By Eddie Pipkin

November 10, 2017

Continuing our discussion of stewardship season from last week, it wouldn’t hurt us to take some valuable lessons from secular nonprofits.  There are thousands of community organizations out there doing good deeds financed solely by the kind-hearted donations of compassionate people.  They recognize the reality that the deeds aren’t possible without the funding, so they work hard to inspire those donations, make it easy and fulfilling to give, and take extra steps to show their appreciation for those who do the giving.

Church leaders could take some notes.  There is a kind of bias in ministry work that infers something tawdry in making too concerted an effort to solicit donations and something tacky in showing too much appreciation for them once they’re made.  This is, of course, because it is our duty as disciples of Christ to live generous lives; it is our responsibility to give.  And perhaps, some say, we cheapen the gospel by treating our opportunity to do God’s work in the same way treat the ‘marketplace’ of charitable options out there.  But inspiration is a far more powerful tool than guilt.  And using all the creative tools at our disposal to joyfully inspire people to generosity is, itself, responsible stewardship of the gifts we have been given.  Gratitude and celebration—celebration being a joyous permutation of gratitude— are fruits of the biblically generous lifestyle.

Why are we so timid?

Secular nonprofits don’t take generosity for granted.  They don’t settle for praying for an outcome.  Obviously, many of their leaders do lots of praying at budget time, but they don’t leave the future of their mission to a hoped-for miracle while they lazily slog through the motions with their fund-raising campaign.  They work long and hard to achieve a goal.  We ministry leaders are generally practical about most aspects of our ministry infrastructure: we don’t sit around praying for the broken air conditioning to spontaneously self-repair.  We call the AC guy, we pay him, and he does the job.  Sure, there might be miraculous notes in that story—prayers that are answered—but the point is that we work the practical process.  Same thing with planning Vacation Bible School: we plan, we prepare, we recruit, we advertise.  We do everything we can to empower success.  Miracles are most often born of hard work.

Why then are we so lackadaisical about stewardship?

Secular nonprofit leaders are a great source for ideas that work equally as well (but with perhaps a new perspective) in the spiritual realm.  For instance, Vanessa Chase Lockshin writes on her website, The Story Telling Non-Profit, about a formula she has found to be a model for success:

Impact + Accountability = Great Stewardship

We wrote last week about these elements of accountability and impact, but they bear repeating.  From the perspective of non-church-related charitable institutions, donors are most comfortable giving to institutions which are clear and transparent about where every penny is spent, and they are most inspired about giving to institutions in which their generosity makes a discernible difference.  Therefore, Lockshin advises, tell donors as many stories as possible about why their donations matter, and give those donors complete confidence about the integrity with which those donations are allocated.

She offers these four perspectives on story-telling (and although she does it from a secular angle, they each have wonderful parallels for churches):

  • A client’s success story. Tell stories from the perspective of someone who has been directly impacted by your ministry (someone who was sick and was comforted; someone who needed counseling and found hope; someone who was hungry and was fed; someone who felt lonely and discovered a welcoming community).  Explain explicitly how the generosity of your faith community made those moments possible.  And if you can’t find any examples of such stories to be told, you have a whole different set of problems on your hands.
  • A program staff member’s story. Church staff can share inspirational stories about the work they are privileged to do and how generosity makes that work possible.  Try to find interesting, unexpected insights into how lives are changed.
  • A volunteer’s story. Those who have volunteered can share inspiring stories about how they have seen God at work (in themselves and in others) through the work they have done with your ministry teams.  Make the connection between that work happening and how generosity lays the foundation for it.
  • A story from a fundraiser who was involved in the project. For those of us who identify as disciples of Christ, these are the moments of witness to answering God’s call to stewardship—our understanding that we are merely stewards of God’s blessings in this life.

