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Archive for Stewardship

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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The Eight Pockets of Stewardship

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People who regularly attend church services or who have joined a local faith community have particular giving habits and patterns. It’s important that those who steward the financial resources of a congregation understand that donors are not motivated equally by every appeal. In my pastoral experience, there are eight different pockets of giving in a congregation.

First, there is the regular giver to the general fund. These are the people who are committed to the core values and mission of the church and support the operating budget on a regular basis with their tithes and offerings. These funds represent the basic support structure for fixed expenses as well as the program ministries of the church.

Next is the giver who supports the building fund or the debt retirement from a previous capital campaign. They are motivated by capital improvements whether it is new construction or the renovation of a facility that needs modernization.

Third is the donor who values missions and missionaries. They are generous givers to annual mission offerings through their denomination and/or toward individual missionaries that the church supports. These gifts are usually significant and rightfully so, given the fact that many denominations require their affiliate missionaries to raise their own support. Some church members may be giving to missionaries directly, bypassing the church offering plate.

Then we have those who support benevolence ministries or social programs within the community. Churches may make appeals for these funds above and beyond the operating budget. These needs will touch some of the members who will in turn give generously of both their time and money.

Giving pocket number five is those who support the program ministries of the church. Ministries to children, youth and music are often underfunded because that’s how churches balance their budgets. Fixed expenses are, well, fixed. At the end of the day, utilities, insurance and payroll are not going to be cut for programs that can either reduce or even eliminate their plans for the year. Some congregants will provide support to these ministries out side of their regular giving because they know they are the key to vitality.

Number six is the giver that supports parachurch ministries such as the Gideon’s International, Focus on the Family, or Operation Shoebox. While churches may have some of these organizations in their budget, some people may be motivated to give directly to them.

Seventh, are the financial supporters of memorial funds. These can be tricky for pastors and stewards to navigate for a couple of reasons. One reason is that the memorial has to be honored in perpetuity. Every established church has to determine how to maintain an item that has been given in memory of a person regardless of whether or not anyone in the church remembers the decedent. Another reason it is tricky is that the family of the deceased may want to direct memorials to an item that the church either doesn’t need or toward and item that is out of the price range of the request. Wise and gentle leadership will need to work patiently with families to help provide guidance and support as they make their decisions. Memorial gifts can be an excellent opportunity to seek win-win solutions that honors the member and helps the church.

Finally, there is the member who has committed to remember the church through a planned gift. Planned giving can make a significant impact on a church’s financial well being. Pastors may be surprised how willing faithful congregants will be to remember the church in their estate planning if they will simply plant the seed with a nine word question. “Have you considered including our church in your estate?” Perhaps they have on their own accord. Perhaps they are willing, but haven’t been asked. Pastors do not have to be attorneys or financial planners to ask this question. If the member is motivated, they will do the rest.

So what are the takeaways from knowing about eight pockets of stewardship?

  1. People have finite resources, so choose wisely how they will give. Every offering appeal will diminish the ultimate goal of advancing the mission and ministry of your church. Churches are wise to limit endless appeals in favor of a unified budget that is inclusive of the values and partnerships that have been established.
  2. Evaluate the number of appeals your church makes each year. Pastors will focus primarily on the offering appeal during the service. But the wise pastor will also do his or her best to eliminate giving fatigue. Your coffee and hospitality counter is an ask. The missionary offering is an ask. The youth bake sale is an ask. So is the $10 for the kids to attend Bible School. The benevolence need is an ask, right down to the canned food drive and the request for gently used clothes. How many “asks” is your church making on a given week? In a month or year? We should not be amazed that people complain that all the church does is ask for money even if the pastor preaches on giving once or twice per year.
  3. Not every donor is motivated by all requests. In the aforementioned list of eight, some will give generously toward two or three, while someone else may give toward a different three or four. Seldom will you find a member who will generously support all eight. It is critical to know your audience and to time and make your appeals strategically to maximize impact.
Categories : Giving, Stewardship
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The 2020 State of the Plate

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For the past several years I’ve been invited to participate in a stewardship study conducted by Brian Kluth in partnership with Christianity Today that explores stewardship trends among American churches. This year’s survey was complied from the responses of nearly 1,100 churches from all 50 states. Of the respondents, 60% represent churches of 200 or less and 18% are between 200-500 in attendance. The COVID-19 pandemic tinted this year’s results in an interesting way. Here are some of the highlights from the executive summary.

