New Realities In Giving Post 2008 (Revised July 2013)

 

I originally wrote this post in June 2012. Though most of what I wrote then is still true, there are some new observations.

We are now four and a half years removed from the greatest economic adjustment of our generation. It was a perfect storm of a crash in the equity market and the housing market. Historically, we have had adjustments in the equity market and adjustments in the housing market, but we have not had large simultaneous adjustments. This one was so significant that it is taking a while for the US to recover.

The impact has been far reaching.

A lot has been said about the impact on churches. In reality, about 1/3 of churches are up from 2008-2009, 1/3 are down and 1/3 are flat. Despite what many may say, the economy is not the main reason for that, except in a few cases. The downturn in the economy may have accentuated the effect on some, but internal factors actually have a lot more to do with the downturn in giving.

The bigger effect of the economic adjustment has been on the mindset of givers. As the people in our churches think about their giving, their paradigm has shifted. Prior to 2008, money was “easy come, easy go.” Don’t worry so much about where you give it because you can always make more. Not true any more because our hard earned dollars are harder earned than ever before. As a result, donors are now much more careful in where they want their money to go.

If you are planning an accelerated giving initiative of any kind — annual giving, capital funds, ministry venture capital or legacy giving, among others — there are new realities in play. To optimize the success of any giving initiative will require taking these realities into account.

  • Increased vetting of giving options. People are a lot more careful where they give in the post-2008 era. The tendency is to give more money to fewer, carefully selected choices. Givers will vet their charitable options according to criteria they have established which will include among others, ministry impact on people, transparency of financial disclosure and stewardship of resources.
  • Portfolio management perspective. This one is huge. Prior to 2008, we saw this primarily among high capacity givers. Now we are seeing it at all levels. People are investing (i.e., giving) to churches and ministry organizations where the highest “ROI” is perceived. ROI is defined as impact. In other words, what results is the church or ministry organization getting. The big shift is that givers will move money from those they perceive to be “low performers” to “higher performers” in terms of impact. Churches cannot assume their people know — they have to make sure they have told the church’s story well and have clearly demonstrated the impact of their ministry.
  • Reducing debt is more popular than it has been historically. At least for now. This is the after effect of seeing what debt did to people and organizations in the economic adjustment. For years, church members have had low motivation toward giving initiatives that were focused on reducing or eliminating debt. For now, reducing or eliminating debt is seen as a real positive and givers are motivated to invest in it. It is reallocating funds from debt service to ministry!
  • Transparency about finances. Historically, churches have not disclosed a lot of financial information. However, people now want to know more about where their charitable giving is going. The want to know how the church is doing — income statement and balance sheet. Churches do not get a pass on this, especially among younger donors.
  • Givers, especially younger ones, want mobile giving options. Many of the younger givers in churches want to be more generous, but the church does not make it easy. The primary giving means is the offering during worship services. Givers want to be able to use their smartphones and tablets to give right there on the spot. It is not enough to ask them to remember to go home and do it online.

If you are planning any other kind of strategic giving initiative, pay attention to these new realities. It may well be the difference between exceptional and ordinary when it comes to results.

Generosity Is The New Evangelism

The truth is that God doesn’t need our money, but He knows that our orientation toward money reflects our obedience to the Lordship of Christ and how well we grasp that he is the source of all we have. As followers of Christ, our goal in life is not gaining power, possession, or prestige for ourselves. We exist, along with the entire body of Christ, to fulfill the Great Commission until Christ’s return. Generosity offers one of the most powerful ways for us to leverage the blessings of God for the advancement of the Kingdom. Best of all, when the church acts with generosity to serve others, it is a clear picture of Christ, who generously gave his life and all He had on the cross that we might find life forever.

Financial hardship has a way of breaking down the walls that separate us, even in the church.  The sudden loss of wealth and security reminds people that our stated net worth on paper—our value in the eyes of the world—can change at any moment. During the last recession, people began to question what really mattered in life and think about what was of lasting value.  Individuals that had placed their hope in the markets began to recognize that paper is really nothing more than paper—it has no lasting value. Two people, who might have been separated by the divide of wealth between homelessness and luxury, now found themselves in the same pew, seeking the same answers: Where are you, God? What is your plan for me?

Unfortunately, history shows us that the insights we gain in these moments of clarity, when the divisions created by money evaporate long enough to reveal what is truly valuable and how much we have in common with one another, fade away all too soon.  How can we prevent that from happening as our world moves toward economic recovery?  How can we learn to retain the insights from the lean years when the years of plenty return?

