Let’s Not Have the Same Conversation This Fall about Church Budgets and Raising Money

Unless we’ve already done so, it’s past time to have a new conversation about this topic. This includes getting clarity about changes and trends in charitable giving, broadening our perspective, relationships, and options, and also considering more deeply about how it all connects to discipleship and faith formation.

Three things I want to put before you today:

  1. A word of encouragement
  2. A couple of resources I think are valuable
  3. And some realities we need to name clearly and face head on

First, this topic is full of worry and anxiety for so many of us. Let’s hear an important word from Jesus:

26 Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? 27 And which of you by worrying can add a single hour to your span of life? 28 And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, 29 yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. 30 But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith?” (Matthew 6:26-30). [l]

And from Kathryn Tanner: “religious commitments include economic ones with a project to transform life as a whole; a changed way of pursuing economic well-being is a positive part of that religious project…  (yet) Beyond all the jostling for position that leads to profit within finance-disciplined capitalism lies a God whose own value does not go up and down, and who may thereby provide a stable source of one’s value.”  (Christianity and the New Spirit of Capitalism 202 – 204.)

Second, I want to recommend this conversation I shared with Elizabeth Lynn from the Lake Institute on Faith and Giving because it fills out much of what follows. I also want to highlight this resource we sent out a few months ago about buildings, property, and other related financial challenges.

Third, here are two very recent, instructive personal anecdotes that align with all the statistics I read about churches’ financial situations.

  1. Earlier this summer I sat in a meeting next to an associate pastor of a rather large, historic, downtown congregation that has a crucial role to play in their city. I asked this associate, “so how much of the congregation’s budget is being supported by your top giver?”  He paused, took a deep breath, sighed, and said, “an extremely uncomfortable amount.” Sound familiar?

There are several important dynamics in play here. As Elizabeth notes in the interview linked above, “Fewer givers are giving more.” While the amount of charitable giving has continued to increase, the number of households that give is now below 50%, and a growing number of families lack the ability to give. This complements other trends with respect to who participates in congregational life. See, for example, here and here.

But there are also some important signs of hope and ways forward. Some recent findings suggest that younger people are actually motivated to give, but for different reasons and to different sorts of entities than older generations. With younger generations, giving continues to shift towards “movements” and more immediate impact (and away from institutions), and younger generations are increasingly pursuing spiritually oriented, meaning-making experiences and spaces. What implications might this have for your particular ministry context and how giving fits within and strengthens emerging frameworks of discipleship?

  1. A few months ago I advised a pastor friend of mine who serves a mid-to-large sized mainline congregation to apply for a rather large grant that I thought suitable for his congregation. Having written several of these types of grants in recent years, I provided some feedback for them throughout the process. Well, they got the grant, one that will allow them to do some incredibly important ministry for families across their city. But here’s the important part of the story – I passed along this same information and offered assistance to several other colleagues and their congregations, and almost none responded. This has puzzled me. It may well be a simple matter of bandwidth, time, and energy available to work on a proposal, or maybe doubts about their ability to actually receive the grant. But I suspect that in some cases it’s the difficulty of changing the way we think about where our financial support comes from and the possible revenue streams that are out there. We underestimate what one strong grant proposal or new relationship with a community foundation or other philanthropic entity could accomplish. What are some alternative, creative ways your congregation might pursue resources? What conversations have you not yet had that are worth your attention?

There’s so much more to say on these themes. Our TMC team is happy to dig into more details with any of you and point you in the right direction as best we can.

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