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  • Two groups of members

    In every congregation there are two groups of members:

    • Those who make financial contributions to the church’s ministry.
    • Those who don’t.

    When I refer to people who don’t make a financial contribution, I’m talking about households whose offering envelopes are unused or virtually empty all year long.

    In my experience the second group comprises 30-50% of the people on the membership roll of a typical Lutheran congregation.  In one large congregation whose record I examined, the first group of members comprised 50% of the total roll but contributed a total of 99% of the offering receipts.  The second group of 50% contributed the remaining 1%.  That’s what I call a negligible contribution.

    From my limited sample I conclude that smaller congregations have a smaller proportion of non-givers on their roll, but the percentage is still substantial.

    What can we say about this phenomenon?

    1. For some people, an extremely small amount of money may be all they can afford to give.  It would be a mistake to draw other conclusions about their reasons for giving so little.  People in this category are possibly ashamed of their poverty and genuinely wish they could give more.  They may feel excluded from many of the activities of the congregation because they lack transportation, suitable clothing or the resources even to bring a dish to the pot-luck dinner.   They may be single moms, people living on government benefits, people with disabilities, etc.
    2. Most people in our churches who give nothing are not in the category described above.
    3. Our definition of membership is not the same as you find in all other denominations.  Our practices tend to be somewhat relaxed.  We keep people’s names on a membership list for reasons  of sentimentality, loyalty to family members, political expediency or simple interia, long after they’ve moved away or stopped participating.  Although it makes some of our statistics look bad in relation to other churches, there’s nothing inherently wrong with this practice, except . . .
    4. Our model congregation bylaws state that a member in good standing “supports the church with offerings”.  And only members in good standing have the privilege of attending, speaking, participating and voting in congregational meetings.  It is not a common occurrence, but I have chaired meetings of a congregation in deep and vicious conflict where it mattered a great deal who had a legitimate claim on those privileges.  Trust me, you don’t want members who do not meet the definition of good standing at such meetings.  The only way to avoid this is to follow the bylaws fairly and consistently.
    5. It is a mistake to communicate the same message to all members.  You need to segment your audience and customize your message to the circumstances of each sub-group.  There is no point asking non-givers to tithe.  The theme of all communication with the non-givers should be inviting them to return to full participation in the life of the congregation.  Those people are your primary target for evangelism.   Some of them might even be receptive to your message, providing they haven’t left the church full of bitterness.  When in doubt, keep segmenting and customizing.
    6. Even habitual non-participants can occasionally surprise you with a gift — sometimes even a very large one.  Congregations need to make it as easy as possible for people to give, through as many channels as you can think of.  I have a small collection of true stories about congregations who have received unexpected gifts from people who had only the slightest connection with their church, or who had not crossed the threshold in decades.  In the cases that come to mind most readily, each of the gifts received from three unlikely donors was in excess of $500,000.  Each of those congregations now has a large endowment fund.  Let people know that you would welcome a donation to your ministry, and you might be surprised by the results.
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  • Why people give

    Somebody sent me a link to an article on the Ministry Matters website.  It’s by J. Clif Christopher, author of Not Your Parents’ Offering Plate.  Click here to find the article.

    Don’t be put off by the article’s title, “Rich Church, Poor Church”, which happens to be the title of his new book.  It contains a brief explanation of the reasons people choose to make donations to a particular charity (and not others):

    • A Belief in the Mission of the Institution
    • Regard for Staff Leadership
    • Fiscal Responsibility of the Institution

    Does your experience bear out the truth of Christopher’s claims about why people give?  Can your congregation provide evidence to convince a prospective donor on all three counts?

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  • Intergenerational program on generosity

    Are you looking for a program that helps people of all ages examine their attitudes and practices around giving, saving and spending?  The Rocky Mountain Synod of the ELCA has developed The Generosity Project – Our Table is Ready.  You can read about it and download the program materials here.

    If your congregation decides to use the program, why not drop me a line so we can let others know about your experience?  Write to

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  • generosity@mission.god 2012

    The Anglican Diocese of Toronto presents a one-day conference called “generosity@mission.god”.  Lutherans are welcome to attend also.

    Here’s the link to conference information on the diocesan website, from which you can proceed to the registration page:

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  • Should we offer money management programs?

    John Hamalainen from Sudbury recently sent me a link to a website that sells money management resources of  all kinds:  books, DVDs, courses, podcasts — the whole nine yards. He wasn’t urging me to do anything, but was simply sharing something that he had found helpful.