The church has a unique message for times of economic uncertainty.  Jesus provides us with an alternative approach to money that celebrates the sharing of our resources with one another.  What we are describing is not an economic model that forces people to share their resources with another, nor is it a political agenda. Instead of being motivated by outside pressure, we believe that the church must begin to challenge people to behave in ways that are consistent with what they profess to believe.  Why?  Because the world—the lost people all around us—is watching and paying attention to how we respond in times of trial and testing.  As Jesus reminds us in Matthew 5:14-16: ““You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden.”  When we act in ways that are consistent with our commitment to Christ, a watching world notices.  We cannot hide who we really are, and generosity reveals that our faith is genuine and true.

As we live with generosity before a watching world, skeptics and cynics will find it nearly impossible to find fault with genuine acts of generosity that demonstrate that our hearts have been set free from our love of money and things.  When we give for the benefit of the Kingdom, to serve others in love without an expectation of something in return, that gives them something worth talking about.  Far from being a stumbling block to people, money can actually be a conduit, a connecting bridge to people outside the church.

Generosity is the new evangelism.

Excerpted from “Contagious Generosity” by Jim Sheppard & Chris Willard, Zondervan, 2012.

Generosity: Why Should I Care?

Given the challenges that many individuals, families, and churches are now facing in the aftermath of the global economic crisis that began in late 2008, the topic of generosity is more timely than ever before.  When our security is threatened due to a job loss or the possibility of scarcity, we are tempted to lock up what we have stored away.  But we have seen God work in amazing ways as churches and individuals have chosen the opposite approach.  Instead of locking away their resources in fear, they have chosen to share what they have with those in need—and their generous giving has drawn attention.

In some cases, these faith communities received local and national media coverage. Even though their own financial security was uncertain, some churches gave their surplus budget away to meet the desperate needs of their communities. This act of generosity, motivated by a love for God, earned the church credibility and made an impact on the community, changing the lives of those who gave and those who received.  The financial crisis became a bridge for the church to communicate the message of a generous God to a struggling world. Churches, in ways they had never done before, began to talk about money, teaching their people how to gain freedom from debt and emphasizing new disciplines of sacrificial giving.

Generosity, when it flows naturally from the heart of a church community, will be contagious.  It expresses, in practical and powerful ways, the message that is at the core of our faith: God gave his only Son to us, that we might have life.    Generous churches believe that they have been given everything, and as an expression of their love for God, they share what they have with one another and with those in need.

Money is perhaps the most measurable aspect of our faith. How we spend our money directly reflects our commitment to our own faith—if we practice what we say we believe. But that same standard should also be applied to our churches, corporately. How churches use and spend the resources that God has entrusted to them serves as a witness to the culture of the church community.  It is a clear reflection of what the church values and what it believes.  A church that does not reflect a generous spirit will struggle to grow and disciple generous givers.

Excerpted from “Contagious Generosity” by Jim Sheppard & Chris Willard, Zondervan, 2012.

What Is Generosity?

Generosity is one of the most significant movements within the evangelical community, but it is also a topic that is highly debated among Christian leaders. How we understand its role within the life of the believer—and better, within the life of the Christian communities in which we do life together will perhaps say more about our faith and our understanding of the gospel than any other single facet of our faith.

Let’s begin with a working definition of generosity.  Generosity is at its core a lifestyle—a lifestyle in which we share all that we have, are, or will ever become as a demonstration of  God’s love and a response to God’s grace. It is not enough for the church to talk about generosity, nor is it enough for individual Christians to simply commit to being generous. What makes generosity a real and powerful witness to God’s love is our actions. Generosity flows from an understanding that all we have, are, or will ever become is not ours to possess and it results in practically sharing what we’ve been given with others for the advancement of the kingdom and the glory of God.

Generosity embraces a Biblical understanding of stewardship. That is: (1) God is the owner of everything; (2) What we have has been given to us by God; (3) The resources we possess are assets to be invested in the Kingdom.

Before we can be generous, we must understand what it means to be a steward, recognizing that what we have is not ours to own and confessing that “Jesus is Lord” over our money, possessions, positions of authority and talents.  You can’t be generous without an appropriate discipline of biblical stewardship, and biblical stewardship demands generosity.  The free gift of the grace of God shapes our faith and leads to the conviction that all that we have—our time, talent, treasure, and testimony—is something that we have been given for a purpose.  We cannot separate our acceptance of God’s grace from the practice of generosity. We are generous because God was first generous with us, freely giving his life for our sake. As followers of Christ, we seek to imitate the one who gave himself for us (1 Thessalonians 1:6; 2:14).

