Last year I started a live, online training course called Philanthropy for Churches to teach pastors and other leaders what I’ve learned about how to adapt the best practices from the field of philanthropy to their ministries. Over the past year I’ve worked with 18 leaders from small and large churches alike in small cohorts of 5-10 pastors.
This has been some of the most rewarding work I’ve ever done. I’ve met some fantastic leaders who are leading outstanding and innovative ministries. Sadly, I’ve been too busy at the church and the University for the last few months to lead a cohort.
But with Easter almost upon us, I’ve decided to open up a new cohort in April. If you or someone you know would benefit from learning how to cultivate stronger fund development for you church or ministry, click here to learn more about the course.
To read what some of my past students have said about the training, click here.
Today we remember the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. for his civil rights legacy. I am especially inspired by his most audacious dream:
So what, exactly, was King’s economic dream? In short, he wanted the government to eradicate poverty by providing every American a guaranteed, middle-class income—an idea that, while light-years beyond the realm of mainstream political conversation today, had actually come into vogue by the late 1960s.
The patchwork of social services we’ve half-heartedly assembled over the past generation have barely made a dent in American poverty. Since the 1960’s, deinstitutionalization of mental health services combined with runaway corporate profits and stagnant wages have combined to create a potent brew of hopelessness for America’s most discriminated and challenged citizens.
The best way to honor Martin Luther King Jr., is to pursue his greatest civil right’s dream.
This is the third and final installment in my Offer Plate Alternatives series. Here’s a quick recap:
In the beginning I stated that there is no good reason why most churches today should continue passing an offering plate. It’s logistically ineffective, socially awkward, and contributes to the wrong kind of worship culture. The only reason to continue is to preserve a tradition that some might find meaningful. That’s an important consideration, but it can be overcome. Click here to read all five reasons.
In the first tip, I suggest that the best way to build healthy, sustainable giving is to get to know people and ask them for their contributions directly. The development of a genuine spirituality of giving in your church isn’t a process of sales, marketing, or manipulation. It’s a process of pastoral care. Click here to read the post.
In the second tip, I visit the results of a long-neglected study of 600 congregations who found there was a far more effective way to engage people around giving. By implementing this one change, churches doubled or tripled their membership giving. By making this switch, your church would be free to explore better ways to empower people’s giving. Click here to read the post.
Which bring is to our third and final tip…
Tip #3: Give people multiple & meaningful ways to give
Make it accessible
Churches aren’t just places or spaces. More essentially they’re communities of faith with one highly countercultural and conspicuous feature: they live out an alternative economy of generosity, committed to meeting each others needs and the needs of the most vulnerable in the surrounding area through the generous grace of God.
That means they give.
If you’re going to ask people in your church to give – and you should – then you should also give them as many different ways to do so as possible. Not everyone is inclined to give the same way and not everyone thinks about their giving at the same time.
In other words, make giving accessible to everyone.
Lower the barriers to giving by providing ways for people to give in person, online, through the mail, on their smart phone, by walking in to your church office and handing someone a check, etc. When you send a letter, include a self-addressed reply envelope. Offer a direct phone number people can call when they have questions about giving to your church, and make sure someone answers that phone and returns messages quickly.
You get the picture. If you’re only offering people one way to give, then you’re cutting out a huge number of people who may very well be willing to give, but your method just doesn’t meet their needs.
Make it automatic
While you’re at it, offer people an opportunity to automate their giving by setting up direct debit from their bank account.
Now, some people in your congregation will hate this, so keep in mind the culture of your church before you set this up. But, the younger your church is, the more likely there is a significant and growing number of people (like me) who wantthe opportunity to make their regular giving automatic.
I’m a good example of the kind of person who prefers this. When I give to charity, I give purposefully. I want to fulfill the commitment I make, but I’m also absent-minded. Deadlines wave cheerily as they pass me by and afterwards I get frustrated for not remembering to take out my checkbook at the right time.
You have lots of people like this in your church.
The beauty of automatic debits for a person like me is that I can use tools to make up for my absent-mindedness. This enables me to keep the sincere commitments I made and turns my giving into a positive experience rather than an exercise in frustration.
Give people that kind of positive experience, whoever they may be.
Don’t strong-arm anyone into giving any particular way. Some people will hate automatic giving, and they’ll resent it when you try to push them in that direction. Just offer it as an option, and watch how people like me start giving more, simply because you’ve made it easier for them to do so.
Make it tangible
Last tip. And this one might seem like a contradiction to the first two, but it isn’t. Create opportunities for people’s giving to be tangible and concrete.
Because of the myriad of tools listed above, financial giving to churches is becoming as intangible as prayer. That can become a problem when you’re trying to help people engage in giving as a spiritual formation practice.
Take a cue from prayer practices like lighting prayer candles, using prayer beads, or praying in groups where intercession becomes a communal experience.
In the same way, give people ways to express their giving physically and communally.
Here are three ideas I’ve seen used effectively:
- Make giving an act of worship. Create a time in your worship gatherings where people can come forward and offer their gifts in physical way. This could be cash, check, or even a pledge card if it’s done during a campaign. This reverses the flow of the typical offering and gives people a chance to come to the altar in a worship expression.
- Give small groups power over their giving: In small group settings, you can integrate a family’s giving into their process of discipleship and connect them to the impact of their giving at the same time by having group manage a portion of their own giving. Invite them to agree on a local outreach cause, then give them control over a healthy percentage of their own giving in order to fund that cause. This puts the power of the outreach budget squarely in the hands of the people who are giving.