  1. Giving has stabilized or increased for most churches. 22% have seen increases while another 42% have seen stability. Still, 36% of the churches have seen a decrease in giving since the shutdowns began. These numbers correlate with the fact that during the same time period 21% of American households experienced a decrease in personal income.
  2. Another corresponding reason is the decrease in the in person worship attendance for those who have opened for public worship. 58% of the churches who have re-opened have reported less than half the attenders they had prior to coronavirus. Online worship attendance is also beginning to trend down since the onset of the pandemic.
  3. Optimism about future budget requirements is marginal. 12% of churches expect salaries and benefits for staff will be decreased. 25% believe that major projects and purchases will be delayed. 19% believe that funding for programs will decrease, and 8% anticipate that support to missions and denominational entities will be reduced.
  4. Pastors are hopeful about the viability of their congregations. 63% believe their churches will stabilize and another 46% believe their churches will become stronger and grow. However, 16% of pastors anticipate their congregations will face and struggle with difficult decisions. And, 7% believe their churches will either merge with another congregation or close. This corresponds with the data from Barna Research in mid 2020 that projected one in five churches will close in the next 18 months due to the impact of the coronavirus.

So what does this mean for church stewardship in 2021? Here are some observations and predictions I have for the future.

  1. Churches will need to maintain and continue to develop their digital footprint. The coronavirus caught a lot of churches on their heels when the shutdowns began. They did not offer an online worship experience and neither were they equipped to do online giving. Many, if not most churches, successfully mitigated this vacancy in the past nine months to an impressive degree. However, it must continue to be in place and enhanced because whether we intended or not, technology has given people permission to decrease their in person worship if they come back at all. This may necessitate a revision of staff job descriptions and the reallocation of budgeted resources.
  2. Churches cannot expect to return to February, 2020. Coronavirus has signaled a significant shift in culture both at home and abroad. In my opinion the worst thing a church could do is expect a reset and carry on as if the virus was simply a blip on the radar. We need to eliminate the phrase, “get back to normal.” Churches that desire to be both efficient and effective in the future are going to have to re-engineer programs and outreach for maximum impact. In short, the church of the future cannot continue to maintain a campus centric ministry (“y’all come!”). The church of the future will need to creatively think of possibilities and opportunities “beyond the walls.”
  3. Finally, the path forward, especially for the smaller congregations of 200 or less, will be cooperative kingdom collaboration. Churches will need to be open to sharing resources, facilities, programs and even personnel in order to provide ministry for and with their congregations. Of course many congregations have done this previously, mostly around social needs in their respective communities such as food pantries and clothing ministries. Going forward, this may extend to many of the traditional ministries (in particular children and youth) that have previously been held close to the vest.

My prayer is for you in 2021. God is not finished with his church. If there was ever a time to pray and seek God’s will for the future, it is now.

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Untied (Luke 19:28-35)

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After telling this story, Jesus went on toward Jerusalem, walking ahead of his disciples. As he came to the towns of Bethphage and Bethany on the Mount of Olives, he sent two disciples ahead. “Go into that village over there,” he told them. “As you enter it, you will see a young donkey tied there that no one has ever ridden. Untie it and bring it here. If anyone asks, ‘Why are you untying that colt?’ just say, ‘The Lord needs it.’” So they went and found the colt, just as Jesus had said. And sure enough, as they were untying it, the owners asked them, “Why are you untying that colt?” And the disciples simply replied, “The Lord needs it.” So they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their garments over it for him to ride on (Luke 19:28-35, NLT).

I’ve owned four pickup trucks. Not that I have ever really needed one, I just enjoy having one. And every now and then, they’re handy. The first one I purchased was a used Chevy Silverado. I had only owned it a few weeks when a friend asked if he could borrow it for a few days to do a landscaping project at his home. I said, “sure!” He offered his wife’s car for me to drive while he used my truck. To make a long story short, two or three days turned into 11, and by the time he was finished with his project I was frustrated to say the least. As I drove to make the vehicle exchange, I uttered promises and oaths that I would never lend my truck to anyone again! When I arrived, I was totally embarrassed, because my friend had taken the truck and had the oil changed and professionally detailed. He even topped off the gas! He actually returned it in far better condition than he received it.

