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Shopping around

Belief in mission, staff, financial stability are donor keys, Christopher says

March 15, 2012

CHARLOTTE, N.C.

When it comes to increasing stewardship, churches can either change the slogan or change the product, said the Rev. Clif Christopher, speaking March 13 at the Stewardship Kaleidoscope conference here.

 The March 12-14 conference, hosted by several presbyteries, synods and agencies of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), focused on several angles of stewardship — its theological and spiritual basis, new ideas for campaigns and ways to encourage giving in a time of economic worry. 

Christopher, a Methodist pastor and founder of Horizons Stewardship Company, said that charitable giving to U.S. churches has gone down over the years — 60 percent of all charitable gifts used to go to churches; now only one-third does.

And yet, Christopher said, “We continue to pump out the same stewardship message over and over and over again: ‘It’s the church, so you should give.’” 

That message no longer works — people need to know why they should give, he said.

When he was in pastoral ministry, Christopher said he never understood stewardship. It wasn’t until he began working with non-profits as a consultant that he realized that knowing your donors is key to success.

“The church needs to understand donor motivations and appeal to them,” he said, adding that

Americans give for three main reasons: belief in an institution’s mission, regard for staff leadership and the fiscal stability of an institution.

People want to see a return on their investment, Christopher said. They want to see how their donations change lives.

But many churches are either focused solely on maintaining their operations or aren’t telling the stories of what they’re doing. Church newsletters rarely tell stories of transformed lives, he said,  focusing instead on announcements about the annual pancake breakfast or women’s bazaar.

“Why do we do stupid stuff like that when it harms the Kingdom of God?” Christopher asked.

Donors understand that the people running programs have the ability to change lives, he said, and they must have trust in those leaders before they’ll give.

And no one wants to put money into a sinking ship, Christopher continued. People want to know that the money they give will be used for the mission purpose they support. No non-profit asks its donors to send money because it’s about to fail — so why do churches?

Christopher cited management consultant Peter F. Drucker, who said that businesses deal with products, governments deal with services and non-profits deal with changing lives — their product is a “changed human being.”

“When you sell that product, they will shop at your store,” Christopher said. “When you don’t, they will quit.”

The church’s job is to change lives in the name of Jesus Christ. “When you do that, you’ll find that the money will take care of itself,” he said.

Christopher outlined several practical steps to increase stewardship:

  • The pastor must tithe and testify specifically about it. “The sheep ain’t going where the shepherd ain’t leading,” Christopher said.
  • Set high expectations and require members to meet them. Hold classes about stewardship  before new members join. The new DNA from these members will seep into the rest of the congregation. “You can’t change what has been OK for decades, but you can start anew today,” he said.
  • Have at least 25 percent of the worship attendance involved in hands-on mission. There’s a direct corollary between churches’ income and mission activity. If you don’t have enough money coming in, maybe you aren’t offering enough chances for members to get involved, Christopher said.
  • Accurately report the amount needed to do mission. Always talk ministry when talking money. Tell life-changing stories.
  • Don’t publish financial information in bulletins or online, only in mailings that go to members. Be transparent, but be smart about it. Don’t give financial reports during worship.
  • Pastors must know what members give. Select lay leaders should also know. Giving isn’t just between the donor and God. Some people think that pastors will treat members unfairly if they know how much each person gives, but congregations need to trust their pastors and give them all the necessary tools to care for souls.
  • Seek gifts from all three “pockets”: annual giving, capital campaigns and planned or estate giving.
  • Enliven the offering. Have staff or members share a one-minute stewardship witness each week.
  • Who’s leading the flock — Wall Street or Emmaus Road? “We are not in the balancing-the-budget business. We’re in the disciple-making business,” Christopher said.
  • Share missional budgets, not line-item budgets, with members. Accountants need line-item budgets, but members need to see how the church is doing its mission.
  • Make it convenient to give by offering members different options — online, kiosks, electronic funds transfer or brokerage accounts.
  • Start saying thank you. Don’t take donors for granted. Pastors should write 10 thank-you notes a week to members.   

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