thing to do.  Within the Traditional Paradigm, givers generally have trust in their faith community, and value the unique nature of the congregation (and often the denomination/network to which the congregation may belong) as an important and holy institution that is worthy of their gift, and which will do good work with whatever is given.  

On the other hand, the Emerging Paradigm is a giving orientation that arises from a sense of faithful investment of one’s resources in response to God’s generosity.  Potential givers, who may or may not be congregational members, feel a sense of generosity and empowerment to live out their faith through gifts to worthy causes and world-changing efforts.  Within the Emerging Paradigm, givers tend to want to collaborate on—or at least be thoroughly informed about—the ministry and projects that their gifts support and the positive changes that their gifts make.   The congregation, denomination, or other institution seeking a gift from a giver in the Emerging Paradigm needs to demonstrate transparently its trustworthiness and effectiveness as a venue for the giver’s faithful generosity.  

These different sets of values and practices around giving are not entirely tied to generational differences—while older givers may more often fall into a Traditional Paradigm mindset in their giving, that often has more to do with religious affiliation and formation than with age.  (There are plenty of Traditional Paradigm-minded middle-aged and young givers, too, along with plenty of older Emerging Paradigm givers).  The difference truly is in how one was taught and formed in practices of giving by family, faith communities, and peers, as well as simply in how a would-be giver lives out the virtue of generosity.  

Congregational leaders can tend to lean into one or the other paradigms themselves, which can lead to one-sided approaches—Traditional Paradigm-based invitations to give from clergy don’t resonate deeply with Emerging Paradigm constituents, for instance, nor do Emerging Paradigm-based stewardship campaign materials land well with Traditional Paradigm members.  Congregations already speak infrequently about the meaning of giving—43% report teaching about giving either annually or never (as opposed to asking for contributions, which almost all congregations do weekly)—if the faith message about what generosity means doesn’t connect with an entire segment of one’s congregation, it’s a real loss of connection and a loss of potential gifts. 

Neither the religious duty to give, in the Traditional Paradigm, nor the inclination to respond to God’s generosity, in an Emerging Paradigm, is a wrong impulse on the part of an individual giver, and indeed the two can exist side-by-side even in one giver’s set of motivations.  Congregations will do well, however, to be mindful of how they may privilege or ignore one set of motivations over the other in their communications, teaching, and preaching, so that they can connect effectively with their whole constituency.  

In Part Two, we’ll explore some meaningful ways for congregational leaders to connect with givers across these different approaches to generosity. 


About the Author

Meredith McNabb

Meredith McNabb is the Associate Director for Educational Programming for the Lake Institute on Faith and Giving at the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy. McNabb is ordained in the United Methodist Church, and she served previously as the Director of the Center for Clergy Excellence of the Virginia Conference of the UMC and as a parish pastor in suburban Washington, DC. In her early career, she was an attorney in Virginia, working primarily with low-income victims of domestic violence.

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