Stewardship is more than an obligation.  It’s an opportunity—to witness to the reckless nature of God who gives the free gift of salvation by grace to all who will receive it.   Generosity is the fullest expression of the life of a steward, one who has been given a gift, a gift that must be used wisely and for a purpose, bringing glory to God.

Excerpted from “Contagious Generosity” by Jim Sheppard & Chris Willard, Zondervan, 2012.

New Realities In Giving Post 2008

We are now three and a half years removed from the greatest economic adjustment of our generation. It was a perfect storm of a crash in the equity market and the housing market. Historically, we have had adjustments in the equity market and adjustments in the housing market, but we have not had large simultaneous adjustments. And, unlike other significant market adjustments, we have not yet seen a recovery.

The impact has been far reaching.

A lot has been said about the impact on churches. In reality, about 1/3 of churches are up from 2008-2009, 1/3 are down and 1/3 are flat. Despite what many may say, the economy is not the main reason for that, except in a few cases. The downturn in the economy may have accentuated the effect on some, but internal factors actually have a lot more to do with the downturn in giving.

The bigger effect of the economic adjustment has been on the mindset of givers. As the people in our churches think about their giving, their paradigm has shifted. Prior to 2008, money was “easy come, easy go.” Don’t worry so much about where you give it because you can always make more. Not true any more because our hard earned dollars are harder earned than ever before. As a result, donors are now much more careful in where they want their money to go.

If you are planning an accelerated giving initiative of any kind — annual giving, capital funds, ministry venture capital or legacy giving, among others — there are new realities in play. To optimize the success of any giving initiative will require taking these realities into account.

  • Increased vetting of giving options. People are a lot more careful where they give in the post-2008 era. The tendency is to give more money to fewer, carefully selected choices. Givers will vet their charitable options according to criteria they have established which will include among others, transparency of financial disclosure and stewardship of resources (does the church or ministry organization do a good job of stewarding financial resources).
  • Portfolio management perspective. This one is huge. Prior to 2008, we saw this among high capacity givers. Now we are seeing it at all levels. People are investing (i.e., giving) to churches and ministry organizations where the highest “ROI” is perceived. ROI is defined as impact. In other words, what results is the church or ministry organization getting. The big shift is that givers will move money from those they perceive to be “low performers” to “higher performers” in terms of impact. Churches cannot assume their people know — they have to make sure they have told the church’s story well and have clearly demonstrated the impact of their ministry.
  • Reducing debt is popular. At least for now. This is the after effect of seeing what debt did to people in the crash. For years, church members have had low motivation toward giving initiatives that were focused on reducing or eliminating debt. For now, reducing or eliminating debt is seen as a real positive and givers are motivated to invest in it.
  • Transparency about finances. Historically, churches have not disclosed a lot of financial information. However, people now want to know more about where their charitable giving is going. The want to know how the church is doing — income statement and balance sheet. Churches do not get a pass on this, especially among younger donors.

If you are planning any other kind of strategic giving initiative, pay attention to these new realities. It may well be the difference between exceptional and ordinary when it comes to results.

Church Planting – The Most Critical Decision (Part 2)

Nobody (new) goes there any more . It’s too crowded. We covered that in part 1 of this post. Space affects momentum. Make no mistake about it.

Your church has grown and now you are at the point that the lack of space is about to affect the momentum of your plant. It is not the time to look at another temporary space. It is time to consider a permanent home for the church.

As I have watched planters and their leadership teams wrestle with this issue, I see three common mistakes – too small, too big, too late. Let’s consider the implications of each scenario.

  • Too small: Not very many church plants make this mistake, but when they do, it becomes evident almost immediately. Generally, this one occurs because the church moves too soon and does not have the critical mass it needs to be able to afford the right space. The church becomes impatient with the temporary location and doing portable church. The result is a rushed decision to move to a permanent home followed by the reality that the church cannot afford what it really needs. Because the space is too small, the momentum of the church stalls and a whole new set of challenges sets in.
  • Too big: This is the one that far too many church plants stumble on. Growth is intoxicating. It is too easy to think that the growth rate the church is experiencing will continue for a while to come. In thinking through the decision, church leaders get carried away with having enough space and, in the process, inadvertently overestimate the financial capacity of the church. Too much mortgage and too much building to maintain. What happens then is that the need to feed the “building monster” begins to drive way too many discussions and decisions in the life of the church. At a time when the church has plenty of space and needs to grow, financial decisions restrict ministry. It doesn’t take long before this becomes a drag on the church.
  • Too late: This is the one that catches a lot of church plants by surprise. The church has been in temporary space for quite a while. They see the growth and momentum of the church, but fail to take into account how long it will be before they need more space. Then, all of a sudden, it is time to make a move to permanent space. Not just time, but past time. The church has used up all its weekend options and there is still not enough space. If this happens, it won’t take long before momentum stalls – right at the moment the church has been looking forward to for so long. Moving to a permanent home.

