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The difficulty of giving: Developing a system that funds the work

By Ronald E. Keener

Ben Stroup works with LifeWay Christian Resources to assist churches with stewardship and giving, and he has given himself the title of Chief Broker of Opportunity. “I help churches bring into reality the ministry God has called them to accomplish by ensuring they have the ability to fully fund that vision,” he says.

“The difficult part for church leaders is rarely identifying the direction of the church, but rather how to develop a system that funds the work it has been given to accomplish. If the church doesn’t make a compelling ‘ask,’ it risks losing the dollars God intended to fund Kingdom work.”
Stroup has written a brief book, Church Giving Matters: More Money Really Does Mean More Ministry (CrossBooks, 2009), and we asked him a few questions about his work:

What are you seeing among churches after a year of being in this recession?

Church leaders are more open than ever to the conversation of sustainable funding. Many are realizing that their ability to sustain multi-million dollar budgets and complex ministry expectations must also include a funding plan to ensure a broad giving base, and that multiple streams of revenue exist to hedge against unforeseen instability or roadblocks such as what we are experiencing in the midst of this tough economic climate.

For those who are experiencing hard times, how do you counsel those churches about their stewardship and generosity plans?

Jim Collins in Good to Great talks about the brutal facts. Organizations are made up of a series of complex systems. If an organization is not meeting a goal or achieving an intended result such as fully funded ministry budgets, the first task is to understand what’s working and what isn’t. A series of qualitative and quantitative inquiries will reveal strengths and deficiencies.

The next step is to continue to do what’s working while addressing what’s not. The second part is what’s most difficult because it usually results in a lot of work that leads to change. Analyzing giving data cuts through “preacher talk” and speaks directly to measurable impact. If a church leader is willing to face the brutal facts of a failed system (not a failed leader), then there is enough humility to lead his church to practice stewardship and cultivate a culture of generosity.

When you speak about “developing a system that funds the work,” just what do you mean beyond weekly tithes and offerings?

The basics beyond weekly tithes and offerings are: special giving opportunities (often centered around a large church-driven mission or ministry project), capital campaigns, major gift development, estate tithing and online giving. Consider the example of Jerry Falwell who during his life took out a special life insurance policy in the amount equal to the debt of Liberty University.

Upon his untimely death, the University was absolved of all its debt service which meant those funds were now able to be redirected to expanding the ministry capacity of the largest evangelical university on the east coast. A system considers underlying principles and parts and then it is tooled according to the anticipated outcome and unique circumstances or expectations.

From your vantage point, where are the bright lights in today’s stewardship scene? Where are you most disappointed?

While I think the term generosity is often misunderstood and misapplied, I am encouraged that this is a hot topic of conversation. I’m even beginning to see churches employ “Generosity Pastors” which tells me that churches and church leaders believe the practice of being generous with what God has freely given to us is essential and vital to the health and long-term viability of the ministry and the organization that facilitates that ministry. On the other hand, I continue to be surprised at a church leader’s ability to willfully ignore the subject of ministry funding and believe that if they preach “good enough” and pray “hard enough” the funding will magically appear.

What’s the hardest thing about tithing for people to understand and apply?

The book, Passing the Plate (Oxford, 2008) calls it “discretionary obligation.” I think the biggest obstacle to tithing in American Christianity is the American myth that all we have is a result of our hard work, our talent, and our ability to create success. Thus, what we have is “ours” to possess and manage for “our” benefit.

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