Problem giving

By Ronald E. Keener

“People don’t have a giving problem; they have a giving to their church problem. Some simply never developed that habit.” People increasingly choose designated giving.

I once attended a Lutheran ELCA church and I still receive The Lutheran magazine, one of the best among denominations. Its editor wrote about the trends in the ELCA’s statistical reports, many of them on a downward line when it comes to funding. It’s not an uncommon story for most denominations.

But it was the last sentence that caught my attention, when he spoke of “a decline in undesignated giving represents one of the top challenges facing the entire ELCA.” When you parse those words, it’s a pretty disturbing observation. “Donations sent directly to causes and campaigns,” he also said, “result in less money moving on as mission support to synods and the churchwide organization.”

“To say that undesignated giving is under fire is an understatement at best,” says Ben Stroup, an author and writer on stewardship, in commenting to Church Executive. “It seems that church leaders are the last to recognize the shift in giving taking place among the people in the pew. When Passing the Plate (Oxford, 2008) announced that 20 percent of American Christians give nothing to the church, why are we surprised that undesignated giving amounts are falling among regular churchgoers? The church may be losing ground on traditional giving techniques, but people have not stopped giving.”

It wasn’t until the Industrial Revolution, he says, when people were paid at a predictable frequency, and the New Deal, when labor laws were enacted to protect income and jobs. This created a sustainable income stream for churches who quickly adapted their tactics to match the consistent income streams of their parishioners. Such a change is taking place again.

Stroup says, “Given the tumultuous economic realities for everyone, this ‘new normal’ has created a more empowered giver who is asking more questions, expecting more say in how funds are used, and are more demanding of the results. This is the antithesis of the traditional church’s approach to undesignated giving which believes the giver gives to God, while the leader disburses the funds with limited accountability from the person in the pew.”

Well, that rather describes my wife and I in our giving pattern. We make up our minds each week whether our offering will go to operating, building, or benevolence. And other weeks we also give to BGEA, Samaritan’s Purse, Open Doors and Voice of the Martyrs.

Stroup knocks it out of the ballpark when he observes: “People don’t have a giving problem; they have a giving to their church problem.

Some simply never developed that habit. Their parents didn’t do it. They’ve never done it.

“The bottom line is this: American Christians see their money as theirs, not God’s. This fundamental shift in perspective moves the decision from a disciplined response informed by principles of stewardship to arbitrary generosity acted upon in the midst of an emotional experience.

This puts churches in direct competition with traditional nonprofits, who are – quite frankly – more skilled at talking about money, connecting dollars to impact, and calling people to action. In the absence of the practice and belief in storehouse tithing, undesignated giving disappears,” says Stroup.

“The challenge for church leaders is to borrow the time-tested techniques of the traditional nonprofit world and translate that into the language and practice of the church,” he says. (See Stroup’s article on capital campaigns in this issue too.)

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