Develop a team to develop a strategy for sharing your stories, and keep in mind the goals for helping your congregation live more full and generous lives:

  • Use specific stories to teach specific stewardship lessons appropriate for your audience at this point in their spiritual journey. If your folks need inspiration to take a risk for their faith, share a story about risk-taking.  If they need to be inspired to find the joy in generosity even in difficult circumstances, find people with those stories to share.
  • Encourage “spoon vs. ladle” thinking (with thanks to the folks at ReImagine Generosity for that image). Here’s their explanation for this perspective:

 After all, a spoon is for feeding yourself, but a ladle is for serving others.  The “spoon” vs. “ladle” thinking illustrates a mindset that is counter culture.  When we give up our spoon and pick up a ladle, we are following the example of Christ by choosing to think of others needs ahead of our own. This kind of generosity does not come easily and always moves us beyond our comfort zone.  For some, “ladle thinking” does mean writing a check; for others, it involves inviting someone into their life or taking the time to serve another person. “Ladle thinking” requires faith and dependence on Christ. The “ladle” can manifest itself in different ways, but it always involves a putting off of selfish desires and a dependence on Christ.

  • Encourage one another. Celebrate the generosity of people in specific ways.  Recognize those who serve and those who give as a regular part of worship and communications.  Social media is a great tool for this!  You can easily provide a means for individuals to celebrate other individuals.
  • Create inspiration, not guilt. There is no need to downplay our responsibility as disciples to sacrificially support God’s work, but this is best done through the inspiration of examples of where God’s blessings result when that call is followed.
  • Connect people with the privilege of being a blessing to others. Focus on the heart of the giver, rather than the gift itself. Focus on the relationships that are forged through generosity and how those relationships grow and deepen when people live generous lives together.
  • Don’t be afraid of straight talk. Acknowledge that generosity is sometimes difficult and sometimes downright scary.  This is a great opportunity for the kind of specific story sharing mentioned above.  If you are honest with people about the challenge and risk, that honesty is appreciated, and a great opportunity is available for discussing risks, rewards, and the workings of faith.
  • Talk about giving of our essence rather than giving from our excess. It is a common cultural view that we give to charitable causes out of what we have left over, and even in church circles this can carry over into an attitude of giving out of our excess blessings, but it is our privilege as leaders to help fellow disciples understand that our generosity is a fundamental part of our identity as followers of Christ.  It is not a supplemental benefit of a life in Christ, it is one of the cornerstones of who we are.
  • Everybody can give. If you’re going to do a stewardship focus, get everybody involved.  Get kids involved, helping them understand in simple and powerful ways how they be generous people.  Definitely get young people involved, helping them understand the practical ramifications of their purchasing decisions, the power of even small financial gifts (given their limited resources), and the profound opportunities to use their talents.

Use creative ideas to make ideas tangible experiences.

  • Make a Blessings Tree. Put a big Blessings Tree in your worship space and have people add ‘leaves’ on which they write the blessings in their lives and ministry.
  • Life Inventory. Give people a tool to sit down with their families and explore how they are setting their priorities and what their goals are for the future.  Writing things down and discussing them can lead to revelations and realizations.
  • Send handwritten notes. Along with the ‘stewardship package’ that you send out to folks with your yearly budget appeal and prayer card, write a handwritten note thanking them for their generosity and what it means to your ministry.  This is something you can even do at random times during the year!  Youth can write notes giving thanks for support of the youth ministry!  Children can write crayon-crafted notes giving thanks for support of the children’s ministry!
  • Make special efforts to engage special supporters. There is understandable resistance to this idea because we do not wish to show favoritism—the church has some unsavory history in this regard—but what we are talking about here is building relationships with people who have been blessed with resources that can help make vision happen.  We are less queasy about focusing on these kinds of relationships with people with specific talents—we’ll spend hours working with a creative team, musicians, or teachers.  It is worthwhile to cultivate working relationships with those who have been blessed with financial resources, helping them understand more fully how God can make use of those blessings.
  • Celebrate, celebrate, celebrate. Think of every way you can to celebrate service and generosity.  Have a party.  Have thanks-carolers call people up to sing them a “thank you” song.  Send a thank you gift, a little ministry memento.  Put up a wall of thanksgiving.  Publicly recognize those who give—you don’t do this by amounts, but say, for instance, you recognize those who have been giving continuously for he past 10 years.  Lots of possibilities.  (Here’s a blog with a list of ways the secular world thanks donors—take a look and see which of these ideas would apply equally in a ministry setting and which ones not so much.)

What are the creative ways you and your team have come up with to teach and celebrate generosity?  What struggles do you face, and what questions do you have?  Check in with us below tin the comments section.  We are generous in our responses!