By Fred Koenig
“Clergy are uncomfortable talking about money. Lay people are happy with clergy being uncomfortable talking about money.”
Lovett Weems began his talk at the eighth annual Leadership Institute at Central Methodist College with this acknowledgment. Weems is the director of the Lewis Center, but most Missourians know him best for his 18 years as president of Saint Paul School of Theology. He was speaking to the crowd gathered on the topic of Joyful Generosity: Serving God’s Vision.
Weems said that most Christians give relatively little to church or charitable causes. About 20 percent give nothing, and of the other 80 percent, a small subset carries most of the weight. Although practically everyone could give more, it’s not easy.
“It’s not that people have money left over at the end of the month,” he said. “In most cases you can’t give more unless you give something up.”
It’s not that people reject the teachings of their faith about giving in the first place – in most cases, they have never learned the teachings of their faith regarding giving, Weems said.
“Churches settle for low expectations and no consequences for low giving,” he said. “People give sporadically and on impulse. Those that give based on a plan give far more than those who give sporadically.”
Weems said there are two types of churches when it comes to giving, and described them this way:
Pay the Bills Church: The language here is the church needs your support, the church has bills to pay like everyone else, this is how much we need...the task is if you communicate how much the church needs, the money will be there. The approach is almost apologetic. The feel is challenge, drudgery, and something we have to do. It is short on paying apportionments, lists the budget in the bulletin, and tries to avoid a capital campaign.
God’s Vision Church: The language here is that giving is a central part of Christian living, it allows God to be present in all aspects of our life, we expect disciples to grow in giving as they grow in other aspects of their faith. The approach is to present a clear vision of God’s calling for the congregation, and supporting the church is just one part of serving God’s vision. God’s work is just one part of serving the church. It has a narrative budget, and a focus on offering to others.
That doesn’t mean churches can’t change from being one type to the other. Weems suggested four things that churches can do to move from being about paying the bills, to following God’s vision.
Begin to change the giving culture in your church. If there is a giving culture, Weems said. In some churches only the finance committee talks about money. Christian author Andy Stanley once said, “Generosity is something we want for you, not from you.” Keep the focus on ministry. If the church decides to build new building for children don’t let the conversation become all about interest rates and contractors. You should never talk about anything without talking about purpose. Remember we’re not in the interest rate business, we’re in the God business. When we see construction, we’re thinking about the next generation of disciples.
Become bolder in talking about giving, but always connected to discipleship. Develop principles for all to follow. God is a God of generosity, not scarcity. We’re not going to use guilt or the inflation rate to talk about giving. We never talk about money without talking about discipleship. People’s need to give is far more important than the church’s need to receive. Everything, praying or counting the money, should all be going toward the glory of God.
Provide safe ways to talk about money. Some say in polite company you don’t talk about religion and politics – that’s wrong. Money is really the no-no. But people who think deeply about these matters tend to give more. Go around the table and ask to share how they think about giving. Talk about a bad experience of being asked for money. Talk about the experience of the church’s ask for money. Consider your money autobiography – how money is handled in your family – did one person do it, did no one talk about it, what did you do with money from your first job, when is the first time you were on your own financially...we all have very different money autobiographies.
Confidently convey biblical and theological ideas about giving through a year-round plan. Do not just talk about giving one segment of the year. Whatever you do, do it throughout the year. If a farmer does nothing all year, he shouldn’t go out and expect a big harvest. Don’t expect much of a harvest if you’re not willing to do some plowing, planting and cultivation all through the year.
Someone asked why a parishioner should give through church instead of some other charitable cause? Weems replied that it is a case that the church has to make.
“Not that long ago you could assume that people knew you should give to the church, and that’s where most of the charitable money would go. That’s not the case now,” he said. “That’s why we need to talk about outcomes, and lives that were changed. Other non-profits didn’t start out from the privileged place of churches – they’ve had to make their case from the beginning.”
Preaching and Talking About Money: Research by the Lewis Center has shown that those who remember hearing a stewardship sermon and a sermon about the church budget give twice as much as those who do not. “But there’s an important distinction to be made between stewardship sermon and a sermon about church budget,” Weems said. “A Stewardship sermon doesn’t begin talking about 10 percent of people’s money, but 100 percent. All things belong to God.”
Weems said it is wrong to hold back talking about money with new members.
“Include stewardship in new member activities. When people are making a decision to join, they are far more likely to make a commitment then than four months later when stewardship Sunday comes around,” Weems said.
Weems noted that 20 years ago no churches were considering offering classes on personal financial training, but now many do, using resources from places like Willow Creek, or Dave Ramsey’s Financial Peace University. One church had a class for parents when kids are in confirmation classes, which got parents coming more regularly, and established personal connections.
Weems suggested that with new people, it is important to have multiple ways to give, mentioning online giving, QR codes and automatic withdraws. Annual commitment efforts are also important. Churches with growth in giving are twice as likely to have annual campaigns.
“If people have a chance to make plans for their giving, they are more likely to give, and more likely to give more,” Weems said.
Pledge reminders should begin with a thank you, and go out in April, July, October and December. The December reminder should look like a real letter, not like a bill.
Weems stressed the importance of saying thank you regularly. “You’d think in the church we would be the experts on this, but if I write a check in February, I won’t hear from the church until January,” he said.
Weems scoffs at the idea that pastors shouldn’t know what members of their congregation give, because it will lead to a bias in pastoral care.
“What other ignorance about your congregation would make you a better pastor?” he said. “Do you need to put up a wall, so you can’t see who attends worship more? To be a spiritual leader, you’ve got to be able to take the temperature in some way. You need to monitor what’s happening with giving.”
At closing Weems encouraged those gathered to go and make a change.
“It all matters. You can’t do all of these things at all times, but create plans to start doing some of these things,” he said.