    John was sincere in his praise:

    “I’ve been an avid follower of Dave Ramsey for about 2 years now and he’s made a big difference in my life my giving to the church.  At first I was a little skeptical, but after two years of listening I see he is genuine.  The nice thing about Dave Ramsey is he’s a devout Christian and references many biblical references in his teachings and the importance of Christian values and beliefs.  He has a live 3 hour radio program on each weekday from 2:00 – 5:00 EST which can be accessed through the radio tab in the link.  I never took the course but listen to him on average 8-10 hours per week and also have an audio book of his and others he  recommends.  All of his material is faith based.”

    Disclaimer:  My inclusion of the name in the quote above is not an endorsement of the person or his material.  I am not familiar with his products or approach.  There are many other providers of material that purports to teach people how to manage their finances more effectively.

    I tend to be skeptical of this sort of thing, especially when it is offered “from a Christian perspective”.  (Some day I need to work through the reasons why I am skeptical, but that’s another story.)  Perhaps it’s time to put my skepticism aside while considering the underlying question.  Should Eastern Synod congregations be offering some sort of program in basic money management to their members and others?

    Many other denominations consider such programs a key part of their ministry, but I don’t know of many Lutheran churches that do so.  The argument in favour of the programs is easy to state:

    • Many people encounter difficulties managing their financial life.
    • Financial difficulties can spill over into other realms, destroying relationships, marriages and families.  One’s spiritual life can be affected by financial woes.
    • Churches offer programs to address other types of “life problems”:  marriage enrichment; pastoral counselling with individuals, couples and families.  Why wouldn’t they offer programs to help people better manage their financial affairs?

    If we examine the question from the perspective of giving, we might ask how we can expect people to be generous if they are deeply in debt and struggling with financial chaos?

    If congregations were to offer such programs, they could form an important part of the church’s ministry to the community outside the congregation.  According to the statistics, millions of  Canadians are drowning in a sea of mortgages, car loans and credit card debt.

    What do you think?  Does your church offer programs in basic money management?  Is this something we should be doing?

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  • Enough

    I’ve been reading Radical Gratitude by Mary Jo Leddy.  The book is rich in insight, so there may be more than one post here based on her thoughts.

    “[This book] is about liberation that begins with a sense of gratitude for the most ordinary and taken-for-granted realities.”

    Mary Jo Leddy, Radical Gratitude

    In Leddy’s analysis, our society and most of us who live in it are held in a “captivity of craving for more”.  She calls the result a “culturally induced dissatisfaction” that transforms us at a deep level of our being.  We become convinced that:

    • I don’t have enough
    • I am not enough
    • I am not good enough

    Who among us has not experienced a dark night of the soul when doubts like these force their way into our consciousness?

    Western culture tells us that there is only one cure for not enough, and that is more.  More gadgets, more food, more friends, more love, more exercise, more spiritual awakening; each of us has at least one weak spot in our life that would benefit from more of something.  Our economy works by creating dissatisfaction — wants and needs — through advertising and then selling us something to fill the gap.  But whatever we buy is never enough, so we’re launched on the cycle again and again.

    Leddy’s proposition is that the only cure for dissatisfaction is the liberation that comes from radical gratitude, which she says begins when we stop taking life for granted.

    My wife and I are blessed to live in a neighbourhood of wonderful neighbours.  Lately the tranquillity of our little corner of suburban Eden has been disrupted by road construction.  It began about 6 weeks ago and is scheduled to be completed by the end of August, but no one is betting the farm on that date.  The heavy equipment and dump trucks start up by 7:00 a.m. and rarely shut down before 5:30 p.m.  It’s noisy and dusty beyond description.  Because we live on a dead end, there’s only one way in and out, and traffic is often delayed by the excavation.

    On Saturday night some neighbours wandered over to join us on our deck, and inevitably the conversation turned to the construction project.  After a few minutes of predictable complaining, one of the women said, “Won’t it be wonderful to have new sewers, sidewalks and a smooth road surface?”  Another chimed in, “And haven’t the crew been great?  They’re so patient and polite, and they worked through that awful heat and humidity last week.”  Someone else said, “How lucky are we to live in a society where, when our water is shut off for a few hours, it comes back on and it’s as drinkable as it was before!”  All of these comments were made without any prompting from me.

    This is why I love the people who live near us.  Our neighbours have an attitude that does not take roads and sewers and clean water for granted.  They appreciate the construction workers (most of whom don’t look or talk like the people you sit next to at church) who labour on our behalf under a hot sun.  They are grateful to live in a municipality that provides us with all this (and much more) at the cost of a few thousand dollars a year in property taxes.

