Jason Coker





5 High Powered, Low Tech Tools for Ministry

I’m a bit of a geek, so I love my devices. I’m a walking Apple commercial. I actually watch the Keynotes live (I know…). I love the promise of these things. They’ll make me more productive, I say to myself. They’ll make me work smarter, not harder.

Yeah. Not so much.

Mostly, my tools are a place to hide from the discomfort of doing real work. That’s when I turn to these 5 high-powered, low-tech tools for getting actual ministry work done.

The communion in a cup of coffee

There is no more powerful tool for ministry than meeting face-to-face. Human connection is our stock-in-trade, and nothing facilitates great connection like coffee, tea, lunch, dinner, or whatever elements work to set the table for you. Sharing a meal is great, but coffee, in my experience, works just as well and is easier to schedule. Set aside time weekly to go through your list of people and thoughtfully consider you need to re-connect with.

The inefficiency of a phone call

No, I’m not talking about the Cray Supercomputer in your pocket, I’m talking about your least used app – the one that actually makes phone calls. Too often, we default to the mass efficiency of text, email, facebook, Instagram, or Snap Chat (seriously?). These tools are good, but surprise someone today by actually calling them. Better yet, make a weekly call sheet of 50 or so names. Chip-away at it every single day.

The surprise of a thank you card

Yes. A hand-written note. Think about, you know, actually saying thank you. Ask what’s new. You’ll blow people’s minds. Here’s a tip: after you write “thanks” for whatever you’re actually grateful for (a topic for another day), write, “Give me a call when you have a minute. I’d love to just catch up.” Then see who actually calls. This one experiment alone will tell you volumes about the quality of your relationships. (Bonus tip: work on your handwriting. It’s been a while.)

The reflection in a bit of feedback

One of the most useful things I’ve learned as a public speaker is this: there’s no quicker way to get better than by watching yourself on video. Seeing yourself on camera is terrifying because you immediately see all your flaws. The same principle is at play when you ask someone for honest feedback about your work. Pro tip: Don’t ask your mom. Maybe ask your spouse. Certainly ask your boss. Definitely ask that person in the congregation who always irritates you. There’s a reason they irritate you. You’re looking in the mirror.

The pain of accountability

It’s a cliché, but make yourself accountable to someone you respect. Share your weekly list of calls and visits. Now, here’s the real power of this practice: Don’t just ask them to check on your progress. That’s too comfortable and too easy to dismiss. When you failed to call or visit someone, have them ask you: “Why didn’t you call or visit this person?” When you give them your lame excuse, have them ask, “What price are you paying by not calling them? What price are we all paying because you’re letting this relationship slide?” Remember, this has to be someone you respect.

For some, these tools can be hard to master. For others, they come more naturally. Either way, lean into the discomfort of doing real, relational ministry work. Learn to re-prioritize the urgency of dormant human connections. That’s where you’ll discover the real power of your work.

Offering Plate Alternatives, Part 1

Earlier this week, I gave you 5 reasons to stop passing the offering plate in church. Today, I offer the first of three practical alternatives to the traditional approach to tithes and offerings on a Sunday morning.

Tip #1: Get to know people and ask them directly

Let’s cut to the chase. The most effective way to encourage people to give your church anything is to ask for it directly, face-to-face.

Of course, this should come from a place of relationship; this means you know who they are, what they have to give, and how their passions might be leading them to participate in your church. 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.

Church economics isn’t about collecting money quickly and efficiently (which is what passing the collection plate is all about), it’s the practice of properly stewarding the resources of the Kingdom. As a pastor, you aren’t stewarding your people’s money (that’s their job), you’re caring for their souls by teaching them how to steward their own lives; how to attend to their hearts, their gifts, their skills, their time, and yes, even their money from a posture of growing discipleship.

But let me be clear: helping people steward their lives doesn’t mean telling them what to do with their time or their money. It means helping them discover the calling of their lives within the context of the Kingdom of God. It’s more akin to matchmaking than fundraising, and good matchmakers get to know their clients in order to connecting them with whoever they’re well-suited for.

Helping people steward their lives means helping them find their calling within the context of the Kingdom of God.

At some point, the time will come to pair them up with the opportunities you have good reason to believe they’re well suited for. That means asking for their gift. When that time comes, you need to be ready and willing to ask them for it in as personal, as appropriate, and as direct a way as possible.

If you think you have too many people in your church for this, you probably don’t. The typical major gifts officer in a large nonprofit (like a University or a Hospital) is directly responsible for up to 150 potential donors. That means, they routinely spend months, and often years, working to cultivate an appropriate relationship with 150 people in order to help them consider a significant gift to their organization. In most American churches, where there are fewer that 100 members, the senior pastors and elders can and should be doing this with literally every person or family in the church.

