Church Stewardship is Weird

Not too long ago, I finished writing my first book. Since that manuscript is now in the editing process, some thoughts that I already had about a second book are coming back to the front of my mind. The idea that I’m toying with for that book stems from this idea: church stewardship is weird.

I’ve sat through a lot of church stewardship campaigns. I’ve helped run some of them. And, in general, they have a pretty simple argument. First, they point out that God has entrusted wealth to (some) members of the church. Second, they tell those people that they should be responsible with the wealth that God has given to them. Within the church, and within Christian theology, neither of these points are controversial. These ideas have a long history and a strong position in Christian thought.

Church stewardship campaigns add another step to this argument: they argue that one important way that church members can be responsible with the gifts that God has given to them is to give a portion of those gifts to the church. 

Now, that’s not a bad point to add. And I know that there are churches who do a good job. But, in my experience, where a lot of churches fail is that they don’t make a case for why giving to the church—and, really, to a specific congregation—is a responsible use of the wealth that God has entrusted to the care of church members. Church stewardship campaigns are too often nothing more than statements that good Christians give to their churches.

These churches are teaching a very simple principle: churches are entitled to benefit from the good stewardship of their members.

And every year, churches across the United States see fewer pledge cards turned in, less money pledged, and tighter budgets.

Here’s what’s weird about church stewardship. In the church, ‘stewardship’ is really just another word for fundraising. And it’s usually a word for fundraising-that’s-not-very-effective. In the rest of the nonprofit sector, stewardship is part of a larger fundraising process. It’s the part of that process where the organization proves itself to a donor. It tells the donor that the gift was received, that the organization was glad to receive it, that it’s being put to work as the donor intended, and that it’s having the effect that the donor wanted it to. Thank you notes, annual reports, photos and videos of the people who the organization helps, statistical reports, and all of those things that say, “Hey, thank you for giving to us, here’s how we’re going the things you wanted us to do,” are examples of good stewardship.

And here’s why that matters. The most basic principle of fundraising is that people give because someone who they trust asks them to. A donor might make that first gift because a friend asks them to. For example, someone might say, “For my birthday, I’d like you to give to this thing.” But now the ball is in the organization’s court. The second gift will only come if the organization can show the donor that their first gift—no matter the reason that they gave it—was a good investment; it did the thing that the donor wanted it to do.

And the way that we show the donor that their gift did the thing that they wanted it to do is stewardship. An organization might just show you how happy a donor made their friend, or tell them about the puppies they saved, or show them the person who moved from the street into an apartment. The organization looks at what the donor wanted to accomplish and demonstrates that their gift accomplished that thing. And when that organization does a good job of that, it gets more gifts and bigger gifts.

Stewardship in the wider world is more-or-less the opposite of stewardship in a lot of churches. As I wrote above, in churches, stewardship campaigns teach the principles that churches are entitled to benefit from the good stewardship of their members. In other organizations—and especially in organizations that are successful fundraisers—stewardship is based on the principle that donors are entitled to benefit from the good stewardship of the organizations. Even if that benefit is just the warm fuzzies.

Church stewardship is weird because it’s backwards. And turning it around can make all the difference for a church that’s struggling to raise money. Instead of asking members to show the church that they are good stewards, we need to show members that we are good stewards. And once people know that we’re a good place to put their money, they’ll be happy to give.

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