In Jesus’ day the most common form of transportation was the donkey. Donkey’s were ridden by people of every socio-economic class. Like a pickup, donkey’s were utilitarian animals that could be ridden or used to haul heavy items. Some were even used in the fields of agriculture for plowing or for grinding grain into meal. Because they were gentle in spirit, the donkey was viewed as a symbol of peace.

The donkey in the Palm Sunday narrative is usually overlooked. But if you read the passage carefully, the text mentions that the donkey was tied and must be untied five times! That much repetition calls for the reader to pay attention to what is going on.

Let me make four quick observations about the exchange in the aforementioned text. First, the owners gave out of their poverty. In Bible times some people were too poor to own their own individual donkeys, so they would pool their resources and own one jointly. Jesus didn’t send for a donkey from a man that had a stable full of them. His opportunity was extended to those who would have recognized the cost and potential risk of allowing it to be untied and entrusted to the disciples.

Second, the owners exercised faith. Some scholars believe that Jesus prearranged this exchange, but I like the story more as a blind invitation. The only thing they knew was “the Lord needs it.” Faith is nothing more than our positive response to the word(s) of God. They untied the donkey because the Lord had a need that they could fulfill. While we assume the donkey is returned, it is important to note that the Scripture never gives us that answer.

Next, the owners didn’t fully understand the purposes of Jesus. Were they well versed in the Old Testament prophesies of Psalm 118 or Zechariah 9:9? Even if the disciples would have explained that Jesus needed the donkey to ride into Jerusalem to symbolically proclaim his Messiahship, they may not have comprehended the coming events headed into Good Friday and Easter morning. Sometimes God extends opportunities and invitations to us that we may not fully grasp or understand.

Finally, their contribution made a difference. A kingdom sized difference. When we are willing to untie our blessings and gifts for the Lord’s needs we make a lasting impact. The kind that allows people like me to blog and preach their story 2,000 years later!

What does the Lord need that you need to untie?

Categories : Easter, Stewardship
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Congratulations, DSM, Ames!

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Barna Research has released it’s latest report, focused on the top 50 most generous cities in America. I am not surprised to find Des Moines/Ames ranks number seven on the list. The report shares two interesting insights from their findings.

First, four of the top five cities have a larger “downscale” population than an “upscale” population. Downscale is defined as those with a gross income of less than $20,000 per year who do not hold a college degree. Upscale is define as those with a gross income in excess of $75,000 who hold a college degree. This affirms what data has claimed for some time: wealth does not have a direct impact on generosity.

The second observation is that the majority of donations among the top 50 communities are directed toward churches and religious institutions. This insight is interesting to me given the general feeling that churches are continuing to cleave along the lines of the haves and have nots.

If you would like to read the full report or see the top 50 list in its entirety, you can find it at www.barna.org.

Categories : Barna Group, Stewardship
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Breaking Even

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Giving USA recently released their report on Philanthropy for the year 2014. Among the items reported was a disturbing trend regarding giving to churches and religious organizations. While religious organizations still lead the way with receiving 32% of all charitable donations, giving in 2014 was static compared to the previous year. Numbers can be deceiving and we can read what we wish into any statistic. Giving to churches and religious organizations in 2014 increased 2.5% from 2013. However, when you adjust for inflation, that number diminishes to 0.9%.

Churches usually think of contributions in two ways. One, of course is to encourage committed members to increase their contributions. The second is to create additional giving units through new members. Somehow we are barely holding our own.

One of the challenges pastor’s face is preaching stewardship sermons. There is a fear that people will accuse the pastor in specific and the church as a whole as “only talking about money.” I believe stewardship sermons are important and usually preach two or three a year. But we need to rethink our education and broaden it beyond the reach of the pulpit. Last year we incorporated a letter to the congregation, Sunday School lessons for children, youth and adults, testimonies from members and more. Sharing the load in stewardship education will ease the tension and the pressure from the pulpit. And among the many positive messages about stewardship we need to acknowledge that yes, even the church needs a cost of living raise.

Categories : Stewardship
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Andrew Blackman has published some research in the Wall Street Journal on the relationship between charitable giving and tax deductions. There is some interesting stuff here, and if you’re interested in philanthropy this is a good read. You can find the article HERE.

Categories : Stewardship
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The Association of Fund Raising Professionals (AFP) has released its own interpretation of charitable contribution trends from last year. Please click HERE for details.

Categories : Stewardship
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