But even if you do have thousands of people in your church, you have more than enough leaders to help you do this in a relatively direct way. This doesn’t even mean you can’t provide ways for people to give on Sunday (you absolutely should!). There are lots of great ways to engage people effectively, even in a crowd. We’ll discuss some of those ways in future posts. But at the end of the day, by far, the most impactful way to cultivate a healthy spirituality of giving is to ask people face-to-face from a place of authentic relationship.

5 Reasons to Stop Passing the Offering Plate

There’s a small Southern Baptist church not far from my home that my family attends from time to time. They’re a relatively young church – most of the people who attend look to be in their 30’s and 40’s – and pretty non-traditional in style. But there’s one thing they do every Sunday that is so old-fashioned it always surprises me: They pass the offering plate.

To be fair, most churches I’ve been to do this. It surprises me every time. Here are 5 reasons to consider abandoning this practice.

Many people don’t carry cash or checks

Do you carry cash anymore or even a checkbook? Chances are, you don’t. Recent studies show that most people no longer carry cash and those who do, don’t carry much of it.

It encourages small gifts

Not only will people give less because they don’t have much in their pocket, people making spontaneous giving decisions tend to give in smaller amounts. In a comprehensive survey of individual members in over 600 churches from the 1990’s, people who were given an opportunity to thoughtfully consider their giving for the year in advance, give 2 to 3 times as much as those who simply responded to the offering plate in front of them, depending on how they were engaged.

It breaks the continuity of worship

Occasionally, churches do a great job incorporating a traditional offering time into the flow of their worship, but that’s rare in my experience. Other than an opening prayer, there is often no meaningful frame for what is happening during that time, so from a visitors perspective, the whole experience feels disjointed, or worse, cliché.

It’s embarrassing and awkward for everyone

One of the most socially awkward experiences in most worship services is the offering time, because ushers feel self-conscious about asking for money and the people in the seats feel self-conscious about putting money (or, especially, not putting money) in the plate. Even worse, this is almost always the experience of first time visitors who are not yet ready to even think about giving to you. Factor in a small crowd, where you often have ushers conspicuously handing an empty plate to one or two isolated people sitting in an otherwise empty row, who often, embarrassingly hand it back empty, and you have a corporate experience that feels like a collective failure (see what I did there?).

It perpetuates a transactional consumer relationship with your people

In a previous post, I encouraged churches to stop asking people for their money, because money isn’t nearly enough. But “your money is enough” is exactly the message churches send when they put a great deal of time and effort into facilitating a worship experience and then proceed to ask for a few bucks in return. The whole thing becomes a soft transaction, like that old “pay what you want” Radiohead experiment. But the healthiest relationships are transformational, not transactional and the same is true for the healthiest churches.

There is simply no good reason why most churches should pass offering plates. There aren’t enough people in most American congregations to logistically justify this method of collection, and even if your church is bursting at the seams, it’s a pre-information-age mechanism that isn’t socially appropriate anymore. There are far better ways to encourage giving and facilitate collection. Offering plates are impersonal, inefficient, embarrassing, and ineffective.

So, what could a church do instead?

Starting tomorrow, I’m going to post 3 things that churches should be doing instead of relying on the collection plate.

But in the meantime, I’d love to hear from you. What has your church done to make giving (and collecting) more effective for everyone?

Stop Asking People to Give Your Church Money

I had lunch with a friend today

I’ve known Geoff for a few years now. He runs Flourish San Diego, where they work with churches to help them think in more creative ways about their mission and he always makes me think. One of the things we discussed was how his organization emphasizes the discovery and activation of a person’s vocation within the context of their church involvement.

I think this is brilliant. It reminded me that one of the biggest mistakes nonprofits and churches sometimes make is to focus on asking people for money.

The trouble is, for a while at least, this can appear to work well! The psychology of sales and fundraising are well known, and can be effective in the short-term when we learn to push people’s buttons and pull their triggers.

But when we treat people like the most important thing they have to give is their money, we are essentially exploiting them as objects to be used on our behalf. We de-humanize people when we will say or do nearly anything just to get them to write a check. And eventually, because of that, we will lose them. This, by the way, is a sure-fire sign that we have slipped into the trap of working to preserve the institution rather than advance the mission (tip-of-the-hat to Geoff for reminding me of this). Why? Because institutions are built by resources, but a mission is advanced by people.