    Do you have a story about finding gratitude where you least expected it?

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  • Resources for Children and Youth

    This week’s email brought information about two resources on generous giving among children and youth.

    Nathan Dungan is the president of Share Save Spend®, an organization dedicated to helping families make good decisions about money that are based on their values.  He was a keynote speaker at a conference in Toronto in 2009 sponsored by the Canadian Interchurch Stewardship Committee (CISC) and the Ecumenical Stewardship Center (ESC) [The ELCIC is a member of both groups.]  Nathan introduced himself as the son of a Lutheran pastor and a financial executive (if I remember correctly it was Mom who was the bank v-p).

    I subscribe to Nathan’s newsletter to stay current on the financial issues affecting young people.  The Share Save Spend website contains lots of articles and offers resources for sale as well.

    The ESC and CISC have collaborated to make available a resource called “Wrapped in God’s Love”.  The subtitle is “Planting Seeds of Faith; Growing Generous Hearts”.  This was originally a book developed by one of the other member denominations of CISC .  Now you can purchase it as a downloadable PDF for $9.95 on the Ecumenical Stewardship Center website.

    I’m not familiar with the contents of the book, but would welcome and gladly post a review by any reader who has used it.

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  • Using Assets Faithfully

    In a recent presentation I said, “I’m pleading that our congregations not burn through their assets in a last-gasp attempt to keep their church alive for just a few more years.  What an exercise in lousy stewardship that would be.”

    Upon reflection, I acknowledge that the issue is much more complex than that.  What is our theology of wealth?  Can we develop an understanding of what God would have a congregation do with the assets it has accumulated?

    There are several dichotomies that come into play.  In each case, there seems to be a moral and scriptural argument for either choice.

    1. Is wealth inherently good or inherently evil?  Is prosperity a blessing bestowed by God or evidence of past unjust behaviour?
    2. Are we called to a life of stewardship or generosity?  Should we preserve assets or give them away?
    3. Are declining membership numbers a sign of an unviable ministry, or do we carry on as long as two or three are gathered in Jesus’ name?  When is it time to call it a day?
    4. Is it our mission to serve this generation or future generations?
    5. Is our ministry purely local, or does it have regional, national or global dimensions as well?  When we stop supporting the wider church, are we still the church?
    6. When dealing with wealth, should we be as wise as serpents or as trusting as the lilies of the field?

    How we answer these questions, and probably many others, will inform our view of what it means to use congregational assets faithfully.

    The questions are often most acute when a congregation finds itself in financial difficulty, with trouble balancing the annual budget.  There are other options:  cutting back the pastor’s compensation; reducing or eliminating benevolence offerings to the synod; exploring alternative ministry arrangements with other congregations, and so on.  But some congregations will find themselves with a budget deficit and invested assets at the same time.

    Is it OK to balance the budget by drawing down the investments?  Is it irresponsible to spend accumulated wealth in order to avoid less palatable choices?  Is it our obligation, as stewards of the assets entrusted to use by previous generations, to preserve them in order to pass them on to the next generation?

    It’s important to keep in mind that assets can be physical as well as financial.  What is the right thing to do if a congregation finds itself with no option but to disband, while it still owns physical assets such as a church building?  Should it give its building to a local secular charity that needs the space for programs that benefit the community?  Or should the congregation transfer title of its property to the Synod  or the Evangelical Lutheran Foundation of Eastern Canada (ELFEC) so that it can be sold and the proceeds used to support some other ministry?  [Note: as executive director of ELFEC I have a conflict of interest on this question.]

    In which direction does your moral and scriptural compass point on these questions?  What should a faithful congregation do when confronted with these tough issues?  What is your role as a leader?

    Please add your comments.

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  • Where’s the Financial Crisis?

    At this year’s Luther Hostel I was part of a panel discussion in the “Renewing Leaders” program.  The other three panelists and I were invited take different perspectives as we weighed in on the need for renewal in our church and among our clergy.  I was assigned the stewardship perspective.

    As part of my preparations I pulled some numbers from the ELCIC database, which is a compilation of statistics drawn from each congregation’s annual Parochial Report.  [Incidentally, 2011 reports had been registered for only 65% of Eastern Synod congregations, and this is several months past the submission deadline.]  What I found was a combination of good news and bad news.

