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Creating Congregations of Generous People

Michael Durall argues that annual pledge drives inadvertently perpetuate low-level and same-level giving in congregations.

Creating Congregations of Generous People
Notes by Dr. Steve Ramp.

Durall is a stewardship consultant. Fundraising asks people to give money, meets budgets and stunts spiritual growth. Stewardship encourages people to lead generous lives, strengthens faith and impacts the world. The difference is huge. He argues that traditional, top-down pledge drives inadvertently reinforce low-giving and same-level giving and thereby limit the spiritual growth of members. He advocates a "pews-up" approach that takes seriously peoples' attitudes and motivations about giving money to the church and invites them to become generous people.

Traditional Annual Fund Drives are Ineffective Ways to Practice Stewardship Because:

1) The leaders often lack training and understanding;

2) The response is predictable: leaders (5%) and pillars (20%) contribute 75% of the money;

3) The drive harangues the people who already gave and fails to move the non-givers;

4) Campaign leaders are reluctant to make demands or report bad news;

5) The announced results overstate the generosity of two thirds of the church (averages mislead);

6) Most campaigns are shrouded in secrecy. When secrecy reigns, giving levels remain low;

7) Keeping pledge amounts secret also reinforces same-level giving (don't know what to ask for);

8) Constant turnover in leadership usually insures weak results. Most people hate asking for money and pass the job on ASAP.

Stewardship Literature is Not Always Helpful Because:

1) It is either couched in biblical language that appeals mainly to older Christians,

2) Or it is how to run a campaign, which is overly complex.

3) It assumes a one-size fits all strategy and does not recognize that people give for different reasons, no two congregations are exactly alike, and change occurs that needs to be taken into account. Durall suggests a three-pronged approach: scripture for some; an investment in mission for others; a call to character (what kind of people do we want to become) for others.

Leadership is the key to creating a climate for giving. Successful drives require hearty souls who believe the money is out there and that the more people give the more they will grow in their spiritual lives. Pledge drive leaders need to be enthusiastic about their role in the congregation. They need ample doses of persistence, stamina, patience, and determination to see the job through (p. 19).

Identifying and Overcoming Obstacles to Increased Giving:

1) The 80/20 rule says that 80% of the congregation will give 20% of the money. This seems like a place to bear down, but efforts to energize this group seem doomed. Concentrate on the top 20% if you want to grow the top line.

2) Kennon Callahan says money follows mission. Clearly state the vision and mission and the money will follow. Douglas John Hall disagrees and says money should not be viewed instrumentally, but giving should be an end in itself, the highest form of the Christian life. I'd put my money on Callahan.

3) One consultant will not take a contract for less than five years because that's how long it takes to change the giving culture of a congregation.

What can Churches ask Parishioners to Give?

1) Most churches fail to get specific, especially with new members, who then feel jarred when it's time for the annual campaign. This is a very common mistake, says Durall.

2) Most Mainline churches are low commitment churches. Durall says they have much to learn from high commitment churches regarding how they instill a significant degree of commitment, service and generosity. People in high commitment churches "believe that God has given them everything they have. Not only that, God lets them keep 90% of it. What a deal! Keeping a large share of God's blessings stands in stark contrast to the attitude in many mainline congregations that charitable giving implies having to give up something; and thus we may be worse off than before" (p. 34).

3) Charitable giving should make some difference in how we as religious people experience life from day to day. If you are simply writing a check at the end of the month and forgetting about it, you are not giving enough. If you are simply throwing some money into the plate, your giving has too little meaning either for you or for your church (p. 38).

The church budget usually provides no reason for generous giving and countless excuses for token giving (p.39). A pledge drive organized around the budget will focus on incremental increases over the previous year, which perpetuates low-level and same-level giving year after year.

Giving to a budget is not inspiring. Giving to the budget defeats the whole idea of generosity as a fundamental religious principle, of returning to God some proportion of what we have been given and building a stronger faith. It doesn't matter what the operating budget is (p. 40). Durall says you should do the budget AFTER the pledge drive, not before.

Lyle Schaller says, "Many churches tend to recreate yesterday" (The Middle-Sized Church, quoted by Durall, p. 41).

Money Matters: Large Scale 1993 Study of 625 Churches in 5 Denominations: Assemblies of God, Baptist, Roman Catholic, ELCA, PC(USA)

5 facts about giving:

1. 63% of all philanthropy in US goes to churches. Very stable.

2. Church giving is in a downward trend: 3.1% of household income in 1968 to 2.5% in 1992.

3. Huge denominational differences exist: Mormons give 7.5%, Assemblies of God 5.4%, Southern Baptists 3.2%, Presbyterians 2.5%, ELCA 1.5%, RC 1.2%, Unitarians .8% (see chart on p. 12). In general, the more sect-like the denomination (clearly distinctive from prevailing culture), the higher the giving percentage. Very consistent finding.

4. The 80/20 Rule applies: 20% of the people give 80% of the money. The bottom 20% in each denomination gave nothing; the next quintile gave $22-26/year; the 3rd quintile gave $131-132/year; the 4th quintile gave $319 (RC), 380 (Mainline), $459 (Other Protestants); but the big difference came in the top 20%: $1047 (RC), $1585 (Mainline), $2581 (Other Protestants).

5. More money is being spent locally, less on missions and denominational projects.


Michael Durall is principal of the Common Wealth Consulting Group in Belmont, MA and publisher of the quarterly newsletter Charitable Giving.

Author information was updated as of the article's post date. Author profiles may not reflect author's current employment or location.

Image credit: © Ignacio García Losa ( via Flickr. Used by permission.

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