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Monday, August 22, 2011

RevGalBookPals Review: Not Your Parents' Offering Plate

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Our weather report predicted "fall-like" weather for today. As summer winds down, many of us see Stewardship campaigns lying just ahead. If you're wondering how to approach things differently this year, take a look at Not Your Parents' Offering Plate: A New Vision for Financial Stewardship, by J. Clif Christopher.

Christopher is ordained in the United Methodist Church and began his career in parish ministry. In 1992 he founded the Horizons Stewardship Company, a consulting business that works with churches and other faith-based institutions to meet financial goals. He writes from both his experience as a pastor and as a consultant, and his underlying principle is that being a proper steward of what God has given us is our primary call. It leads us to loving care of the church, of the earth, and of ourselves and our families.

It also leads to a lot more work for the pastor, and Christopher ends the book with a note to pastors saying he wouldn't blame us for throwing the book away for that reason alone.

But I put this book into the hands of my Stewardship committee, and we found it enlightening, even if in some areas a bit overwhelming, and we're hoping to begin putting some of Christopher's principles into practice.

He begins by sketching a picture of the world of giving, and how much it has changed since the days when "everyone" went to church and we could simply expect people to give to the work of the church. Today, he says, people have a huge variety of worthy causes to support, and some will choose a non-profit over the church because the non-profit will know what to do with the money! This is the larger version of something we've probably all begun to notice. Many people, especially younger people, in our congregations, will willingly give for something concrete, but will not necessarily feel called to give to the support of the institution of church itself. People will text to give $10 to earthquake victims, or click a button on a website, or even invest in a micro-loan through Kiva, as long as they feel the money is going where they want it to go. Christopher encourages us to be able to tell our story better, to explain why giving to the church and its ministries matters, to stop being afraid to talk about the money.

Donors are saying to our churches today that you have to earn our gifts. No longer can you just preach a sermon on tithing and think the members will give 10 percent to the church. They will hear your message that tithing is what God wants them to do, and they they will go home and decide to give the church 2 percent, the youth center 2 percent, the homeless shelter 2 percent, and their college 4 percent. They will then look you right in the eye when say that it all should go to the church, and they will ask you, "Do you not believe that Jesus is working in the youth center and the homeless shelter and with our college students?" If you are not prepared to compete with over one million nonprofits, you will lose. (Christopher, p. 7)

He also illustrates the ways in which non-profits outshine churches at showing appreciation to donors. We expect giving and sometimes don't even think of saying thank you to the givers. And one of the reasons that happens, in my experience, is that we don't know for sure who is giving, much less how much. In some of our traditions it is verboten for the pastor to know who gives. Christopher insists this is disastrous, because he understands a person's giving as a measure of his or her spiritual health. He makes a strong and detailed case for bringing the pastor into the loop about who is giving -- and how much.

I especially liked the chapter Reasons People Give. Here's a quote:

If you are on the finance committee of your church, I hope you will take this chapter to your next meeting, and when they whip out the line item budget to start trimming things because you are running behind, stop them and say, "Hey, the top three reasons people give are (1) belief in the mission,  (2) regard for staff leadership, and (3) fiscal responsibility. Instead of just cutting out budget, could we review how well we tell our donors about how we do our job of changing lives? Could we review how well we utilize our staff and pastor when it comes to relating to our donors? Could we look to see if we are sending signals that we are fiscally sound or fiscally unsound? It may be that if we could fix these three areas, we would not have to cut the budget again." (p. 30)

This is not a new version of Pony Express. It is not a canned program to guide your fundraising for one season. It's a provocative, theologically-grounded re-write of the rules of stewardship as we have understood them in the mainline church. I will offer the caveat that many of the suggestions he makes are large church-oriented, and when I read this:

I believe each pastor should intentionally invite the top five to ten donors to his or her home about three times a year. (p. 100)

I wrote this in the margin:

Is my wife fixing dinner?

And when I saw the suggestion that the pastor write ten thank you notes a week, I laughed. I would be writing to the same people almost every week, and it would quickly seem like spam. But I will admit it got me writing more notes by hand, even if not ten a week.