Three common mistakes that are all too easy to make. That’s why I believe that moving to a permanent home is the most critical decision a church plant will make after it becomes viable. It affects the church in many ways and for many years. Get this one right and your church plant will have a huge ministry impact for a long time to come!

You have to think it through. You have to consider the magnitude and make sure you have the resources (Luke 14:28-30). But most important of all, you have to pray diligently for God’s leading. This is a critical decision, but it is God’s church. He has a plan for it. Find that plan and you will have made the best decision!

Church Planting – The Most Critical Decision (Part 1)

Church planting is hard. If you’re a planter, I don’t need to tell you that. In terms of experience, you could tell me a lot more than I can tell you.

My perspective is from someone who sees a lot of planters attempt to launch a church. There are so many important decisions along the way – when you’re getting started, when you’re raising initial support, when you’re deciding on the launch team, when you’re looking for a place to launch and so many more.

Recently, I had a conversation with a church planter that reminded me of the most critical decision most church plants will ever make. You’ve raised initial support and launched successfully. You’ve been in your initial location doing the portable church thing for a while. People are serving and a sense of community has begun to permeate the fellowship of the people who are calling the church home. The church has established momentum and has grown. In fact, it has grown so much the church now has to start thinking about a new home. Maybe even a permanent home.

I know it is hard to say any one decision is more critical than another. However, from my perspective, after a church is launched and becomes viable, no decision is more critical than this one – the decision to move from temporary space to a permanent home. Let me explain.

Space affects momentum. Make no mistake about it. The very reason you would even consider moving is because, if you stay where you are too long, it will affect momentum. The scary thing about this decision is that you have to make it before your capacity reaches the point of actually needing it. Waiting too long to make the call to move can be costly.

The former NY Yankee catcher Yogi Berra gets credited with a lot of sayings that seem like they don’t make sense. But one of them, I completely understand. He said it about a restaurant in St. Louis, but he could have said it about a church. He said, “Nobody goes there any more. It’s too crowded.” At first, you’re thinking “Huh?” It sounds like a contradiction but it’s absolutely true. Once people decide your church is too crowded, momentum will stall. Nobody (new) goes there any more – it’s too crowded.

As a church planter, you didn’t get this far only to let that happen.

In the second part of this post, I’ll explain in more detail and cover the implications of the decision to move to a permanent home.

Growing Generosity – The Fundamentals

As we start 2012, I thought it might be good to review the fundamentals of growing generosity. My position allows me to see a lot of situations and I am amazed at the number of church and ministry leaders who do not fully understand even the basics. So, let’s review that here.

What are the basics? It starts with two things:

  • a compelling story
  • an engaged audience.

It’s really that simple – a story and someone to listen. Yes, there are other factors, but it starts with these two. If you don’t have these right, nothing else matters.

The compelling story is the factor that grabs the hearts of those who might be willing to be generous to that church or ministry cause. I see lots of churches that have well designed web sites and communications but the story content is lacking. Too many of the web sites I see look like overgrown electronic bulletin boards. I know churches have to promote activities and events, but not to the exclusion of telling stories of how the church has impacted hurting, hopeless, helpless people. I’m not trying to be derogatory. I just want churches and ministry organizations to see how they are perceived when potentially interested givers try to access information about them and find nothing to grab their hearts.

Here are a couple of churches that have done a good job in balancing the need to provide information about events and activities and also present compelling stories.

Having an engaged audience is just as important. If you have a compelling story, but no one to listen, that doesn’t work, does it? I constantly hear church ministry leaders lament that their people are not as engaged as they could be. Too many times, we want to lay the fault for that at the feet of the people. Busy schedules and increased mobility among church people might be part of the issue. However, churches and ministry organization need to look in the mirror, too. Have you presented the story of your ministry in a compelling enough way to cause your people to want to be engaged inn serving, leading and giving? The stories are there, but have you told them publicly?

Give your church or ministry a quick check up as you start 2012. Are you telling your story well and engaging your people? If you haven’t, I’d recommend you make this one of your top priorities for 2012. In particular, look at your web site and regular communications media. Is there some aspect that would grab the hearts of your people? If not, work on that.

