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Quick answers to some giving questions

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–The year is drawing close, and churches are thinking about end-of-the-year giving campaigns. Ben Stroup is a marketing coordinator in LifeWay Christian Resources’ Christian Stores division, but he calls himself the “chief broker of opportunity” because he helps pastors change the conversation from “What do we have to cut to survive?” to “What does God want us to do next?”

Stroup agreed to answer a few questions related to giving in churches and some of the trends he’s seen in 2009.

Q: In light of the current economic situation, is giving different this year than it has been in the past? For instance, are people giving more to benevolence funds that go to individuals and social works than they are to the general church budget?

Ben Stroup: Charitable giving, on a whole, is expected to be off by about 10 percent. People, on a whole, believe they have “less.” Whether that’s true, perception is reality.

In times of failing economies, people tend to direct their available funds first to human services that address things like hunger and homelessness because the need appears more pressing and the result seems more tangible.

Within the life of the church, there is a shift taking place that threatens “general giving” as we know it. The shift was already taking place; the economy simply accelerated it. I believe it stems from a lack of trust. The traditional message is “You give to God, and the church will decide what to do with it.” Where this fails is that the church often provides nothing in the way of a quantified report showing the measurable ministry impact that resulted from its spending. Contrast this to many other nonprofits that do this well.

We tend to measure churches by how well they stay within their budgets, not whether they achieve results like we might be more inclined to do with businesses. Thus, the level of trust needed to capture the heart of the giver is eroded. People want to be involved in co-creating an “investment portfolio” that defines what Kingdom ventures will be funded with the resources God has entrusted to us and provides a metric by which to judge the effectiveness or return on investment. If the church does not adapt to this shift, it risks losing the dollar of the person in the pew who may decide to fund another organization’s budget.

Q: What are churches doing to encourage people to continue giving in spite of the difficult economic times for many members?

Stroup: Sermon series. Small group or Sunday School studies. Classes related to personal money management. Encouraging faithful giving through personal testimonies and specific, direct challenges. Ministering to high-capacity givers. Use of systematic giving tools such as online giving, offering envelopes, contribution statements and special appeals. These are just a few of the strategies churches employ to ensure that funding levels exist to accomplish the ministry.

The church leader has to talk about it and must make “the ask.” If he doesn’t, the local hospital or university will. Chances are those places already have.

The churches that are thriving in today’s economic climate are those casting a vision that is larger than life, connecting with the passion of the people in the pews and helping those people accomplish something they couldn’t do on their own. People tend to give to organizations that embody their core values and are staffed with leaders they know, like and trust. What the economy did to many churches was expose a lack of conversation and strategic disciple-making efforts in the areas of stewardship and generosity.

Q: What are some ways churches (and/or parents) can help establish habits of giving among younger generations?

Stroup: There are three ways parents and church leaders can influence the next generation in the area of giving. One, talk about it. It needs to come from the pulpit, church teachers and parents. If the church is silent, then the only source shaping the mind and habits of the next generation is the culture.

Two, practice it. This is especially true for parents in how they influence their children. Your children need to hear you talk about why you give, and they need to see you do it. It reinforces what you are telling them.

Three, utilize some type of visual participation. Place a penny jar in a high traffic area in the home, use offering envelopes, whatever. Children, especially younger children, are not usually abstract in their thinking. Any visual representation — something they can touch, feel or do — opens their minds and further explains what you are saying and, hopefully, doing. As children become youth, the opportunity arises to talk about things like biblical money management, so they can see God has a plan for 100 percent of the time, talent and treasure he has given us — not just a 10 percent tax.

Q: Why is giving important in the life of a Christian?

Stroup: Giving is an outward sign of an inward commitment. Thus, a giving problem is really a spiritual problem. “Passing the plate” describes the average American Christian’s view toward giving as “discretionary obligation.” We hear from the pulpit and read in our Bibles that “Jesus is Lord,” but we are reluctant to give up the rights to what we think we possess.

I think it goes even further than that, however. Built into the ethos of America is the “rags to riches” story telling us we can become anything we want if we are willing to work for it. This poses a problem for Christians who subscribe to this idea, in that when they do achieve, they believe they have ownership of what they have achieved. This is in stark contrast to the profession and practice of the Lordship of Christ.

Church leaders have the responsibility to cultivate a generous spirit in the lives of the people they serve by moving them along the spiritual continuum from “all that I have, am and will ever become is mine, and I’ll decide what God gets” to “all that I have, am and will ever become is a gift from God, to be invested into building the Kingdom.” Giving is important because it holds us accountable in the practice of what we profess to believe.

Q: Is the method that people use to give changing? Is the offering plate still the primary way people give or are you noticing a rise in online giving to churches?

Stroup: Online giving is growing faster than any other channel. While it is the fastest growing channel, people who gave online only represented 9 percent of all charitable donors, which represented 11 percent of total charitable giving in 2008. It is clear that technology and the acceptance of technology is driving the use and practice of online giving. Further, the regularity of church attendance and the way people are paid is shifting. Thus, the idea that we can fund our churches through weekly tithes and offerings is quickly fading as a singular strategy to achieve sustainable funding. Many churches are looking for alternative or supplemental ways to fund the ministry God has called them to accomplish.

Q: What should people know about giving and taxes?

Stroup: Well, I’m not a tax adviser, but I do know that all donations must be received by Dec. 31 to be deductible from the current year’s tax liability. Online giving helps keep the “window of giving opportunity” open as long as possible, allowing the member to make the donation even if no one is available to receive the donation on Dec. 31.

I encourage churches to put a notice on their Web sites with a link to the place members may donate online. That information also should be included in printed publications such as bulletins, newsletters, etc. December is a big month for giving in most churches, especially those ministering to a high net worth demographic, as many of those givers are receiving year-end bonuses, quarterly dividends, commissions, etc.
Compiled by staff at LifeWay Christian Resources. For more information about stewardship, visit Stroup’s blog at churchgivingmatters.com.

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