On the whole, the enthusiastic lay people on my Stewardship committee and I found plenty to spur our thinking in this book and came away wanting to pry open the privacy doors so that we can show appreciation to our givers and find out what is making them tick. We also appreciated the narrative budget example in the book, a big help when you're in a church that gets hung up on the line items or a church where things are tight and the pastor is viewed as part of the overwhelming staff line item instead of as the driver of the church's programs.

I highly recommend the book as a discussion-starter and look forward to hearing from any of you who have also read the book.


  1. Our finance team read this book a few years ago, and it sparked a lot of lively conversation. While we didn't adopt his recommendations as a whole program, the book has had a great, positive influence around here. We now carefully articulate how our ministry is changing lives at every turn. I write a monthly "good news" column for the newsletter, listing all the good things from that month, ways our church is touching and changing lives. This fall, we are preparing to move to a narrative budget. While I (as pastor) do not yet have access to giving records (which I admit to having mixed feelings about), I do now write thank-you notes for every pledge, and for ever gift to our capital campaign this year. I agree this is a great resource--very provocative, almost bombastic at times, but sure to stimulate ideas and conversation.

  2. Great review, SB! I started this book a few months ago but didn't finish it - I need to get back to it. It really was so thought-provoking.

    I am laughing, though, at the idea of inviting anyone over to our (small and messy) house - let alone several people, multiple times a year!

  3. forthesomeday, those are some great applications of his suggestions!

    earthchick, we are going to try a dinner for generous donors, but since I live half an hour away, it will be at someone's house closer to church.

    I would be interested to hear where others land on the question of how much the pastor knows about giving. Christopher is pretty fierce about it!

  4. Yeah, I meant to say that we do not know who gives what and have always felt strongly about that. I'm certainly pondering what he has to say about that, but I don't know where I come down yet.

  5. I recently read this too and turned it over to members of my Stewardship Board. I need to re-read it before I say much as I read it very quickly and there's a lot to digest!

    However, one compromise (for lack of a better word) that I've heard of and agree with regarding the pastor knowing what people give is this--to ask the financial secretary (or whoever does know that info) to alert the pastor when there is a dramatic change in people's giving. For example: if they give weekly and all of a sudden stop or vice versa, if they give at a certain level and then it dramatically changes up or down. I think it's important to note that both of these examples are an either-way kind of situation, not only if someone decreases or stops giving but also if they increase or start. I like that approach--at least as a starting point. And the pastor, of course, can contact the individuals and say something like, "How are things with you?" without necessarily approaching it as about money.

  6. Maybe I should not comment as I have not read the book and perhaps have the context incorrect.

    re: dinner for those who give more rubs me the wrong way. Perhaps in a larger church that would be possible and beneficial. It seems to create boundaries and lines between the "have more" and the "have less" families in the church. Said another way, it creates a power dynamic.

    Thoughts??? Comments??? Am I way off base??? Am I missing a nuance???

    1. Totally agree - I don't want to build a power click or insiders group. I think if it were combined with the same number (say two each) who offer their time and talent, then maybe...possibly offering the dinner to different people throughout the year.

  7. Re the dinner thing - that idea makes me unconfortable. I'm a member of a small church, and because I can read accounts and because I know what I give, I can deduce that I am one of the people who give a fair bit. But I don't think that the fact that I currently have a well paid job and the ability to give more should 'buy' me more respect or attention that someone who has more modest means and is giving what they can. I'd be really uncomfortable if I though this would be the case.

    Deliberately posting this one anonymously.

  8. I think that's a sticky wicket. What's the purpose for calling those folks together or showing appreciation to them? Christopher recommends it because you get a chance to find out *why* they're giving so well. He's also making the point throughout the book that people who could be giving to churches aren't because we don't show our givers any appreciation. We're assuming they'll give. And in low-giving New England, where the percentage giving of Congregationalists tends to be even lower, the silence feeds a culture in which it's okay to give nothing at all or a very small amount, not because it's all you can give but because "It's between you and God."
    I'm not saying I'm entirely comfortable with his conclusions, but he's certainly making me think.
    Anonymous, I appreciate your comment. The flip side of that is learning who is really committed in a broad way to the ministry of the church. Christopher would say that's an indicator of spiritual health, so the opposite is an indicator of spiritual dis-ease, an important thing for the pastor to know about, and not just for financial reasons.


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