Prince Rivers: Rethinking generosity

Many congregations have less money coming in now than five years ago. But in the wake of a double-dip recession, can churches still create new ways to give the money they do have?

Churches, like many I know, provide annual financial assistance to a variety of charitable organizations. Agencies receive a contribution from a church for years with no questions asked. That is, unless something goes wrong -- like a near-double-dip recession and astronomical unemployment rates. When something does go wrong, a church often makes funding cuts across the board to the organizations it supports. Leaders pull back in a reactionary effort to save money, all in the name of “fiscal responsibility” or “good stewardship.”

What else can we do?

We are the people of God, for starters. We can choose not to operate from a deficit mentality. It is undeniable that many congregations have less money coming in now than five years ago. But I wonder if churches can create new and better possibilities to spend the money they do have.

Philanthropic leaders since the 90s have expressed a growing concern that grantees produce outcomes and make an impact. Foundations have always cared about demonstrating that their money was being invested wisely. But today their concern increases in part because we are no longer in the era of record breaking IPOs and soaring annual returns. Program officers and executives more closely scrutinize agencies they support to answer at least two basic questions: Is the grantee producing positive results, and is the program making a difference that would not be possible without the foundation’s support?

We all know that the pressure to crank out another attention-grabbing program weighs down our ability to take time for purposeful, intentional discernment. Philanthropic organizations may have a thing or two to teach congregations about using money to create deep, sustainable change.

What if a portion of or even the entire mission budget was administered as grants instead of charity (I realize many denominations expect churches to pay assessments)? A church may not want to use the same evaluative criteria as a foundation, but it could expect organizations who seek financial support to articulate clearly the merits of their programs, what they have accomplished in the past and what they hope to do in the future. Instead of focusing on cutting back, we can change the focus to giving more in those places that are the most fruitful and hold the most promise for the mission of the church.

We talk about stewardship, but in practice most churches already make charitable contributions. This is not to say that money is not being put to good use. But isn’t stewardship less about making a contribution and more about making an investment (Matthew 25:14ff)?

Contributions feel like arm’s length transactions. Our coins rattle around in the bottom of a red kettle as we rush inside the shopping mall to escape the frigid air in the parking lot. We don’t even break our stride on the way out to our car because we have already made our contribution for the season.

An investment is a purposeful deposit with the expectation of a significant return. The vision of stewardship in the kingdom of God suggests that we are called to make purposeful deposits in communities, families and individuals with the hope of significant returns. Our investments may not be as big as they once were, but perhaps they can be much deeper if we clear out the clutter.

Many congregations are already using innovative approaches to mission. More should follow in their footsteps. We are leading churches in times of extreme financial uncertainty, but we do not have to remain stuck in the patterns that worked well in the past.

Prince Raney Rivers is pastor of United Metropolitan Missionary Baptist Church in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.