Common Stewardship Pitfalls

August 15th, 2012

1. Focusing on Shortfall

In the vast majority of Christian Churches, in particular the small congregations, the only financial stewardship emphasis occurs when the church treasurer announces in the one adult Sunday School class that there is not enough in the church’s checking account to fill the propane tank (or pay the preacher) this week. This may be the most common stewardship pitfall, but it is certainly not the only one.

2. Rattling the Cup

The second most common stewardship pitfall is to rely entirely on the physical presence of an offering plate or basket, as a non-verbal invitation to be faithful financial stewards. In the landmark book Money Matters: Personal Giving in American Churches, Dean R. Hoge and his colleagues report that churches fall into three general categories regarding how they ask parishioners to contribute money.

The first category is called an offerings church. These churches do not hold an annual financial stewardship campaign. The parishioners are simply invited to respond to the offering plate each week. In these churches, parishioners on average give 1.5% of their income to the church.

A second category is called a pledging church. In these churches, the leadership prepares an annual budget. Parishioners are then asked to give financial resources to support the budget. The message is: Your church needs money to accomplish the ministries described in our budget. Please give generously so that these ministries can be accomplished. In pledging churches, parishioners on average give 2.9% of their income to their church—about twice as much as in churches that do not ask their parishioners to pledge. In other words, research has shown that when a church asks parishioners to write their financial intentions on a pledge card and turn it into the church office, on average the parishioners will give twice as much as churches who no not ask their parishioners to pledge.

There is a third, and more fruitful way to ask parishioners to contribute money. This method is called the percentage-giving church. In these churches, instead of preparing an annual budget first and asking parishioners to support it, the church first conducts an annual stewardship campaign that asks parishioners: What percentage of your income do you feel God is calling you to give? Parishioners decide the percentage, translate it into a dollar amount, and write the dollar amount on a commitment card. The church then uses the total of these commitment cards, subtracting anticipated shortfall and adding anticipated loose-plate offerings, in preparing its budget. 

In The New Consecration Sunday, Herb Miller says that in percentage-giving churches, parishioners are not asked to pay the bills or support the budget—rather, they are asked to grow spiritually, giving a percentage of their income to the work of the Lord through their congregation. In these percentage-giving churches, parishioners on average give 4.6% of their income to their church—about three times more per year than in churches that only rely on passing the offering plate. In other words, research has shown that when churches annually ask, “What percentage of your income do you feel God is calling you to give?," parishioners on average give three times more dollars per year than in churches that only rely on passing the offering plate.

3. Taking the Top-Down Approach

There is a third common pitfall in both the pledging and percentage giving congregations: For any stewardship campaign to succeed, it must truly be a congregational effort, with many people involved at several different levels. Bad Idea: The entire program will be “run” by the pastor and office assistant, with a lay figurehead willing to have letters sent over their signature. Good Idea: The program will involve 10% to 20% of the active congregation to play some level of leadership. Instead of looking for ways to simplify and fast-track the campaign, the stewardship campaign will be far more effective and fruitful if ways are explored to involve more people in the process.

Lovett Weems, in 50 Ways to Improve Your Annual Stewardship Program, suggests several ways to increase the lay participation in the annual financial emphasis.

  • Be strategic in building a leadership team. Involve a large group of people to build their sense of ownership in the outcome.
  • Include persons from different age groups and different ministry areas.
  • Be sure that the generous givers of the congregation are well represented on the stewardship team and other groups related to the church’s funding just as you would be sure to include those most active in other ministry areas as you plan for those ministries.

4. Communicating Poorly

A fourth common pitfall is poor communication. Fruitful stewardship campaigns have a comprehensive communication strategy using sermons, personal testimonies in worship and small groups, worship bulletins, bulletin boards, direct mail, e-newsletter articles, banners, web site, blogs, Twitter, Facebook, and other social media. Tailor messages for the likely audience of each medium, but be consistent in your design and overall vision.

5. Failing to Cast a Vision

A fifth common pitfall relates to the content of our communication. In the past, churches have assumed that parishioners will increase their financial support of the church if we simply give them more information about the churches budget. In Not Your Parents’ Offering Plate, Clif Christopher helps pastors understand that the primary reason people give their financial resources is to be a part of the church's mission to change lives. He suggests that “most of our worship services would be greatly improved if five minutes of anything was replaced with five minutes of testimony, either video or live, each week. Our newsletters and websites would finally become effective if we would get all the announcements out and substitute one person’s testimony of how Christ, through the church, changed his or her life.”

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