Plant and water the seeds—and trust God for the increase.
By Jim Sheppard & Patrick Johnson
Churches may be taking a hit from the economy, but there is still much that can be done to generate a culture of generosity. Here are five specific field-tested ideas (in no particular order):
1. Be a generous leader
Generous churches are led by generous pastors and leaders. You can’t take people where you haven’t been—especially in the area of finances, which so often gets a bad rap in the church context.
Chris Willard of Leadership Network’s Generous Church Leadership Community notes, “I’ve seen generous pastors without a generous church, but you cannot have a generous church without a generous pastor.” Indeed, generous giving should be a characteristic of your entire leadership team.
Jimmy Seibert of Antioch Community Church in Waco, Texas is an example of a pastor who really practices this principle. He and his wife Laura have given sacrificially for more than 20 years and their life example of biblical generosity and God’s provision are known by both church leaders and members alike. One member of Jimmy’s church recently told him, “I give because I see you give. That’s what motivates me.”
A key question to ask yourself as the church leader is, “If everyone in my church gave like I do, would that be a good thing for the Kingdom?”
2. Adopt generosity as a core value
An excellent example of this is Fellowship Bible Church in Brentwood, TN. Around three years ago, the elders were struggling with the question of whether to do another capital campaign to fund expansion. Like many churches, they found that a campaign motivated people for a short season but had very little lasting impact on most of their members’ giving.
After much prayer, the church felt like God was calling them to adopt generosity as a core value of the church and to call all people to “raise the tide” of generosity at their church to what they deemed the “training wheels of giving,” the traditional tithe of 10 percent.
The church developed a campaign known as “G3″ (generational, global, generous) but instead of calling for a three-year pledge, the church called every steward to raise their giving by one percent per year until the average giving of the congregation based on per member projected income reached ten percent.
At the start of G3, the average giving per member at Brentwood annually was 4.6 percent. Over three years, per-member giving increased by 19.1 percent. The church estimates that if it can reach its goal within ten years, it will be able to build out all of its campus, pay off all existing debt, and give over 70 million away to Kingdom work globally.
3. Focus on the Gospel
Giving must be connected to the Gospel. Plans for ministry expansion must be a logical extension of God’s vision for the way your church should carry out the Gospel. Any project that does not meet these criteria will not connect in the hearts of your people and, as a result, will not connect with their treasure either. There must be a clear explanation of how anything you are asking them to fund—be it buildings, programs, or people—will help accomplish the ultimate goal of helping lost and hurting people.
“A culture of generosity emerges out of a culture of the Gospel,” says Pastor Leo Schuster (Christ the King Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX), “People give when their hearts are melted by the overwhelming gift of God’s love and grace.”
4. Reach stewards uniquely
The cornerstone of a generous culture is stewardship education. Pastor Scott Ridout of Sun Valley Community Church in Arizona explains, “One of the greatest paradigm shifters I see among my people when it comes to financial faithfulness and generosity is this simple principle: God owns it all. When they begin to grasp this, things change.”
And it’s important to recognize the different types of stewards in your church and minister to them uniquely. Patrick Johnson, vice president of Church Services at The National Christian Foundation says, “Most churches are made up of three types of stewards—scarce, stable and surplus stewards—and as the current economy proves, individuals could find themselves in a different category at any time.”
Remember, it’s not about what you want from your people, but what you want for them. Here’s an overview of Johnson’s three categories of givers:
* Scarce stewards—Whether it’s poor habits, poor choices, or a background of poverty, these members usually need immediate help. While it’s essential to address their current needs, it’s equally important to uncover the heart issues that are at the root of many financial woes. Debt has endangered many normal middle-class families to the point of scarcity. That’s why many churches provide financial counseling through lay volunteers while using Scriptural small group stewardship studies such as Crown Financial Ministries , Good $ense, or Dave Ramsey’s Financial Peace University to teach basic biblical principles regarding money.
* Stable stewards—David Wills, President of The National Christian Foundation, says the needs of stable stewards should not be overlooked, especially in the coming years as baby boomers grow older. David says, “We are in for the greatest transfer of wealth America has ever known, and most of it will be from average families who have never made more than $80,000 a year. As strong supporters of their church during life, churches could be the main beneficiaries of the wealth that stable stewards pass on. But they have to be educated on how to continue their legacy of giving to their church after life.” Good sources to help in this area include Kingdom Advisors and The National Christian Foundation.
* Surplus stewards—While it seems that those without are in precarious situations, those entrusted with much could be in the most danger—for the power of wealth is one of the greatest temptations of all. Pastors often overlook the needs of wealthier members because they don’t want to show preferential treatment but they are in need of genuine ministry.
Pleasant Valley Church in Kansas City takes groups of surplus stewards every year to a special conference designed for high capacity givers by Generous Giving . Todd Harper, Vice President of Generous Giving explains, “It’s an eye-opening experience for high capacity givers to see hundreds of other givers with similar struggles and opportunities. And it’s often a big surprise when they have the opportunity to meet someone who gives more than they do.”
Pleasant Valley follows the Generous Giving conference with a Crown Financial Ministries’ Special Edition study. This ten-week small group study addresses unique high-capacity giving needs such as wealth transfer, charitable planning, and determining a “financial finish line.”
5. Put your money where your mission is
Communicating mission and vision goes beyond printing your mission statement in the bulletin. The main problem is that churches aren’t clearly connecting their mission with the daily programs of the church. For example, if your mission is, “passionately reaching out to unbelievers,” that should be clearly represented in the budget. Does your spending match your words?
Remember to apply this principle to generosity itself. How much is in the budget to encourage generosity? What are you spending to encourage healthy giving vs. keeping track of how the money is spent?
If people understand what their church is about, where it is going, and how it plans to get there—most often they will choose to be part of the financial engine that makes it happen.
For example, Community Christian Church in Illinois held a special campaign in February 2009 called Celebration Generosity. Pastor Dave Ferguson led his congregation through this four-week generosity experience, which culminated in an offering where they gave away the entire amount to four missional causes outside the church.
The offering was more than $400,000—four times their regular weekly offering and by far the largest single offering they have ever received. Dave says, “Each and every one of those dollars will be used toward our 4 Teams effort to reach the 20 percent of the world living in poverty and the 67 percent of those who have yet to find their way back to God.”
In trying times, the world needs the church like never before. More than any other cause in your community, your church can be a steady beacon of hope as the environment around you grows more and more restless. Your neighbors may be driven to their most open spiritual moments in years due to personal financial stress.
It is a terrible price to miss this rare opportunity to minister to them because your church lacked the financial means to do it. No matter what size or shape your church might be, what’s happening in your pulpit will always be more important than what’s happening on Wall Street.
The good news is that the secret to a recession-proof church most likely lies within your influence. Like the pastors in the examples cited in this article, there are important factors at work in a church that you and your lay leaders can use to create a culture of generosity in your church.
This article was adapted and first appeared in the download, “Recession-Ready Church” on our sister site, BuildingChurchLeaders.com.
Jim Sheppard serves as CEO of Generis, a consulting firm that provides counsel to churches and religious organizations in the areas of generosity and stewardship.