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Not Your Parents' Offering PlateA New Vision for Financial Stewardship
By J. Clif Christopher
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2008 The United Methodist Publishing House
All right reserved.
Chapter OneSURVIVAL OF THE FITTEST
In America today, there are over 1.8 million nonprofit organizations, and over one million of these are 501(c)(3)s. There are about 370,000 churches. Just ten years ago, in 1995, there were 600,000 501(c)(3)s and about 370,000 churches. What these numbers show is that in ten years the competition has nearly doubled.
Each year finds the number of nonprofits in America growing by anywhere from 5 to 7 percent. Their numbers are increasing much faster than charitable giving. As more and more organizations vie for fewer and fewer dollars, someone has to lose. All cannot thrive equally. Sadly, in many instances the loser has been the church, because churches have been blind to the fact that they must compete.
When I first got to college, there was one drive-in eating establishment in our town. They had burgers and foot-long hot dogs. We would drive up, wait for someone to come out to the car to take our order, and in ten or fifteen minutes we would get some food. It wasn't great food and it wasn't great service, but it was OK for our little town. Well, by the time I graduated, there was a McDonald's and a Burger King. A couple of pizza places opened up and we had choices. The little burger joint never changed the way it did business, even though the competition around them changed dramatically. Within a year, it closed, never to open again. Their burger used to be good enough. What happened? Why did the customers start going elsewhere?
The very same thing is happening in the charitable world. The church used to be the predominant charity in most communities. In many, it was the only place to make a contribution of any kind. The appeal was simply, "You should give." And people would heed the appeal and give. For too many churches the appeal is still "you should give." And people respond by giving, just not to the church. They are hearing the preacher say that Jesus wants them to give, and they are choosing the youth center or the college or the hospital. Yet, our appeal is still the same. We must learn to answer the question our donors are asking us, "Why should I give to YOU?"
According to Giving USA 2007, giving to religion amounted to 32.8 percent of all charitable giving in 2006. This was by far the largest category for charitable contributions, beating education, which got 13.9 percent. On the surface this looks like very good news for those of us in the church business. We seem to be America's favorite charity. But there is a problem. Our piece of the pie is shrinking at an alarming rate.
In 1985, religion received 53 percent of all charitable contributions. Through the 1990s religion received around 40 to 45 percent.
By 2000 the percent had dropped below 40 percent and it continues to fall. Donors are showing us that though we are still number one, we are rapidly falling out of favor. They are continuing to give, just not to the churches.
As noted in Giving USA, "Since 2001, giving to religion has shown a rate of growth of 3.6 percent, while disposable personal income has increased more than 8 percent (adjusted for inflation)." People have the money and they continue to give. Religion is just no longer their charity of choice.
I visited with a woman not too long ago whose family was very wealthy. She was a gifted businesswoman who was paid highly for her expertise. Her husband owned an oil company that had exploded with growth during the "high gas price" years. They had belonged to their church for over thirty years and had held every major lay office in the church. During my visit, the wife shared with me a recent conversation that she had had with her pastor.
"Last year my husband and I gave a million-dollar gift to the local hospital. It was announced in the newspaper and thus became common knowledge around the church. It became somewhat obvious to us after this that our pastor was looking at us a bit differently than he had before. One day I asked him to come over and the two of us talked about what was going on. He did not want to own up to his feelings at first, but finally he said as politely as he could, 'I just do not know why you have not made a gift to the church like the one you gave to the hospital.'
"I proceeded to tell him how the gift came about, as a way of showing him why they got the gift and he did not. I told him how the CEO of the hospital had personally come out to see my husband and me on several occasions to seek our advice about the new wing. He asked us to join the board that was designing the center. During nearly every one of our meetings, he shared the case as to why this new wing was necessary, how it would change lives and make our community a much better place to live. One day he came on his own, sat in our living room and asked us for one million dollars, to be the lead gift in the campaign. Once we agreed, we got the most wonderful letter from him, along with a framed rendering of the new wing. Around the mat board of the rendering were the signed thank-yous of each nurse who will work in the center. We hung it up in our study. The picture certainly surprised us, but the thank-you letter did not. We always got one whenever we have made a gift, of any size, to the hospital. It has just been a joyous experience for us both." She looked at me and finally said, "I am not sure if he understood how different this experience has been from what we experience with the church. He just thanked me and left."
