By John R. Throop
The letter from the board of an affluent, mid-sized congregation in suburban Chicago contained an urgent message: increase giving or else.
While affirming the past faithful giving of members, the letter also emphasized the impact of the economic recession. Some members recently lost jobs and struggled to maintain their regular giving levels. And others who worried about their financial futures did not increase giving. The result: the church budget faced a serious and unexpected deficit, prompting the board to consider serious cuts in mission and ministry.
"We are striving to fulfill God's call, and also to be good stewards of your financial support to this church," the letter read. "Now, at this critical time in this ministry, we will have to make cuts in our staffing and programs. We know you do not want to see this happen. We know that you want us to meet our budget commitments. So we are asking you to give sacrificially and give more—as much as you can, right now—so that we can keep our ministry intact."
The church's pastor also preached a sermon on sacrificial giving. Lay leaders made their appeal at announcement times in the service. Some members gave testimonies of how the Lord gave them the resources to give more in tough times.
The appeal worked—to some extent. But cuts still occurred, and the board resolved to prepare a "bare bones budget" for the next fiscal year.
The church leaders thought that highlighting the situation as they saw it simply 'told it like it was.' But many believe such an approach, often used by churches during periods of economic struggle, is fundamentally flawed, looking at stewardship as a budget-driven program based in human scarcity, rather than a spiritual growth opportunity grounded in God's abundant provision for all needs.
Leaders and stewardship consultants say the worst message that financially struggling churches can send is one of desperation, frustration, or shame. Instead, the message must emphasize opportunity.
It's not an easy task. Churches, like many organizations and businesses, are feeling the impacts of the worst recession in 75 years. Like the Chicago-area church, members lose jobs and cut back on their giving, while those faring well take a cautious and conservative approach in their finances. Many congregations across the country, and from every denomination and tradition, face budget shortfalls ("Budget Bullseye," July/August 2009, Your Church).
"The 'Fat Thinking Era' is over," says Jim Sheppard, principal partner and chief executive at Generis, a Christian stewardship and development firm. "Now, we are in leaner times. Now we have to think and pray more deeply about the nature of the projects, and only the best will get funded because people will give the funding to those ministries with the best return on investment."
The challenge for churches, as 2009 draws to a close, is to craft messages showing members how their giving brings those tangible and intangible returns, using a variety of communication methods.
When communicating an end-of-year shortfall, experts advise church leaders to emphasize what God can do with generous givers, rather than what members are not doing with their personal funds.
Until next time...share the journey and enjoy the ride!