Tuesday, November 5, 2013

The season of church budget persuasion is upon us--what to do?

Public broadcasting does it. So does the American Cancer Society. Also your favorite charity. The local congregation also joins in the fray.

A perfect storm of conditions comes in the last three months of the year.

1. The American charitable impulse of the holiday season.
2. The motivation to balance a non-profit's budget for the year.
3. The opportunity to persuade givers with the carrot of the tax-deductible gift as they consider filing their returns in the next few months.
4. Images of an autumn harvest also bolster and encourage the gathering of resources in order to prepare for darker, colder days.

One or more of these conditions is present in late year campaigns as non-profits make their push to maximize resources. A giver is contacted on numerous fronts--web, mailbox, email inbox, social media accounts, radio, newspaper, and television.

For the first decade plus of my ordained ministry during this time of year, I crafted a biblical message to persuade people in my middle class congregations that giving to God in the context of the local congregation was a faithful investment of resources. Today stewardship has become a much more proactive aspect of congregational life in the past few decades (and not mere plate passing). I hear and read an expanding cadre of catch phrases that guide this season of persuasion.
  • God owns everything. We are trusted to care for what God owns.
  • Give is a more commonly used word in the Bible than "pray" or "love"
  • Giving is our response to what God has done for us.
While these statements are true, the context of these statements come with tensions. These tensions aren't new, but these tensions remain for me.
  • When such a high percentage of the church budget goes to my salary, retirement, and health care, it feels disingenuous to talk about the connection between giving and faith when it is so closely tied to my well being. It was easier to talk about giving when it was connected to Christian education, evangelism, or facility maintenance.
  • After spending around 14 years serving middle class congregations of varying sizes, the concept of stewardship feels different when I see people in the congregation who I know are living around or below the poverty line. As is the case with the biblical story of The Widow's Mite (Mark 12:41-44, Luke 21:1-4)--percentage of giving related to income means more than amount of giving. Yes, all people are capable of giving, and I can't minimize the ability of all people in the congregation to give. Yet, I still remember a family member was persuaded to give some of her Social Security check toward a "love gift" at a ministry over several years while she lived in poverty. The dissonance for me is painful.
  • Over the years I have seen congregational leaders responsible for the budget to scold its members for not meeting budgetary expectations. It's tempting to go negative, because sometimes it produces short term results. In the long term, it erodes trust.  Tying budget to stewardship teaching and campaigns seems misplaced at best, as tying stewardship teaching to a campaign feels like a dishonest leverage.
In the end, though the church may spiritualize, theologize, and persuade about the importance of giving to the life of the church, giving comes down to trust. I can't demand trust for the sake of a budget or my own well being. I am glad to talk about money, faith, and stewardship in the context of what it means to be a follower of Jesus. However, the way the church has packaged stewardship has become a problem for me. I also cannot forget that the reason I am able to ponder and pray upon these questions is that I have a spouse who has good work with good compensation. Many of my colleagues do not have that opportunity. I do know that the most important aspect of being able to do the ministry my congregation is called to do is trust, and trust takes time and work that does not sync with the current rhythm of budget and persuasion in congregational life.


  1. I can absolutely relate to what you are saying. It is very challenging and all the more so for the frequent reality that those who can least afford to give more often feel far more convicted by a stewardship message than those who have much and give little.

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  3. I'm in the middle of putting together a master's capstone project dedicated to stewardship. It will be interesting to see what the results are comparing giving patterns and stewardship practices. I suspect that "the way the church has packaged stewardship" is going to a problem in many contexts.

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