This woman and her husband are fine Christian people, whose giving has been shaped by their Christian convictions. They give, in many respects, as stewards who perceive that all they have has been given to them by God and they have a responsibility to their Creator to give back. At the same time, because they are stewards who believe that God holds them accountable for their giving, they want to be sure their gift is used wisely and truly makes a difference. The hospital helped convince them that the gift would be used well , to change lives, while the church simply said, "Why don't you give to us?"
To compete is not something most of our churches are prepared to do, and many even resent the implication that they should. Along with many others, I have watched as the mainline church has declined for over three decades. In the early years, part of the reason for the decline was the idea that competition was somehow unchristian. Fifty years ago, most of our country had blue laws that prohibited businesses from opening on Sunday. Many towns closed up on Wednesdays to leave this open as "church night." Then the laws changed and people started having options. Even youth ball games were being scheduled on Sunday mornings. I heard many a church complain but few towns have reinstated blue laws and Wednesday is just like every other day of the week now.
The churches that survived this onslaught did not just sit around and protest that people were not coming. They went out and proceeded to earn people's time and attention. Worship was outstanding and youth meetings became dynamic. They were willing to lay their case right up against the soccer teams and say to the parents, "Look what we have to offer. Wouldn't you rather have your kid here?" Not only did the parents want their kids to go there, the kids preferred it also. The churches took on the competition, believing that their product could be superior, and won.
Donors are saying to our churches today that you have to earn our gifts. No longer can you just preach a sermon on tithing and think the members will give 10 percent to the church. They will hear your message that tithing is what God wants them to do, and then they will go home and decide to give the church 2 percent, the youth center 2 percent, the homeless shelter 2 percent, and their college 4 percent. They will then look you right in the eye when you say that it all should go to the church, and they will ask you, "Do you not believe that Jesus is working in the youth center and the homeless shelter and with our college students?" If you are not prepared to compete with over one million nonprofits, you will lose.
Just a few years ago the Oldsmobile brand of General Motors began a series of ads stating, "It's not your father's Oldsmobile." The reason they were running the ads was that sales of Oldsmobiles had declined steadily for a number of years. The perception in the marketplace was that the Olds was for the senior set, not for anyone under 60. They tried at the last minute to change the brand a bit and appeal to younger generations using this slogan. Two years later they announced that Olds, as a brand, would no longer be on the market. They waited too long to change. Well, friends, it is not your parents' offering plate anymore, either. Will you wait too long to change?
Lyle Schaller wrote a brilliant book, The New Context for Ministry, dealing with the change in attitudes about charitable giving. In it, he plainly said, "This new face of American philanthropy is distinguished by an unprecedented level of competition for the charitable dollar. For well over 90 percent of all Christian congregations.... this means they will NOT be able to compete ..." ([Nashville: Abingdon Press], 161).
By now I hope that you have come to the realization that competition is not a dirty word and that the church must engage in it. If so, then the rest of this book will prove useful. Maybe—just maybe—your church will be one of the 10 percent that learns how to compete and does so effectively.
QUESTIONS TO ASK In what ways have we experienced changes in the competitive environment for our church in our community? What are some of the ways our church has changed as the times have changed? If the young attorney had been a member of our church, would he have said that we wouldn't have known what to do with his gift? Specifically, what do you do differently today regarding financial stewardship that you were not doing ten years ago? THINGS TO DO Invite the executive director of one of your community's first-rate nonprofits to come by and talk to your stewardship committee about how they do fund-raising and how they relate to their donors.
Excerpted from Not Your Parents' Offering Plate by J. Clif Christopher Copyright © 2008 by The United Methodist Publishing House. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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