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Archive for Generosity


Secrecy vs. Confidentiality

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It’s common to hear a church leader struggle with the challenge of developing and discipling their givers when their church’s giving records are closed. My company, MortarStone Generosity, provides data analytics and intelligence software that measure the recency, frequency, volume and tenure of givers so that church leaders can encourage givers to take steps toward a lifestyle of generosity. But the elephant in the room is that dollars are associated with names, which can create heartburn for church leaders who are unaccustomed to privileged information.

Many, if not most churches have strict rules about who has access to information, citing Matthew 6:1-4 as the reason for strict observance of secrecy. Let’s look at it.

“Watch out! Don’t do your good deeds publicly, to be admired by others, for you will lose the reward from your Father in heaven. When you give to someone in need, don’t do as the hypocrites do—blowing trumpets in the synagogues and streets to call attention to their acts of charity! I tell you the truth, they have received all the reward they will ever get. But when you give to someone in need, don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing. Give your gifts in private, and your Father, who sees everything, will reward you. (Matthew 6:1-4, NLT)

Jesus began this portion of the Sermon on the Mount with a thematic statement that would serve for the three points that follow: giving, fasting, and praying. So right up front, Jesus wants us to know that he assumes that his disciples will give, fast and pray, but these practices should be done in a way that is not self indulgent. The word hypocrite is featured in the text, and is borrowed from the secular world of theater. Actors in Greek theater would wear masks (think “comedy and tragedy”) and assume the role of whichever character they would play. So the word simply means “one who wears a mask,” but came to colloquially refer to a person who pretends to be someone they are not, or a hypocrite. Those who act with hypocrisy receive their apecho. Apecho, translated “reward” is a business term that refers to a receipt that is provided when a transaction has been paid in full. Jesus is literally saying that when we give in a way to be noticed by others, we have our receipt.

Having said that, Jesus instructs his disciples to not let their left hand know what your right hand is doing. Scholars are divided about what this means, but the general idea is to not give with both hands because in so doing, you draw attention to what you’re doing. If you think about how you may have passed notes in Jr. High School during class, you will get the idea of what Jesus is saying.

His admonition directly follows this instruction, where Jesus directs us to do our giving in kruptos (as in cryptic). Every English translation will interpret kruptos as “secret,” except the New Living Translation which translates the word as “private.” The word kruptos is used in the New Testament to mean secret when it is describing concealment. For example, Jesus said what we do in kruptos will be shouted from the housetops. (Luke 12:3) He also describes the person in the parable of the talents who took his one talent and buried (kruptos) it in the ground. (Matthew 25:14-30). But the definition of kruptos is not limited to concealment. It can also mean “to escape notice.” And this is how Jesus is using the word as it relates to our giving.

If you think about it, there are many examples in the Bible that describe the amount of a particular offering. Solomon’s gift offered on the day of the Temple’s dedication is itemized. Then there’s the woman who gave two coins, and in Acts we have Barnabas’ gift given as the result of the sale of real estate. Unfortunately in the next chapter, we know all about the size of the gift presented by Ananias and Sapphira.

The point here is that there is no single passage in the Bible that calls for confidentiality of giving. Giving confidentiality is a fiduciary responsibility of any not for profit organization who closely holds information that has been entrusted to them by contributors. Most not for profit boards routinely talk about both donors and the size of their donations. In fact, Pastors and church governing boards who are ignorant of their members giving are among the exception to this generally accepted practice. But however this is practiced within churches, it should be based on the church’s governance as fiduciaries. Whatever you do, don’t say “this is what the Bible says.” Because it doesn’t.

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Lifeway Research has recently contributed to the commentary on stewardship and generosity with a report that cites research conducted by the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy. The report echos what others have been stating all summer, chiefly that the pool of givers to religious organizations is dwindling.

How is it, then, that in the face of this research, churches claim that their giving remained static or even strong during the COVID-19 pandemic? From the churches I’ve reviewed in the last several months, the answer is simple. Those who were top givers in the church (at least $10,000 per year) increased their giving, while those who gave minimally (no more than $1,000 per year) decreased their support. In other words, the stockholders and key investors in the ministry carried the load.

