These last few Sundays of the calendar year are like the climactic ending of a mystery novel for pastors. No one knows what’s going to happen next. Every pastor (including me) will know at the end of the next three days whether or not the ministries of their church can continue as normal (or expand) as they had hoped and prayed; or if they are going to have a very challenging board meeting in January and have to start cutting personnel and programming.
I am pastoring a church that is in the midst of sweeping generational and cultural changes. The changes are exciting and nearly killing me at the same time. At PazNaz we are constantly talking about being intergenerational and multi-cultural. For decades First Church has worked hard at being a place where people of different economic standing discover that they are brother and sister. And I think this flagship Nazarene church is learning to love its denominational connection and heritage without making that identity an impediment to people seeking first the kingdom of God.
I also think the church is in the midst of sweeping theological change. In particular, I hope our ecclesiology is changing. I hope that people at PazNaz are beginning to not think of the church as some place that they go but as something that they are.
But this is why year-end giving is killing the church. Let me try to explain…
There are lots of books that have come out over the last few years trying to help pastors and churches deal with the “new normal” of giving. One of the most popular and helpful is Not Your Parents’ Offering Plate: A New Vision for Financial Stewardship by J. Clif Christopher.
Christopher is a former pastor who has now set up a ministry to help churches with fund raising and stewardship. His book is very helpful and I have been given copies of it at several pastor’s meetings.
Like every book of this nature I have read, Christopher quickly addresses the challenge and change that every pastor is experiencing:
In 2006, for the first time in recorded history, gifts to religion fell below 33 percent of charitable giving. Just twenty years ago, gifts to religion amounted to nearly 60 percent of all charitable giving. Not so any longer. Every year, religion continues to get a smaller piece of the charitable pie because church leaders simply do not know how to compete for the charitable dollar.
Christopher is absolutely right. More and more great and worthy organizations are competing for the charitable giving of parishioners and while those agencies and organizations have “stepped up their game” in getting those dollars, the church has lagged behind. He rightly and helpfully suggests that pastors and churches begin to operate differently. Here are some of his suggestions:
- Invite the executive director of one of your community’s first-rate nonprofits to come by and talk about your stewardship committee about how they do fund-raising and how they relate to donors.
- Recognize that donors are different and give and different levels… So send different messages to different levels of givers.
- Spend more time with major donors.
- Think like a college president or the director of advancement for a Christian university: promote the mission, plan for estate giving, and craft compelling capital campaigns.
- Preach directly on money at least four times a year.
- Pay close attention to the giving records and write personal notes of gratitude to faithful givers.
At the bottom-line, his argument can be summed up this way:
- Giving patterns have (and are continuing) to change radically for people in the church.
- People are giving to organizations that match their own missional and transformational concerns and interests.
- The church had better learn quickly from those organizations and copy their practices (and hopefully do them even better) or they will find themselves without any financial support.
Again, I think Christopher on so many levels is really correct and resisting his advice may be like howling at the moon. There are many things that churches need to learn from these kinds of books – especially about expressing gratitude to faithful supporters. I am sure he so absolutely right that if the church doesn’t figure out how to compete for the finances of the faithful that ministry will continue to suffer.
But I am also convinced that putting in the practices (even the “best practices”) of the most Christian, missional, and transformational non-profit organizations may destroy the church.
Here’s the problem: You are what you practice to be. If you spend the day dribbling and shooting a ball you will be a basketball player. If you run around kicking a ball into a goal you will become a soccer player. If you chase a little white ball around, hitting it with funny shaped sticks and trying to get it into a small round hole, you will be a golfer. And If the church starts practicing like it is another in a long list of non-profit organizations, it will become another in a long list of non-profit organizations.
The church is not another charitable organization; it is the Body of Christ.
The church is not just a 501(c)(3) devoted to a common social cause; it is a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation witnessing in its life together to God’s new creation.
The church is not some place we go; it is something that we are.
Here is what I am convinced is true theologically:
- The church is not one more charitable organization but a distinct new creation people in the world.
- Giving for the Christian is a spiritual practice (a spiritual discipline) that is simply one expression (of many) of being part of that new creation people.
- Practicing giving as a discipline within the church helps to form the identity that we are the church. We give to the church as part of the church not because we have been persuaded that it is a good mission investment but because it expresses who we are and reflects that where our treasure is our heart is also.
I know that is idealistic. And I know fewer and fewer people think that way. But maybe they don’t think that way, in part, because the church stopped practicing that way. Perhaps we have become what we have practiced to become.
So this is why I think the last week of December is destroying the church. It’s not that some people give much of their tithe at the end of the year. I know that the complexity of the economic life of some in the congregation makes year-end giving a necessary habit.
But our practices reflect what we believe. And our current practices - that include having to compete with all of the other great and worthy non-profit organizations for year-end dollars - make the church just one more non-profit organization. I know that as a pastor I will have to heed much of the advice of experts like Christopher (primarily because I feel the tremendous weight of keeping the pastoral staff employed). But I fear it could be part of the church’s undoing.