Rendering unto God
It might even backfire with people who feel their personal finances are troubled. “The difficulty is that people are saying, ‘You want crisis? I’ve got crisis,’” Ronsvalle said.
Stressing more systematic giving, such as tithing, prompts mixed responses. Even the word tithing -- the tradition of dedicating a set portion of one’s income, as much as 10 percent, for church -- may have negative connotations, and some prefer terms like “proportional giving” or “graduated tithing.”
Whichever words are used, the concept always will include an aspect of sacrifice because sacrifice is integral to Christianity. The key in tough times, Kruse said, is to emphasize general principles about stewardship and to respond to each particular situation pastorally. Congregants never should be made to feel guilty if they have to reduce their donations. Giving out of guilt only induces resentment, and it hardly makes for a “cheerful giver” who is donating out of thankfulness and the love of God and neighbor, he said.
Kruse recalled how he and his wife decided to increase their giving at a time when they were going from two incomes to one. But they decided they wouldn’t feel legalistically bound to a specific amount, and would reduce it if that amount caused them genuine hardship. “One of the things we said to each other was that if this turns out to be a hardship, the gospel trumps the law,” he said.
Grounded in the mission
Kruse and others also agreed on two points that help frame stewardship for Christians of any income level. One is to ground giving in the church’s mission, talking specifically about the way in which the donors’ money will be used.
“I always say that the starting point is to be clear what your mission is,” Robinson said. “And it turns out that not everybody is clear about it, which is part of the problem. But when you are clear about it, you bring this confidence and passion and joy to advancing that mission.”
“Money follows mission,” she added. This focus on mission will shift the language of the conversation from “fundraising” to identity and creativity.
“Suddenly stewardship isn’t regarded just as proper care of what has been entrusted to you, but also a recognition and proper care of the potential at hand, and bringing new life into fruition,” Robinson said. “There has to be that constant generative evaluation and assessment. That’s the difference between maintenance and mission. Maintenance is so seductive and easy, because people are tired.”
The second point is to direct the focus of giving to helping others, whether inside or outside one’s own church.
In the current crisis, many economists are reaching back to the Great Depression for instructive parallels, Hudnut-Beumler said.
In the stock market crisis of the 1930s and the energy crisis of the 1970s, American congregations initially stuck with tried-and-true fundraising efforts, but they weren’t effective, he said.
Every organization has its own needs and philosophy around money. These resources offer some basic strategies for navigating the financial crisis.
- Faith & Leadership Resources on Money
- National Association of Church Business Administration - 10 Stewardship Issues Every Church Leader Should Consider in 2009
- National Council of Nonprofits - Economic Crisis: Strategies for Nonprofits to Consider
- The Chronicle of Philanthropy - Raising Money in Hard Times
Simply asking people to put more money in the collection plate or raise their pledges didn’t work. What did work -- and what impressed Hudnut-Beumler during his research -- was how churches quickly shifted gears. In the 1930s cash was so tight that churches started food banks and encouraged bartering, or turned their halls into shelters, anything to get folks through the hard times. “The solidarity and love that came out of those kinds of church experiences in small towns all across this country is part of that whole ‘greatest generation’ ethos,” he said.
Similarly, in the 1970s many urban churches began looking at their buildings not as structures “to be preserved for Sunday morning” but as multi-use facilities that would open their doors for social programs the other six days of the week. By reaching out to others, congregations saved -- and transformed -- themselves.
“What tends to work pastorally,” said Hudnut-Beumler, who is a Presbyterian minister, “is to talk up what we do well in sunshine and in rain. What the budget does is allow us to collectively contribute to acts of mercy, justice and hospitality on behalf of God and the people of God right here and now.”
The irony is that mission can become clearer in a crisis, and undiscovered resources emerge to fulfill that mission. “And sometimes if you can discover your soul as a congregation you’ll have enough between some continued giving and human resources you weren’t tapping into before because everyone was busy,” he said. “Then you’ll have enough total resources to nourish the soul that sustains the body of the church.”