The concern, for me anyway, is that top givers will experience giving fatigue in the coming year. Churches that are investing all of their energy in recovering attendees to in person worship need to focus on discipling and developing their givers as well. We may not see the full financial impact of COVID on churches for several more months. Therefore, church leaders cannot make the assumption that their congregation’s giving is certain.

Categories : Generosity, Stewardship
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The 2020 Giving USA Report

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Americans are incredibly blessed. Those in our nation who are age 60 and above average $800,000 in personal assets. In the coming years our nation will see the greatest transfer of wealth in the history of the world as over $33 trillion will pass from one generation to their designated beneficiaries.

The 2020 Giving USA Report revealed some interesting data. Last year, Americans gave $471.44 billion to charitable causes. Religious institutions were recipient of 28% ($131.08B) of those dollars. Individuals made 69% of those gifts, followed by Foundations (19%) and Bequests (9%). While the total dollars directed toward religious institutions increased, the overall percentage of those distributions decreased as people directed more dollars to Education and Human Services.

While the sheer volume of giving is quite impressive, there are some concerns that church leaders need to be made aware. The most staggering of which is the data that shows Americans who give to charitable institutions only give 2.2% of their annual income. This is less that the percentage donated during the Great Depression, when Americans gave 3.3% to charity. In other words, we are not as generous as those who gave during the Great Depression.

Today, only 35% of people have an estate plan in place, and of those who do, only 10% have included a charitable component. Given the imminent wealth transfer that we face, churches need to develop an overall stewardship strategy to disciple their givers.

There are two types of givers. The first is the Income Giver, where the giver contributes either a dollar amount or a percentage of their annual income to their church and charities of choice. This is usually the main focus of church leadership who design annual campaigns to make the case for their ministries to be included each year.

But the second type of giver is the Balance Sheet Giver, who gives out of their net worth. These are the givers who have done estate planning and have taken advantage of tax laws to protect their estates from taxes by directing dollars and non cash assets to churches and eligible not for profit organizations. Church leaders and givers alike are often unaware of the possibilities and potential that is available.

Focusing on Income Giving is needful and necessary, but incomplete. Churches must develop generosity ministries to fully disciple and develop their givers. If you’d like more information on how your church can develop a Generosity Ministry that addresses current and future financial needs, let me know. I’d love to have a conversation on how your Church can get started!

Categories : Generosity, Stewardship
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Peter Oakes is the Rylands Professor of Biblical Criticism and Exegesis at the University of Manchester. His recent monograph, titled, Empire, Economics, and the New Testament*, provides a couple of resources for generosity that I wanted to share. I hope that you will find them beneficial.


0.04% of the citizenry would consist of the “Imperial Elites.” This would consist of the local royalty and those on retainers, such as their family members and dependents. If you think about the Netflix series The Crown, Princess Margaret would be an example of one on retainer.

1% would be the “Regional or “Provincial Elites” who governed agrarian areas beyond the city limits.

1.76% of the people would have been the “Municipal Elites,” including some merchants who were highly successful.

7% were those with “Moderate Surplus Resources.” This group includes some merchants, some traders, some freed persons, some artisans/craftsmen (successful enough to have employees), and military veterans on pension.

Then comes the break between the haves and have nots.

22% in this group were “Stable Near Subsistence,” possessing a reasonable hope of remaining above the minimum amount of income to survive. Examples include merchants, traders, regular wage earners, artisans, owners of large shops, and some farm families.

40% lived “At Subsistence Level,” often below the minimum amount to sustain life. This class was composed of small farmers, laborers, those employed by artisans, wage earners, most merchants and traders, and some small shop owners.

28% lived “Below Subsistence Level.” This would be the unattached widows, orphans, beggars, the disabled, unskilled day laborers, some small farmers, and prisoners.

If I read Oakes’ data correctly, 68%+ of the Roman empire was either unemployed, underemployed, or unemployable. Their version of the upper class would have consisted of roughly 10%, leaving 22% to comprise the middle class.

