By Eddie Pipkin

On the heels of Thanksgiving, my inbox included a gift of an article which detailed the science behind the link between gratitude and giving.  There is increasing research that corroborates – and explains – the correlation between expressions of thankfulness and the practice of generosity.  As ministry leaders, we understand the implicit connection, but do we do enough to promote active gratitude?  Do we celebrate stories of generosity, and do we give people opportunities to actively express their appreciation to God and one another?  If not, we’re not only missing out on an avenue of joy.  We may also be left scratching our heads about why people aren’t actively supporting our ministry.

The article that I mentioned was published on the Vox website, and it’s titled, “Giving thanks may make your brain more altruistic.”  The subtitle reads, “Neuroscience is revealing a fascinating link between gratitude and generosity.”  Since God created us and all the marvelous, unfathomable systems that propel us through each day, unpacking the science means more deeply understanding the mystical mechanics of the link between the two g’s.  Here’s what the researchers have found:

[T]here’s a deep neural connection between gratitude and giving — they share a pathway in the brain — and that when we’re grateful, our brains become more charitable.

It’s all about the ventromedial prefrontal cortex.  Science!  Confirming a thing we all knew from personal and professional experience yet again!  The more grateful people are, the more they give.  (This is a distinctly different train of thought than the other “g” we frequently employ when attempting to prompt more giving: good old-fashioned guilt.)  When we encourage expressions of gratitude, we are helping to foster a fundamental aspect of discipleship which brings us into a deeper relationship with God and — science continues to tell us — leads to improved health, less stress, stronger relationships, and all-around greater well-being.

The scientific studies indicated the power of specific, tangible expressions of gratitude (which are differentiated from a more generic nod to thankfulness):

[The researcher] wanted to know whether, by changing how much gratitude people felt, she could change the way the brain reacts to giving and getting. So she split participants into two groups. Over three weeks, one group journaled about the things they were grateful for, while the other group journaled about other (non-gratitude-specific) happenings in their lives.

The people in the gratitude-journaling contingent reported experiencing more thankfulness. What’s more, the reward regions of their brain started responding more to charitable giving than to gaining money for themselves.

Obviously, anyone who’s ever been to church or participated in any discipleship study would identify gratitude as an essential part of being a spiritual person.  But do our churches and small groups give people these tangible opportunities to BE grateful in meaningful ways?

Would you say that people describe your congregation’s culture as a culture of gratitude?

To ask the question another way: are routine, exuberant, energetic expressions of gratitude a fundamental part of who you are as an institution?

  • How often and in what ways do you thank the people who make ministry happen?  We should be relentless in thanking the people who are the muscle behind the ministry.  We should thank them by name — yes, you will occasionally leave someone out, but the alternative is to only ever offer those non-specific generalized thank-yous that feel pro forma.  [Corollary for Giving: People who feel grateful about the contributions of a particular person whose work has touched them love to give to a cause dear to that person’s heart.]
  • How often do you thank the congregation for their response to an appeal?  Once you’ve put an appeal out there (for volunteers, for contributions, for supplies, for prayers), don’t leave it hanging.  Report back with gratitude, communicating a specific narrative about the impact of the response.  [Corollary for Giving: People who understand the real-world impact of their giving will want to give more to have more real-world impact.]
  • How often do you thank the community and the people who are part of it?  Show your love for your surrounding community by expressing your gratitude for it and the people and institutions who make it what it is.  Often, we treat our community solely as a recruitment territory or a recipient of our benevolent largesse, but we have plenty of opportunities to celebrate the active good work being done by community organizations and leaders, from civic groups to schools to first responders to local merchants to charities to (even) local politicians.  Give them a shout-out when they do good work (and not just exclusively when they are supporting an initiative led by your congregation).  [Corrolary for Giving: People who see good things happening in their community will give to make more good things happen in their community.]
  • How often do you give congregation members a tangible opportunity to express thanks for their blessings?  Saying things out loud and writing things down are both powerful versions of bringing gratitude to life.  Do you give people regular (non-Thanksgiving!) opportunities to state their  blessings and write out their blessings so that other people can see their gratitude.  [Corollary for Giving: Overtly thankful people give as an expression of their gratitude.  It just feels good, and it just feels right!]
  • How often do you give congregation members a chance to publicly thank one another?  People love doing this!  Give them regular opportunities, spoken and written, to testify to their appreciation for the people in their faith community.  There are lots of fun ways (from bulletin boards to star stickers to testimonial moments to intro prayers) for people to say kind words of appreciation about their partners in faith.  [Corollary for Giving: People love to give to a community that they are reminded loves and supports them — everyone loves taking care of family!]