    Giving to congregations is up

    Year Congregations Total Giving Average 1986 $ % of 1986 $
    1986 209 $15,728,687 $75,257 $75,257 100%
    2011 198 $26,948,982 $136,106 $73,734 98%

    Congregational assets are up

    Year Congregations Total Assets Average 1986 $ % of 1986 $
    1986 209 $108,126,578 $517,352 $517,352 100%
    2011 198 $270,665,905 $1,367,000 $740,560 143%

    Per capita giving is up

    Year Total Giving Conf. Members Per Capita 1986 $ % of 1986 $
    1986 $15,728,687 61,882 $254.17 $254.17 100%
    2011 $26,948,982 41,625 $647.42 $343.84 135%

    Support for the wider church is down

    Year Congregations Total Giving Benevolence 1986 $ % of Giving
    1987 210 $18,241,680 $1,636,368 $1,636,368 9.0%
    2011 198 $26,948,982 $1,557,432 $882,698 5.8%

    Looking at these numbers caused me to wonder about the financial crisis in the church.  I offer these observations for your consideration and comment.

    1. There is no crisis in congregational income. Total giving has increased just a tick slower than the rate of inflation.  Congregations have virtually the same purchasing power they had 25 years ago.
    2. There is no crisis in congregational wealth. Whether caused by additions to property and facilities or merely re-valuation, growth in the assets of congregations has been greater than the rate of inflation.
    3. There is no crisis in per capita giving to congregations. It has increased 35% faster than the rate of inflation.  Members are giving more than ever – although there are 29% fewer of them.  As Loren Mead said a long time ago, “The problem isn’t per capita giving – it’s not enough capitas.”
    4. There is a severe crisis in the synodical and national expressions of our church. The Eastern Synod is working with just over half of the purchasing power it had 25 years ago, and the ELCIC is struggling with an even smaller proportion.
    5. The financial crisis in the ELCIC results from congregations sharing less with the wider church. If congregations had given to benevolence as generously in 2011 as they did in 1997, the Eastern Synod would have received $860,000 more than it actually did.
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  • The $100,000 Pastor

    A friend recently sent me a link to an article at, entitled “Why Our Staff Is Required to Tithe”.  You can find the full article here.

    Written by Dr. Tim Spivey, a pastor described as “Lead Planter” of a church in San Diego, the piece sets out a number of reasons why giving is a sign of spiritual maturity and why it should be expected of church leaders.

    Spivey makes the point that “Creating a culture of generosity in your church begins with cultivating generous leadership”, a sentiment with which I completely agree.  But then he mentions the issue of clergy compensation.

    “If you are paying staff so little it [tithing] becomes a backbreaking burden — consider practicing generosity toward your staff by raising pay. Paying little and not expecting them to give holds back everyone involved. It’s better to pay them generously and expect them to give generously.”

    Dr. Tim Spivey

    How much should clergy be paid?  I suspect that there are very few pastors in the Eastern Synod who don’t deserve more than they’re getting currently.  Why shouldn’t the pastor earn as much as other professionals in the community with similar levels of education and responsibility?  Would there be anything inherently wrong with paying your pastor a salary (not including benefits and allowances) of $100,000 per year?

    In Ontario the Public Sector Salary Disclosure Act, 1996 mandates the annual publication of the name, title and salary of all provincial public servants who earn $100,000 or more.  While this prompts an annual orgy of outrage in the right-wing tabloids, the disclosure does serve a useful purpose.  It allows us a glimpse into what is otherwise private information.

    Here are a few of the job titles of people in my community who made the so-called “sunshine list” in 2011:

    • Field Services Supervisor
    • Manager of Human Resources
    • Construction Technician
    • Firefighter
    • Patrol Constable
    • Secondary School Teacher
    • Registered Nurse

    It could be argued, of course, that everyone on the list is vastly over-compensated, that the disclosure simply proves that civil servants are coddled and tax-payers are abused.  That is a two-beer question which I won’t take on here.

    I have no access to salary levels in the private sector, but there are members of our churches who do.  It would not surprise me to learn that many of our members who work in private sector jobs have annual earnings well in excess of $100,000.

    It could also be argued that church members who pay the pastor’s salary are predominantly “seniors living on a fixed income”.  While this may be true, I am continually amazed at how many of these fixed incomes are able to cover expensive vacations — sometimes several per year — but apparently not increases to clergy compensation.

    Bishop Stephen Kristenson has pointed out that it would only take 10 members who tithe to pay the pastor the average of what they earn.  How many members would it take to start a healthy conversation about how much we pay our pastors?

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