Most of us know this intuitively

Most of us find selling and fundraising in this way to be highly distasteful. We resist it because we know how gross it makes us feel when someone treats us this way. As pastors who are trained to be sensitive to a person’s spiritual well-being, we’re even more repulsed by the practice.

And we should be.

The problem is, when faced with the discomfort of asking for money, we tend to shrink back and ask for less (or, we simply don’t ask at all), when what we should be doing is exactly the opposite. We should be asking for far more.

Now, I don’t mean we should ask for more money or even more time. I’m not suggesting we travel down the well-worn path of over-busying and overwhelming people until they eventually burn out. That’s just another, all-too-familiar way of exploiting people. The solution to exploiting people is obviously not to exploit them more (nor, less obviously, is it merely to exploit them less). Rather, the solution is to learn to truly see and relate to people as whole persons who have more to give than merely money.

Every one of us has a vocation

We all have an innate, whole-hearted purpose or calling in life for which we are gifted and equipped, more or less, depending on how much we have grown and developed. But many people (maybe most) haven’t discovered it yet, and this is one reason why many of us are so spiritually broken – because we haven’t yet figured out what we should be sacrificing our lives for.

Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God–this is your true and proper worship.

~Romans 12:1

People are looking for where their lives fit, and once they find it, they’ll usually give their whole hearts to it. This is their spiritual vocation. You do them and your mission a disservice when you simply ask for their money. One key to forming a healthy church or nonprofit is to learn to discover and empower the whole-hearted vocations of those who are genuinely called to work alongside you in a common mission. That is what true organizational development is about, because in a mission-driven organization like a church, it develops more than the organization; it develops people, it develops the community, it develops the world.

In the world of nonprofit leadership, this kind of holistic, person-centered approach is often referred to as humanizing the organization – and it applies to more than just fundraising or fund development. It is the intentional counter-measure of the common and de-humanizing modern management paradigm which sees the organization as a machine and the people in it as the cogs that keep it running.

How does this relate to giving money?

One of the most important things you can do to develop your church or nonprofit is to stop asking for people to give their money and start asking them to give their hearts. In other words, genuinely treat them as persons who are critically important to the mission. Because they are.

Of course, this is a process, and usually a long one because it is relational. It starts with caring enough to pay attention and listen. It means discovering people’s hearts and being honest about whether their vocation really does align with yours. It also requires making space for people to engage to whatever extent they are able and willing; allowing them to ask difficult questions, make suggestions, participate in decisions, offer a critique, commit mistakes, achieve successes, enjoy a little credit, and so on.

Giving won’t run that deep for everyone – in fact, it won’t run that deep for hardly anyone – and that’s good and right for all kinds of reasons. but everybody does have something to give, and having permission to give whatever they have, coupled with access to whole-heartededly participate in your mission through a sense of their deeply personal calling, will make a profound impact for the better on everyone who comes into contact with your organization.

Here’s the shift I want us to grasp

In this way, asking for support from someone who is whole-heartedly aligned and invested is actually an expression of deep care for them as a person. Yes, even asking for money, when it’s appropriate. There is nothing quite so life-giving as living into the vocation of your gifts and passion. By appropriately asking for the gift of a person’s heart in all if its manifestations, and by creating a meaningful way for them to give it, you are offering them a powerful gift as well. The gift of being truly human.

For obvious reasons, no organizations on the planet should be better at this than communities of faith.

There are all kinds of effective ways to do this. Ways to lead and govern well, ways to ask well, and ways to engage people as whole persons. That’s why I offer courses and training here (shameless plug). All of that can be learned.

But how does this make us more financially sustainable? Well, I hope its obvious by now that if a person happens to have a great deal of disposable money, they’re much more likely to give some of it – possibly a great deal of it – to the organizations that have empowered their whole-hearted passions in life. But if you’re singularly focused on their money all the time, you’ll miss the treasure they have to offer every time.

Thankfulness and Giving in Church

Yesterday I wrote a guest post for The V3 Church Planting Movement on how critically important it is for pastors to develop the practice of simply being genuinely thankful. Here’s a quick teaser:

Recently, I was telling this story to a group of pastors when one interrupted me:

“Jason…are you suggesting that we should send a thank you letter to every person, every single time they give?”

“Yes,” I said. “That is partly what I’m suggesting. But I’m really trying to ask a question: How would it transform the culture of our churches if we stopped shaming people for not giving enough and simply thanked them every time they gave?”

Click here to read the full post over at the V3 blog. I’m excited and flattered that the good folks at V3 have invited me to write a regular article for them. There are some fantastic ministry leaders and missional practitioners who contribute there regularly, including Dan WhiteA.J. SwabodaChristine SineLinda Bergquist, and others.

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