Tell the stories of how your church or ministry organization has impacted the lives of people within your sphere of influence. Your people will be more engaged than ever — and probably more generous, too.

Generosity Is Contagious

If there is one behavior that constantly surprises people, it is the act of generosity. Many of us travel a lot. We tip hotel staff and even help people out that we meet along the way. Sometimes we choose to do this well beyond what we are “expected” to do. Have you ever noticed what happens when you offer a gratuity well beyond the norm? If you haven’t, you should try it some time so you can see what it does to you and to the one receiving it.

Or, here’s another one. Have you ever been in the drive through lane at a fast food restaurant and when you get to the window to pay, you find that the person in front of you paid for your meal? It happened to me one day and my instinctive reaction was to pay for the person behind me. Yes, generosity is contagious.

We don’t do this because we have been blessed with an abundance of financial resources.  Nor do we do it because we want to feel better about ourselves. We love to give because giving is an opportunity to pass along the joy of our faith in Christ.  We share with others in a way that has been modeled for us by other believers and by the God who gave himself for us.

The greatest way to change the world, Gandhi once said, is to be the change we wish to see in the world. This definition gets at one of the key reasons why generosity is contagious.   When we are generous, it creates a transferable experience that leaves both the giver and the recipient different than they were before something was given.  We can stand on the sidelines and watch other people giving generously and be inspired by their actions.  But when we ourselves choose to give freely to others, not only is monetary currency exchanged, there is an intangible currency that is passed from recipient to giver, a currency so powerful that it becomes contagious, inspiring the desire to give in both the one giving and the one receiving.

When a church operates out of the mindset that there are limited resources available for the work of ministry, it operates at less than its full capacity. It places limits on the dreams of the church and its people. It restricts the ability of those in its midst to think beyond what is currently believed to be possible. It minimizes ministry potential to the limits of available resources.  This creates a “scarcity” mindset, rooted in a fear that one day we will run eventually out of resources. Worse, when churches operate with this sense of limited resources, their behavior trickles down to the person in the pew.

During recent times of recession, I have heard many leaders talk about “holding on” to what they had.  Sadly, some congregations embrace their financial fears and stifle their faith.  Instead of asking what God might do in the midst of challenging economic circumstances and dreaming up new opportunities to proclaim Christ, they limited their dreams—and their potential for spiritual growth and community impact.

Churches that practice a contagious level of generosity don’t see or acknowledge limits. They begin with a foundational belief that we serve an all-powerful, all-knowing, and always-present God who creates resources when they don’t exist.  Contagious giving is rooted in faith and it remains open to the impossible.  The paramount question is not, “what do we need to cut to survive?” but “what is God calling us to do next?” If the God we serve is not bound by our human limitations, then he certainly isn’t limited by our currency—or lack of it!

We must remember that when God calls his people to do something, he has already equipped us with the resources we need to do what he asks of us — and that means depending on him and growing in our faith.

Generous Churches Are Led By Generous Pastors

Generous churches are led by generous pastors. It’s possible to be a generous pastor of a non-generous church. But it’s nearly impossible to be a generous church that is not led by a generous pastor. This speaks directly to the level of influence leaders have on their communities. In many cases, the primary symptom of a church struggling to fund its mission and ministry is a pastor who struggles with money.

I understand that as a pastor you didn’t commit your life to professional ministry because you wanted to talk about money. You may have even been trained to believe that talking about subjects such as money, sex, and politics were off limits and potentially offensive. So I understand if you are reluctant to teach or preach on this subject.

In fact, I want to start out by letting you know two things: one, that it’s OK to be uncomfortable talking about money, and two, it’s NOT OK to let that discomfort become an excuse for failing to develop your people in this area.

The truth is that leaders who lead generous churches don’t just talk a good game. They have intentionally trained themselves in the principles of generosity and they openly model a generous life. “Generosity is a value that is modeled at the top level,” says one church leader. “It’s not just something we talk about, it is modeled on all levels—individuals, leaders and as a church.”

The attitude a pastor has about his own finances will have a direct effect on the community the senior leader serves.  Churches we’ve worked with have frequently experienced exceptional growth in giving when the pastor has spoken freely about his own attitudes toward money.  In other words, the posture  a senior leader take in this matter will set the expectation and the tone for others.

Just as Jesus calls us to make a decision to follow him, your orientation toward generosity will inspire others to follow suit or it will distract them from using what they have for the advancement of the kingdom.

The “follow me” principle — a senior leader modeling generosity and challenging the people to come along.

Generous churches are led by generous pastors.

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