By Eddie Pipkin

This is the third week in our series about not sabotaging ourselves as we strive for excellence in ministry in 2021.  Every January, for my wife and I, as documents arrive in our mailbox acknowledging our contributions to charities for the previous year, we are touched by some of the handwritten notes that accompany them.  Along with the official forms that are provided for the benefit of the IRS, most organizations enclose a personalized thank you that expresses gratitude for the way our (often small) gift has helped empower the vision of each organization’s good work.  That is, most organizations except local churches we have supported.  It might be one of the easiest opportunities ever to leverage an existing resource (an envelope and enclosure for which the postage has already been paid), connect with people, give them vision buy-in, and directly express gratitude with a personal touch.  And almost nobody takes advantage of it!

Sometimes the “giving statement” from local churches includes a perfunctory thank you sentence above the spreadsheet columns, but rarely do we see more than that.  Meanwhile, statements from other 501(c)3 organizations are annotated with brief personalized expressions of thanks or include separate thank you notes with a few sentences of appreciation.  Many times they include the business card and contact information of someone at the organization in case we have questions, want to explore more options for planned giving, or just want to get more involved in the work of the organization.  Sometimes material is included which shows specific examples of the kind of work our contributions helped make possible.  Sometimes, the financial statement comes in one envelope, and a separate envelope arrives which has a thank you written by someone leading the charitable work or even someone directly impacted by that charitable work.  Sometimes we even receive a quick phone call after a donation – just a quick expression of gratitude and an opportunity to ask questions if we have any.  In every case, it’s some variety of a personal touch, an indication that for these organizations and the people that run them, we are more than just an entry on a spreadsheet.

Now, we don’t give to these organizations because they do this, any more than we give to the local public radio station to get a mug or a cool tote bag.  But such efforts do build a sense of connection and a sense of buy-in.  They build a sense of being noticed and valued.

Why are churches so reluctant to emulate the model of other charitable organizations?  I have written before in this space that I think one of the primary reasons is that as leaders who take our cues from our understanding of Christian discipleship, generosity is a fundamental expression of that lifestyle – ergo, doing one’s duty should not require extra expressions of appreciation.  It feels somehow crass and commercial, sort of the flip side of the discomfort we feel about asking for money from people who should reasonably be supporting our good work without being cajoled into it.

But gratitude is as essential a discipleship characteristic as generosity, so modeling it as frequently and creatively as possible is an opportunity of which we should take full advantage.  Many people have anxiety around their giving habits, and being thanked in a warm and humanizing fashion reinforces the feeling that they have chosen well, that their sacrifice, small or large, is an important part of the whole of impactful ministry.

The other chief reason that local churches don’t send out these kinds of personalized expressions of thanks is that it becomes one more thing that the same core group of people (who do everything else) would have to add to their plate.  This is a failure of planning and delegation – in the sense of missed ministry opportunities, it’s a failure to get more people actively involved in ministry.  Such thank you notes don’t have to come from clergy or the finance chair or paid staff members.  There is nothing wrong with receiving handwritten notes from any of those folks (and in the case of clergy and staff it is a laudable goal that such notes of “I see you – You are a valued part of our family – I’m praying for you – how can we help you be a better disciple?” would go out at least once a year anyway).  But “thanks for your generosity in supporting the work of this church financially” notes can come from anybody leading or impacted by ministry.

Some of you have been struck at this point with a searing counter-argument:  “But wait!  Obviously some of the people writing these personalized notes for these other charitable organizations are being paid to perform this task!”  True!  I can’t argue you with you there.  But I don’t think this diminishes their impact – rather it’s a sign of their commitment to the importance of this work that they have people whose job is ‘donor development’ or ‘volunteer appreciation.’  Sure, every local church has a bookkeeper, but how many have a staff person or volunteer coordinator for ‘generosity development’ or ‘discipleship celebration’?  What if we did?

If it’s a leap too far to imagine a staff person devoted to these tasks or even a key leadership team member devoted to these tasks, imagine that the principal leadership team for your church divides up the membership and frequent friends list and writes such notes.  Imagine that you and your team make a pledge months in advance that the January tax statements won’t go out without containing such notes – that’s the planning part.

There is a version of this “organized thanking” that happens at many churches around stewardship campaign season (which is the fall for most of us, regular as clockwork).  The envelope that comes to our house soliciting our support for “next year’s” budget, might well have a handcrafted expression of thanks.  That’s good, but it’s not surprising; it’s more de rigueur in that context.  After all, those stewardship campaigns often line up on the calendar with Thanksgiving season, and that’s another time we remember the discipline of gratitude.  Good!  But imagine the added oomph of gratitude that is personally and creatively expressed separate from those common seasonal contexts.  Just pick a date (or several dates on the calendar) and organize some folks to help you get creatively expressive:

  • Superbowl weekend: “The Superbowl of gratitude – thanks for helping us score ministry touchdowns with your faithful support.” The youth group sends out personalized thank you notes shaped like footballs.
  • Valentine’s Day: “Our hearts are filled with love and appreciation for your generous support of our ministry.” The kids’ ministry makes valentines and mails them to folks or leaves them on cars in the parking lot (or sends them virtually – everything needs a virtual option this year).
  • Patrick’s Day: “Thanks for generously sharing some GREEN with us to help support our ministry.” The seniors ministry sends these out with a “Blessing of St. Patrick” bookmark.

The possibilities are endless.  And fun.  It’s the commitment to the discipline of regular expressions of gratitude that is the hard part to get rolling.  (Note that any of those ideas can be done in a church wide kind of fun celebration or as a personalized campaign or both.)

Note also the ways that the examples provided stress the different kinds of groups that can be involved.  This is an excellent task for children and youth ministries.  People love hearing from these groups and hearing about the on-the-ground impact of their giving.  Likewise, they are inspired by hearing about the ways that their faithfulness has been able to alleviate suffering and build community connections.  Personal expressions of gratitude are the icing on the gratitude cake, whose layers are built upon other strategies we coach local churches to build into their regular routines:

  • Using worship time for frequent expressions of gratitude and frequent examples of how faithfulness in service and generosity are empowering ministry.
  • Sharing narratives (witnesses, we call them with evangelical flair) to the impact of service and generosity in the life of the church and outreach to the community. E-news and traditional newsletters should not simply be a billboard for upcoming activities.  They should share narratives of ministry that has happened.  Social media should not simply be a “coming events” scroll.  It should share vibrant narratives of ministry impact.
  • Giving people easy opportunities to express thanks to one another. There are tons of ideas for this, from bulletin board banners with available sharpies to thank you note stations to social media shout-outs.  This builds a culture of gratitude (and a culture of gratitude makes EVERYTHING better).
  • Helping people find their true contextual calling. Maybe you are reading this post and thinking how much you hate writing personalized thank you notes.  Somebody in your local church loves it – loves making those cute, crafty cards – loves the idea of writing an address on an envelope, stamping that envelope, and sending it off on a journey of surprise and connection.  Empower them to use that gift!  (Instead of trying to sign them up for the hole on the Finance Committee.)

What ways in what seasons do you take a personalized approach to thanking folks for their generosity?  Is it an organized strategy or an afterthought?  Are you sabotaging the joy of celebrating the sacrificial giving of the people who are supporting the work God has called you to accomplish?  Or are you helping people see that giving as part of their personal connection to the good work you’re doing?