For some detailed, practical suggestions, here’s a good article from United Methodist Communications on “3 Ways to Encourage Gratitude in the Church.”  It actually has a lot more than three suggestions, and many of them are things that will immediately spring to mind if you and your team have taken the time to develop an actual gratitude strategy.  Some, however, are a little more outside the box, like offering your folks a Gratitude Quiz!

The key is interactive gratitude, experiential gratitude.  Not just talking about the importance of gratitude, but specific opportunities to express it, privately and publicly.  Private expressions involve encouraging folks to make gratitude exercises a regular part of their routine (personal devotions, associative meditations, in-the-moment prayers, thank-you letters and emails, and a regular part of their interactions in one-on-one relationships).  Public expressions include interactive exercises in worship, on social media, and in the regular structure of all of our small group associations, including both study groups and leadership teams (staff and volunteer) — we should bake opportunities for giving thanks into every meeting and every discipleship gathering.

As we always stress, the individual exercises you choose to encourage your congregation to try depend on context.  What works one place won’t work as well in another setting.  But there are so many ways to experiment with expressions of regular, joyful thanksgiving:

  • Social Media: This is one of the very best uses of your social media platforms.  Are you posting stories of gratitude on Facebook, Instagram, in your email newsletters, on your website and your YouTube channel?  Do you provide a platform for people to share their own stories and prayers using social media?
  • Writing Things Down: As noted above, there is power in words that tell stories of gratitude.  Is there a regular place in your ministry facility where people can do this?  A prayer wall or prayer box or prayer altar, a bulletin board, a sidewalk chalk area in the portico, a “thanksgiving tree”?
  • In Worship: Do you have a regular “thanksgiving prayer” as part of your worship routine?  Do you tell stories of gratitude as part of the sermon, as a transition into praise songs, as part of the “announcements” time?  Do you have leaders and volunteers and ministry beneficiaries share testimonies of gratitude as a regular feature?
  • Special Events: Do you ever have a “service of gratitude” which focuses exclusively on expressions of thanksgiving (and again, I mean other than at Thanksgiving, which is a fine time to hold such an event, but not the only time — if we do this only then, we are training people to think that’s the one time of the year that this should be a focus).  How about a “gratitude workshop” that gives people practical instruction on the impact of a lifestyle of gratitude?  How about “gratitude caroling,” in which a group travels to the front porches of those who have generously supported ministry and sing a thank-you song as an expression of appreciation.
  • More than Words: In many of the examples above, we mentioned expressions of thanks that move beyond the traditional “thank-you-note” mode.  You could offer an Instagram initiative in which people shared photos of things for which they are thankful, a concert that featured music that expresses their gratitude, an art project followed by a display in the hallways, a craft workshop that makes gifts of gratitude to share with others, a “gratitude garden” to celebrate the gifts of nature and reflect on our blessings, a gratitude film festival.  There are no limits to creative ideas: this is the expansive, all-encompassing nature of gratitude in our lives.

And having shared these beautiful stories of  thankfulness and thoughtfulness in these many creative ways, don’t miss the opportunity to make an explicit connection between gratitude and giving.  It is a timely moment, having reminded people of the ways in which they are blessed by God and others, to give them a direct way to respond, to pay it forward, and to promote further opportunities for good work and effective ministry.  It’s all connected.

How do you and your leadership team employ a strategy of congregational gratitude?  In worship?  In social media?  In small groups?  In leadership meetings?  How have you seen expressions of gratitude lead to expressions of financial support for your ministry?  Express your thanks for your triumphs in the comments section so that others might be inspired and encouraged!  And feel free to ask questions if you have them.  We at EMC3 are grateful for your readership and the amazing dialogue we have with the churches and leaders with whom we are privileged to work.