- Represent your church’s generosity artfully and inspirationally: In churches where there has been a giving campaign for a significant purpose – like a capital campaign or an endowment fund – smart organizations represent their supporters giving in artful ways in order to remember the effort and inspire others to give. This may be anything from an art installation, a supporters garden, or a donor wall. One church I was on staff with created a quilt made from the hand-painted artwork of members in the congregation, which was then displayed on the wall as a reminder of that collective effort. These kinds of physical representations become a regular and powerful reminder of the generosity of the community.
These are just three representative examples, but there are a number of ways to make giving more tangible, more formational, and therefore more abundant.
If you have examples of your own, share in the comments below!
Today I posted a guest blog for The V3 Church Planting Movement on the single most important quality in a great support letter. Here’s a quick teaser:
If you’re like most pastors, you work hard on your letter, making sure there are as few potential misunderstandings as possible. You carefully construct your words to accurately reflect your theological convictions.
Given this effort, it’s disheartening when you send the letter and people complain that it was “too long” or “too focused on money.” Others report that they didn’t even notice the support letter when it came or still haven’t bothered to open it. You wait and pray for an increase in giving, but other than a small surge immediately following the letter, giving often bottoms out again within a few weeks.
Tip #2: Invite people into a personal and intentional process of annual giving
Recently a friend of mine read my first post in this series, Offering Plate Alternative, Part 1, and tweeted her response to my personal account:
@jasonacoker Seriously? “Get to know them” instead of an offering plate. That’s just nonsense.
— Angie Meeker (@angiemeeker) June 17, 2015
I’m pretty sure Angie is being sarcastic here. If not, I’m sure she’ll let me know : )
Angie and I worked together at a fairly big church in the midwest where she was the Youth Director and I was the Associate Pastor. She’s is a gifted communicator and marketer, and used those skills in an authentic way to quickly grow the youth group among unchurched, inner city teenagers.
When your tools become a substitute for relationships
But here’s the thing: Angie understands what can be so easy to forget – the tools that increase our reach and efficiency are used best as a way to open the door for authentic relationships, not as a substitute for the hassle of those relationships.
Angie branded her ministry like a pro and used the efficiency and scale of the tools at her disposal to reach the teens our church wasn’t previously connecting with. But she did it in a way that was consistent with her values as a leader and, more importantly, once those connections were made, she worked hard to establish actual relationships with the new youth who started responding.
So what does this have to do with passing the offering plate?
Passing an offering plate (or basket) in a crowd is a tool for efficiency. Once the system is setup and your ushers are trained well, it’s a quick and effective way to collect paper and coins in a church with three conditions in place:
- A large crowd of people,
- Sitting tightly together in rows,
- Who are primed and ready to give physical money.
But let’s be honest: Most churches in America don’t meet either the first or second conditions on the list. But even among the few churches who do, most no longer meet the third condition either because of massive culture shifts in attitudes about giving.
And even if your church does have all three conditions in place, you are sabotaging your congregation’s ability to engage in a genuinely impactful and sustainable culture of giving by relying solely on this traditional process of collection. Why? Because you’re likely not engaging people in a personal way. More often than not, like marketing and mass communications tools, passing the collection plate on Sunday is the only way churches are directly engaging with their people about giving.
Because of that, passing the plate can actually become, at best, a weak substitute for engaging people and, at worst, an obstacle for effectively discipling them into participating in the generous economy of the Kingdom.
So, what’s a different approach?
In this excellent book from 1996, a comprehensive congregational study of more than 600 churches discovered that asking people to make an annual giving pledge resulted in giving at 2-3 times the regular amount.
There were two different ways of doing this studied by the authors.
- Individuals and families were invited to pledge an amount of giving for the upcoming year, and a budget was established based on the results of those pledges. On average, churches who used this approach doubled their regular giving.
- Or, based on the prior year’s giving, a budget for the next year was proposed. Then, individuals and families were invited to pledge an annual amount of giving toward that proposed budget. On average, churches who switched to this approach tripled their regular giving.
This is essentially akin to running an annual campaign in a strong nonprofit organization. The reason this works so well is that the leadership of the church is required to engage congregants in a more personal way during the process of pledging.
Let me be clear: I’m not advocating for the pastor becoming a salesperson. Good fund development in any charitable organization does not mean you ruthlessly squeeze as much money out of people as possible. It means is getting to know people genuinely, understanding their God-given gifts, passions, and callings, and then helping them faithfully connect with the opportunities to see them and their gifts come to life through your community of faith.
This is not only possible, the best nonprofits in the world have figured out how to do this in meaningful ways. No matter how big your church is, you can absolutely engage your people in this way. I teach pastors how to do that in our courses.
But can’t we do both?
As you’ve probably guessed by now, conducting an annual campaign like this doesn’t mean you can’t still pass an offering plate. You absolutely could. And maybe in your church, because of your people, it would make sense to continue doing so. But it would cease to be the primary way you engage your people in a life of giving.
Indeed, as you can imagine, if most of your people have made a decision about what to give in advance, passing a plate on Sunday morning actually becomes one of the least convenient and efficient ways for people to give money to the church.
More importantly, making the shift to a more relationally engaged process of giving means that not only can you implement more effective ways of gathering their gifts, but you can also put more thought into how your church might create more worshipful and spiritually formational ways for people to express their giving liturgically.
That’s what we’ll discuss in our last installment. Stay tuned.