By Eddie Pipkin

November 3, 2017

It’s that time of year when many churches are undertaking their annual stewardship campaigns.  Although helping congregants build a lifestyle of biblical generosity is one of the core elements of a life of discipleship, many of us are less than enthusiastic about this yearly emphasis (some would say necessity).  Plenty of people in worship are rolling their eyes at the annual fall stewardship campaign, feeling like they are going through the required motions just as much as the ministry leaders who are checking their own dutiful boxes.  There is, however, a better way.

First of all, not everybody out there is conducting their business on a traditional calendar year budgeting cycle (January through December).  About a quarter of all churches now use a mid-year budgeting cycle (July 1st to June 30th).  There are definite advantages, writes Jim Canning, such as the natural flow of the ministry timeline for many churches whose most active programs parallel the school year:

In such situations, a disadvantage of using the natural calendar year for the fiscal year is that the organization’s year-end falls right at its busiest time. Programs begun in the fall are not even half completed and still in process. In addition, people are busy with the holidays and it is certainly not the most convenient time to be closing the books, planning next year’s programs and preparing next year’s budget (ask any church bookkeeper or accountant).  And, from a management perspective, the holidays are not the best time to be making important strategic decisions such as eliminating programs, laying off staff, or similar actions that often accompany a new budget year.

A shift in budget schedules can mean less stress at the end of the year and more options for when a focused stewardship campaign takes place.  But here’s one truth that every single stewardship coach, leadership institute, and advice-filled website will agree on with 100% passion.

Stewardship should be a year-round part of the life of the local church, not just a once-a-year focus.

In all training venues we host—no matter the geographic location, no matter the size of the church or the age of the attendees—everybody always nods their head in vigorous agreement when this point is made.  But most churches still woefully struggle to have a meaningful year-round stewardship focus.  Many churches continue to stick with the old-school model of publishing occasional financial updates and reminders in their newsletters, sharing an occasional finance update in worship or a word from the finance chair, then find themselves scrambling to come up with a fresh and motivational stewardship emphasis just in time to throw together a budget for the next calendar year.

Stewardship teaching done well is an integrated part of the life the congregation and a regular inspirational reminder of the power of faithful people to do great work together when they use God’s provided resources in sacrificial ways.  The millennials are useful in helping us understand what this looks like from week to week.  Since they are often cited as the biggest cynics when evaluating the workings of the traditional church (particularly regarding the intersection of the church and money), here’s what they say they are looking for in weighing their investment in the work of a local congregation:

  • Transparency. All material related to church budgets and finances should be easily accessible.  Every company that seeks investors out in the real world regularly communicates financial information to those investors (and potential investors).  Financial updates should be a regular part of church life.  Budgets should be published and available.  Reports and budgets should be presented and written in such a way as to make their essential elements understandable to regular folks.  Accounting geeks can tweak out on line-by-line printouts, but summaries should be accessible for the rest of us.  This material should be clearly available online with a paper copy available for those who resist the web.
  • Immediacy. The church should regularly celebrate the impact of ministry and emphasize the symbiotic connection between ministry and regular giving.  Rather than just announcing upcoming ministry events, we should recap them and share pictures and stories from them on ALL of our available media platforms.  We should explain how these ministries change lives and communities.  And we should explicitly make the connection between generous giving (of time, talents, AND financial resources) and the success of those ministries.
  • Relatability. People like to hear about fellow disciples who struggle with the same challenges they face in deciding how to give and yet find inspiring ways to live generous lives.  We should hear first-hand accounts of people who choose to give, how they make the hard choices to prioritize the ministries they support, and how they grow because of those commitments.  We should reinforce the scriptural message of the power of a generous lifestyle.  (Consistently sharing these values requires discipline in planning by a team of people who care about this topic.)
  • Relevance. People feel useful when they are reminded how their sacrificial generosity makes the life of the church possible.  Beyond special events and unique emphases, remind folks how their generosity supports the infrastructure of ministry.  Not everybody understands the nuts and bolts of ministry and what it takes to make it happen, and a four-week campaign does not provide enough time to get into the details.  By subtly working in such fine points throughout the year, people better understand the overall narrative of their power to make ministry possible.

Here are a couple of specific ideas that build on the above-stated concepts.

Firsthand accounts are powerful—the moments of sharing that many of us know as “witnesses” or “testimonies.”  People are used to hearing clergy and ministry staff talk about giving and often assume that these ministry professionals are somehow in a special category regarding a generous lifestyle, but they listen attentively when folks just like them tell honest and inspiring stories.  Most churches still have someone stand and deliver a live rendition of such stories, but we should be careful to set these speakers up for success:

  • Give clear direction as to what you are looking for from a speaker. Don’t just leave it open ended.  Share what you hope their story adds to the worship experience.  Ask questions you’d like them to answer.  Let them know about topics they should avoid.
  • Have the speaker write down what they are going to say. This doesn’t mean they have to read their story verbatim, but writing it down will help them organize their thoughts, stick to a time limit, and speak with confidence.
  • Encourage them to practice. Either by speaking before a mirror, doing a run-through with friends or family, or doing a rehearsal with you or the worship team, they can benefit from the positives of giving their talk a test run.
  • Supplement with pictures. If their story includes pictures they can share (and you have a way to share those pictures), they increase the emotional impact and relatability of the story.

We often try to select people for these moments who have a good story AND a confident speaking style, but technology gives us more options to select people who are uncomfortable with public speaking.  It’s never been easier to do a video testimony or put a narrative video together, and these are demonstrably worth the effort.  (Among other things, such videos can be repurposed on multiple media platforms: they’re not limited only to worship.)  If you want to have a person live during worship, but want to have more control over the scenario, a great strategy is to do a guided interview.

And when you are putting your stewardship materials together, make the shift from traditional budgets (with the line items and interminable columns of figures) to narrative budgets.  Narrative budgets are far superior in helping people understand what happens to the money they give:

The narrative budget is one way to give people — especially those in leadership positions — an opportunity to experience the mission and ministry that are achieved through the various line items. It focuses less on the financial numbers and more on what the income accomplishes. It is a one- to two-page presentation that explains: (1) what the church hopes to accomplish and (2) why the funding is needed to reach and exceed its goals. (Quoted from the United Methodist church suggestions on building a narrative budget).

I am also including some examples of narrative budgets in practice, here, here, and here (with a video included on how to assemble a narrative budget with that last one).  In all of the stewardship approaches we have discussed, the common theme is the power of story.  We are a people of stories—actually a people whose very identity grows from the greatest story—and the question to ask ourselves as we prepare ways to help people live generous lives is, “Are we helping people see their role in the story of generosity and how it changes the world?”

What stewardship strategies does your local church employ?  In what ways are you telling inspiring stories?  What opportunities are you missing, and what challenges do you face?  Share your questions and comments, and let’s build a bigger narrative together.