The Lord Loveth a Cheerful…

By Derek Olsen

During my time in and around churches I’ve noticed two general strategies when it comes to stewardship time. The first strategy is outright begging. The clergy and vestry make a pitch for money to keep the lights on, the building heated, and to generally keep the place running. The main motivator here seems to be guilt.

The second strategy is the notion of giving as a Scriptural command/spiritual discipline. We get it from both directions: from one side, Scripture tells us to give our first-fruits to God, ten percent being the suggested donation; on the other, giving is a way of liberating ourselves from bondage to our possessions and engenders a spirit of gratitude towards God and neighbors by redistributing the good things we have received from them. Personally, I like this one better than the first. Still, being a Gen-X/Y guy I always get a little suspicious when some dude stands up and tells me to give to God—but it just happens to be heading for his bank account… The first way seems demeaning, the second—while the message is true—comes across as being self-seeking. Were someone to stand up, tell me to give to God and suggest other ministries who should receive it, I’d probably take the call more seriously…but that won’t help the parish budget, will it? Is there a better way to do this? Is there a way to talk about, to do, stewardship that moves beyond these complications?

I certainly hope so.

During my time in grad school, I’ve kept bread on the table by working in non-profit development—the industry euphemism for fundraising. I’ve written grants, drafted mass mailings, and have spent countless hours glued to various kinds of databases supporting my development colleagues. In that time, I’ve gained an appreciation for some different strategies of fundraising than the usual two that church-folk tend to use. Here are some things to get you thinking about your church’s stewardship campaign—whether you’re putting it together or not.

Effective philanthropy isn’t about asking for money, it’s about linking passions. The man who taught me the business was fond of repeating a line he attributed to Laurence Rockefeller: “In good philanthropy, everybody wins.” To understand this proverb and apply it to the church we need to break it down: first—who’s “everybody”?

The non-profit world tends to talk in terms of three spheres: donors, the organization, and the service population. That is, those who give the money, those who use the money, and those who receive the services. For each of these three to “win,” they all have to be receiving the maximum benefit of the gift. The service population has to receive the full benefit whether that’s having their needs met or having their horizons expanded or stretched in some way. The organization wins when it makes an active contribution to its field whether that’s healing, education, art appreciation or a hundred other possibilities. Donors win when they don’t feel like they’ve been manipulated or extorted. Donors win when they don’t feel like they’ve pitched a shovel full of money into a big black hole. Donors win when they can see the tangible results of investing in their passion.

Because that’s what it’s about: investing in a passion. Good philanthropy happens when an organization provides an opportunity for donors to invest in something that they are passionate about—and to see that they’ve made a difference. Thus, our job in the development business is connecting people with common passions. I learned early on that it’s no use spending staff time and resources to convince someone with a passion for curing the cancer that killed their mother to make a major gift in support of postmodern sculpture, or to extract a gift for healthcare services from someone focused on global warming. It’s not that all of these aren’t worthy causes or that some connection couldn’t eventually be made, rather, it’s about the synergistic effect when passions meet and match to make a difference.

So—how does this connect to the church? In a sense we’ve got an unusual situation because we’re the donors, the organization, and—to a degree—the service population as well. And we need to keep all three pieces in focus. Stewardship is not about the clergy and the vestry against the congregation—though it sometimes feels that way. The clergy and the vestry really aren’t the organization—we all are. Are you owning that and claiming that?

So what is the purpose of the organization—where’s the passion? On one level this question ought to have a very easy answer: To transform its members according to the mind of Christ through worship, education, and action, spurring them to invite the whole world into the Good News of what God has done for us in Christ. But practically—what does this look like on the ground, on your ground? Take a minute to think through these questions:

1. What is your particular local congregation’s passion(s) as it relates to the overall picture sketched above?

2. Can you see the tangible evidence of your congregation’s passions?

3. Can others—both inside and outside the congregation—see that evidence too?

Now—here’s the kicker…

4. In light of these reflections, is this congregation a good investment of time and money for those who want to see those passions change the world around them?

It doesn’t matter if you’re a priest, a vestry member or a regular person in the pew, these are the questions to be thinking about—now. Not in September or October when “stewardship season” is around the corner. They’re the questions to think about now. Is your congregation currently not a good investment? Now’s the time to do something about it! Does it do good work, but it’s still the best-kept secret on the block? Now’s the time to spread the word! When stewardship season rolls around will you find them begging for money again, or inviting investments in an organization that pays spiritual dividends? When the passion is vibrant and alive, when it’s visibly at work changing lives, feeding the poor, comforting the disconsolate, that’s when good philanthropy is happening. When disciples are being formed, when the year of God’s favor is being enacted, that’s when the Gospel is happening.

Derek Olsen is a database programmer and an adjunct professor at Emory’s Candler School of Theology where he teaches in homiletics, liturgics, and New Testament. His reflections on life, liturgical spirituality, and being a Gen-X dad appear at Haligweorc.


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