The reason this data is important is that this is the context to which the Apostle Paul writes his letters and is the audience he is addressing when he writes about generosity. The data reveals that those who are being challenged to be generous had the least capacity to be generous, yet most responsive to his appeals. The sheer stratification does not take into account soft data such as the persecution and isolation of Christians in the Roman Empire under Nero. Yet Paul makes the case for generosity unashamedly.


Paul’s argument for a culture of generosity was not uninformed. First century Roman citizens would have been familiar with the cultural practice of patronage (patrocinium), which was a social construct known throughout the preindustrial world. Oakes defines patronage as, “a nonmarket relationship between socially unequal people in which dissimilar benefits are exchanged” (Oakes, 109). Patronage was the way the economic elite disseminated their wealth to those less advantaged in urban areas. These benefactors may give by constructing public buildings as well as providing public entertainment, such as festivals. This culture mimicked generosity cultures in that everyone, regardless of their financial status, had the felt need of giving to those who had less. Certainly the elites made the biggest impact, but those who lived at or below the poverty line also desired to contribute to those in need.

So it would not have been uncharacteristic for the Apostle Paul to (1) solicit funds from those at or below the poverty line, (2) ask for funds on behalf of those who were suffering (e.g. the collection for the famine in Jerusalem, and (3) encourage them to make sacrificial gifts with joy. If Oakes is correct, perhaps Paul baptized the Roman culture of patronage and used it for Kingdom purposes in what we now call generosity. 

*Empire, Economics, and the New Testament, by Peter Oakes, Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2020.

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In the twelfth century, a Jewish scholar and Torah expert named Moses ben Maimon developed a philosophy of giving ranking the lowest form of giving to the highest form. Like rungs on a ladder, Maimonides, describes eight levels of charity as progressions that are accomplished through spiritual maturity. Jewish thinking viewed charitable giving as an act of righteousness, especially in caring for those who were poor.

The first level, or the lowest one, is where the giver gives reluctantly or begrudgingly. This may include embarrassing or shaming the recipient.

Level two is giving cheerfully, but not to the degree that is needed. Here, giving is measured and insufficient.

At level three, the person gives cheerfully and adequately, but only when he or she is asked. In level four, the person gives without being asked or before being solicited.

Level five occurs when the recipient knows the donor, but the donor does not know the recipient. Here we are beginning to see anonymity come into play. The next level, six, flips the paradigm. The donor knows the recipient but the recipient doesn’t know the donor.

The seventh level occurs when neither the giver and the recipient know of each other’s identity. Number 8 then, is the highest level, which is the donor empowers the recipient to become self sufficient. This could be done through a major gift, an interest free loan, time offered in mentoring, or any number of ways that enable the recipient to become self reliant and in turn, become of service to someone else.

Let me make a few observations about Maimonides’ list. First, since making a gift is a part of each level of charity, he’s really describing the way a person makes a gift. It’s true that the gift may indeed increase in size over the progression, but the main growth comes in the form of humility and anonymity. Second, while the gifts offered are helpful to the recipient, the ultimate goal is for the person to become self sustaining. The easiest thing one can do is write a check, and the most difficult thing one can do is give their time. Finally, the eight steps provide a tangible way to measure our own giving attitudes. Aspiring to become a better giver is not just having the desire to give more, not that there’s anything wrong with that. It’s aspiring to reproduce yourself as a person of generosity. For when the recipient is self reliant, they too will become persons who give.

Categories : Generosity, Giving
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Recently I’ve been teaching on generosity as a part of our annual stewardship promotion and budget adoption campaign. Through the years I’ve enjoyed teaching on stewardship, and according to my record keeping I could comfortably present on this topic more than I do. I’ve hit all the major passages on stewardship, and a few obscure ones too. But the one thing that I’m convinced of is this: the most important principle in understanding stewardship is that God is the owner of everything. If we can grasp that, much of what follows falls in place.

I believe the Bible teaches that God is owner of all things. Every blessing we have has come from Him. We can’t take credit for anything or claim that we possess anything because we have earned it or deserve it. It’s all God’s and all that we have is from God. God is owner and we are stewards.

Stewards? What does that mean? A steward is a person who manages the owner’s possessions in a way that is consistent with the owner’s wishes. A steward doesn’t manage based on what he or she sees fit, a steward manages in a manner that is consistent with the goals and desires of the owner.

