Rich Church, Poor Church

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Why do people give?

I have written extensively about this in my book, Not Your Parents Offering Plate. It is, however, important to restate this elementary understanding before one can fully understand the balance of this book, which will contrast the rich church and the poor church. The groundbreaking book Born to Raise by Jerold Panas featured research on the topic of why people give. Non-profits have studied and been shaped by this research. Church leaders have predominantly ignored it to their own detriment.

A Belief In The Mission Of The Institution

The number one reason why people give is a belief in the mission of the institution. People give when they can see a difference created that they value. If they have a heart for young people they will give to the institution they believe is most helping young people become the adult the donor believes is good for society. If they have a heart for the world’s hungry they will give where they believe the world’s hungry are best being fed. If they have a heart for whales they will give to the organization that convinces them they are the best at saving whales.

Non-profits are well aware of this number one reason why people give and they do their best at every turn to promote in understandable ways how they are accomplishing their mission. The youth organization will not send out a newsletter telling persons how many youth came by to play ball or how many members they how have. They will put on the cover of their newsletter a story of one youth whose life was turned around from participation in their program. People don’t relate to program numbers. They relate to changed lives.

The hunger organization doesn’t tell you data on how many persons they fed over how many countries in so many days. They feature the face of one child and tell you how the child’s mother brought him to the food center and how the worker intervened in his life with nourishment to where he is now running and playing with other children. One can easily see how this is a life that has been changed. The whale organization doesn’t tell you what a new boat cost or what one trip to sea will mean in diesel fuel. They feature a picture of a giant blue whale leaping in the air and tell you how that whale was saved through some action they took on the Pacific Ocean. In other words, they help convince you that they are doing the mission they advertise.

What is it that a church advertises when it puts a cross on the sign and the word church on the front door? What do persons understand the mission to be? Is the church telling compelling narratives that it is doing its mission and doing it well? The pastors in many churches I work with cannot make the case. Can your church?

Regard For Staff Leadership

The second chief reason why people give is a regard for staff leadership. The number one rule in fundraising is that people give to people. They know that programs and buildings do not change lives, but people do. They must feel confident in the leadership to guide the institution in fulfilling the mission. Key investors in institutions want an intimate relationship with the CEO and this is why every non-profit demands that their leader relate and connect with those able to help them fund their mission.

Many churches want to defy this reasoning, acting like persons of wealth should not desire a trusting relationship with their leaders (pastors). These poor churches pretend that lack of information about donors is a good thing for its leaders. They even set up policies that say that no pastor shall know what persons give, making it impossible for a pastor to even say thank-you to a donor for a major gift, as if being thanked is not helpful or polite.

No college would encourage its President to not be aware of who their main alumni supporters are. No hospital would keep a CEO who would not set specific time aside for relating to those persons who have built new wings or could establish new programs that could help the hospital do its mission.

In church after church I see pastors working with singers to join the choir, youth parents to help in the youth program, those who have recreational skills to coach teams, and people with mission hearts to lead mission teams, but I do not see them intentionally spending time with those who are blessed financially to share those blessings with the church. What is the difference? People want to hear why they should support the church. Many churches are not even in line.

Fiscal Responsibility Of The Institution

The third chief reason why people give is the fiscal responsibility of the institution. People do not want to give to an organization that wastes their money or always seems to be short of money. This sends a message that we are not able to do our mission, which is the number one reason why they give. People do not want to give to a sinking ship but to one that might actually arrive at a destination.

This is why no non-profit sends out messages that scream, "we are broke and in need of being saved from drowning!" Donors do not want to just prop up an institution; they want to enable it to change lives. Non-profits do not air their dirty laundry to the public. They deal with financial issues in private boardrooms and continue to talk publicly about how they are doing their mission.

Poor churches, on the other hand, seem to believe the more they cry wolf, the more they will get support. They publish financial data in their bulletins and newsletters that invariably show that the church is running a deficit. They say things like, “50% of the year is complete but we only have 40% of our revenue in.” They always have about 40% in at the half way mark because December is by far the largest giving month. They act like they don’t know that, believing if they can get their donors to think they are broke they will give more. The exact opposite is true.

Pastors of these churches get up in the pulpit and tell people how bad it is, or trot out the finance chairperson to do the same, somehow believing that this will make people want to throw their wallets at the altar. The exact opposite is true. This tactic encourages persons to avoid touching their wallets for fear of losing their money to a losing cause.

Amazingly, more church leaders are concerned at running a surplus than a deficit. Their fear is that if persons actually knew that the church had funds on hand they would stop giving. The fact is, if the church shares this good news, along with how it plans to use the gifts to change lives, people might give even more.

It is no wonder they many donors to the church are wondering if they should continue to give. They never hear changing life stories like the ones they hear from other charities. Church leaders don’t visit or ask for funds. They have little or no personal relationship with the pastor, unlike the President of the college or hospital or Boy Scouts. They continue to get a message of gloom and doom that leads them to think that there is not much future in this place and perhaps their funds would be better invested elsewhere.

If you want to have any hope at all of being a rich church, understand why people give.


Excerpt from: Rich Church, Poor Church: Keys to Effective Financial Ministry by J. Clif Christopher. Copyright©2012 by Abingdon Press. Used with persmission.

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