The ‘Mom and Pop church’ battles ‘financial Walmart’ today

By Ronald E. Keener

Radical change is not an option, says J. Clif Christopher, speaking about a church’s financial strategies. “It is an absolute necessity if we want to survive and especially thrive.” Christopher has written a new book,  Whose Offering Plate Is It?: New Strategies for Financial Stewardship (Abingdon, 2010), a sequel to his earlier Not Your Parents’ Offering Plate.

“Donors are far more sophisticated today than they ever have been. This is partially because they are being solicited much more than ever by non-profits that constantly study how to succeed. Donors have thus gotten spoiled by seeing what effective communication looks like and feels like,” says Christopher, president of Horizons Stewardship Co., Cabot, AR.

“The church has found itself much like the Mom and Pop grocery that suddenly finds itself up against a big national chain. The national chain did extensive research and found out that persons liked great variety in cheese and thus they stocked more than 100 different kinds. The Mom and Pop just kept saying ‘we sell cheese,’ and wondering why they were losing customers. The church must learn how to compete in a new world just like Mom and Pop will have to if they are going to stay in business,” he says.

“Seventy-three percent of donors say that measurable results are what they want to see from the charities they support. How many churches are reporting measurable results that are positive and life-changing? Most of them simply say that they are going broke and need more money. Of course, once they learn that they should be reporting positive measurable results to their donors, they actually have to being producing those results,” Christopher says.

How serious is the shortfall in giving in churches?

It is extremely serious. Just 30 years ago the church was getting well over 50 percent of all charitable donations. Today they are getting about 33 percent.

“How did we get in this mess?” your first chapter asks.

The mess is that most churches in America are doing far more maintenance than they are ministry. According to the folks at Empty Tomb the percentage of our income that we choose to give to the church is continuing to shrink and the amount we give to missions is actually down to less than half what it used to be. We have become a church that is increasingly turning inward to stay alive while the world wants to give to those who are outward focused. For the last decade our message has been for donors to just “trust us” and give while we do maintenance and we promise to someday start really changing lives again. They trusted for a while, but those days are rapidly coming to an end. The recession has only hastened this response.

You make a lot of churches “learning to compete.” Why so?

I make a lot of it because our donors now expect it. By competing I mean that we have to sell ourselves as worthy of the gift just like all the other charities have to sell themselves. When a household gets 10 solid solicitations at Christmas time sharing stories of how they are each changing lives and their church just says, “we have a major shortfall in our budget and we hope you will give more,” we are not competing and we are not going to get the gift.

What is the place of generosity over and above stewardship?

I don’t know how you can separate the two. A true steward is generous because he fully understands that he is simply a caretaker of what is

God’s and the God who gave up his only son is incredibly generous.

What should a pastor do when “times are bad” about giving and support?

We must tell the truth. Share where things are but at the same time share how effective you have been already and then how much more effective you could be if more support were given. Again, people do not want to just help keep a door open at a hospital, college, youth center or church. They want to give where they believe their investment will bear fruit.

What about capital campaigns?

Capital campaigns are not best determined by what is said in The Wall Street Journal. They should be born out of prayer and hearing God’s call for that congregation of believers. Vision will control what happens in a capital campaign far more than the status of the economy.


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