Last Sunday I illustrated this principle by placing 10 apples on the communion table. The 10 apples represented the blessings of God in our lives. If you’re like me, you grew up hearing about stewardship in terms of tithing (the practice of giving God 10% of your household income through the local church). God gives us 10 apples and wants 1 in return. That’s simple math that any elementary student can understand.

The problem with teaching stewardship that way is that it seems to suggest that if we give God His “one” apple, we have 9 remaining that we can use however we choose. That’s simply not how it works. They’re ALL God’s apples. You can give one or none, but they’re all His. Furthermore, people like you and me are accountable to the owner for how we use all 10 of them, not just whether or not we have given one to Him on Sunday.

James 1:17 says that every good and perfect gift we have has come from God. He has entrusted those gifts to us, and we’re accountable to Him for how we use each of them. If we can wrap our minds around that, we’re on the way to good stewardship and free to be generous.

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Here’s an article that was in today’s Des Moines Register. It shares five practical ways that parents can teach their children about charitable giving and volunteerism. While the article doesn’t target or specify giving to churches, the principles are still helpful. You can find the article here.

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Breaking Jars

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Sandwiched between stories of malice and betrayal we find the account of Mary of Bethany who was noted in the Gospel of Mark by her extravagant gift to Jesus Christ. The first 9 verses of chapter 14 describe the episode this way:   1 It was now two days before the Passover celebration and the Festival of Unleavened Bread. The leading priests and the teachers of religious law were still looking for an opportunity to capture Jesus secretly and put him to death. 2 “But not during the Passover,” they agreed, “or there will be a riot.” 3 Meanwhile, Jesus was in Bethany at the home of Simon, a man who had leprosy. During supper, a woman came in with a beautiful jar of expensive perfume. She broke the seal and poured the perfume over his head. 4 Some of those at the table were indignant. “Why was this expensive perfume wasted?” they asked. 5 “She could have sold it for a small fortune and given the money to the poor!” And they scolded her harshly. 6 But Jesus replied, “Leave her alone. Why berate her for doing such a good thing to me? 7 You will always have the poor among you, and you can help them whenever you want to. But I will not be here with you much longer. 8 She has done what she could and has anointed my body for burial ahead of time. 9 I assure you, wherever the Good News is preached throughout the world, this woman’s deed will be talked about in her memory.”

Here are five observations from the story about sacrificial giving that I have found to be helpful.
1.  Sacrificial giving is our response to the grace of God that we have received (14:1-3).
When someone makes a sacrificial gift, our first question is “how much?”
Nard came from the root of a Hymilean plant that was imported from India. Only the wealthy possessed it. The story states that it was valued at the equivalent of a year’s income.
But the question the Bible makes much of is “why?” What motivated her extravagance? No one prompted her to do it. Jesus himself didn’t request it. It was 100% self initiated because of her thankful spirit for what Jesus had done for her and her family.
2. Sacrificial giving is without measure (14:3b).
In Bible times the customary practice of anointing was measured. Just a few drops. Or, as the old commercial used to say, “a little dab will do ya.” But Mary broke the jar and emptied its contents on Jesus. Her gesture was limitless and boundless. When you break a jar, there’s no turning back.
3. When you make sacrificial commitments to Christ you can expect critics (14:4-5).
When you start breaking jars containing expensive stuff, someone is going to become critical and even judgmental. Do you find it interesting that it was the disciples who were the most outspoken against this act? Instead of celebrating her deed, they called it a “waste.”
4.  Jesus calls our sacrificial gifts “beautiful” (14:6-7).
What the disciples called waste, Jesus called beautiful (NIV). Don’t worry about what the crowd says about your sacrifices. Jesus is pleased and calls your sacrifices beautiful things!
5. Your beautiful sacrifices will make a difference in ways you may not expect or realize (14:8-9).
Jesus told Mary that her act would prepare his body for burial. Furthermore, he said her gift would be memorialized throughout human history. I can’t imagine that Mary could forsee the fact that after 2,000 years she would be studied and discussed. With that in mind, consider these questions:
* What will be your lasting legacy in the Kingdom of God?
* How will you be remembered?
* What will people say about your contributions after you’re gone from this life?
There are many who aspire to change the world and make it a more beautiful place. But that doesn’t happen without risk and sacrifice. It doesn’t come clinging to comfort zones and measure our commitments. It happens when you start breaking jars.
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Why Give?

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During the month of November I’ve been speaking on the subject of giving. That may seem unnatural, given the state of our nation’s economy. Prices are rising as well as unemployment statistics. Giving to not for profit organizations is significantly down from 2009, yet members of our nation’s faith communities continue to be faithful in their regular tithes and offerings.

I found an incredible passage that really spoke to me about the kind of attitude we should have toward giving. 1 Chronicles 29 is set in history at the end of King David’s life. Like many who are in their twilight years, he was concerned about the legacy he would leave behind. The legacy he desired to leave was the construction of a permanent Temple for the worship of God. Though God has relayed to David through the prophet Nathan that he was not the one to build the Temple, David stayed the course and put together the blueprints for the project and raised the funds to insure its success. Like any good fund raiser, David began by sharing his own commitment:  over 100 tons of gold and 262 tons of silver, plus other important building materials. He would leave everything he had for the project. Imagine the surprise of his family when they discovered there would be nothing bequeathed to them!

As David offered his prayer to God, he simultaneously offered some wonderful advice for how the listeners then and the readers now will find beneficial.

1.  Acknowledge God’s ownership of all things (1 Chronicles 29:10-11).

David began by stating something critically important to our understanding of giving:  it all belongs to God. I think the biggest myth around today concerning giving is the myth that as long as a person gives to God, say 10% for example, they can do as they wish with the remainder. That is simply not true. It’s all God’s.

2.  Every blessing we have comes from God (1 Chronicles 29:12-13).

Think of every blessing in your life. Is there a single one we can take credit for? One of the first Bible verses I memorized was James 1:17, which says that “every good and perfect gift comes from above, from the Father of lights with whom there is no variableness or shadow of turning.” God not only owns all things, but also gets the credit for every good gift we enjoy.

3.  When we give we are responding to God as the owner of all things and the giver of all blessings (1 Chronicles 29:14-16).

Here’s a thought you may not have thought of before, but even the very gifts we offer to God is God’s. We can’t even claim credit for our own generosity.

4.  When your heart is in tune with God, you will give (1 Chronicles 29:17-20).

Not only will you give, but according to David you will give joyfully and willingly. Not only that, your giving will inspire others to give.

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Uncommon: 4

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The early church was uncommon. It possessed attributes unlike any other community or organization known in their time. Their unity and value system was uncommon and they shared an uncommon story. As a result, they enjoyed the uncommon grace of God. As the text continues, we find another marker of this emerging movement: they had an uncommon sense of generosity.

“There were no needy people among them, because those who owned land or houses would sell them and bring the money to the apostles to give to those in need. For instance, there was Joseph, the one the apostles nicknamed Barnabas (which means ‘Son of Encouragement’). He was from the tribe of Levi and came from the island of Cyprus. He sold a field he owned and brought the money to the apostles” (Acts 4:34-37, NLT).

We are somewhat caught off guard to read the claim that the church was so generous that it had eliminated all economic need within their group. Because they valued one another over their material possessions, they gave generously, even if it meant parting with a house or a field. I think it’s important to note that they gave with no strings attached. They sold stuff and gave the proceeds to the apostles and allowed them to distribute the funds according to their own discretion. Amazing!

When you think about it, the people of God throughout history have been known for their generosity. Think about your community. What are the names of the hospitals? Here in the 515 we have four hospital systems, three of which are named after the religious affiliations that started them. Think about the colleges and universities in America. Many of those private schools were started by the people of God who held a conviction that education was a priority. Think about the orphanages or the agencies that work tirelessly to serve those in need. Again, the people of God were on the cutting edge of meeting human needs and solving real problems in society. Uncommon!

Generosity not only meets physical needs. It also meets a spiritual need: encouragement. Barnabas is strategically introduced to the reader in this context, and his personal generosity is associated with encouragement. In other words, your generosity serves to encourage others and validates the claims of our faith and the calling of our Lord.