Note: This post originally appeared on Voices of Stewardship, a newly sponsored initiative by Vanco Payments. I've written a lot about church stewardship and giving over the last decade. Review a diverse sampling of that work here.

When it comes to giving, generosity, and stewardship, a wide gap remains between the view from the pew and the view from the pulpit. That disconnect has not yet fully translated into a paralyzing funding crisis for most local churches, but given current course and speed, it will if nothing substantive changes.

As I talk to pastors and executive staff members across the country, I hear similar things:

  • “We are doing all we know to do with little lift or positive results.”
  • “We know our people have the capacity to be more generous, but we haven’t been able to activate that.”
  • “We may be fully funded today, but we may not be in the not-so-distant future if we don’t start doing things differently.”
  • “We are slowing in our growth of new givers and shrinking in the middle, which is creating an over-dependence on those who already give substantially to give more and more.”

Maybe you can find yourself in those statements. Maybe not. Either way, there is a good chance you know the climate of giving in churches is changing. And it’s much deeper than whether or not your next approach to a capital campaign should be a familiar, structured approach or a more creative, single-fund approach.

The view from the pew versus the view from the pulpit

It’s easy to think about this from the perspective of the pulpit. But we risk projecting our thinking, assumptions, and expectations on people in the proverbial pew who don’t share those same thoughts, assumptions, and expectations. So I’ve found it helpful to take church leaders through an exercise where they take on the persona of the person in the pew.

This approach will, at the very least, give us insight into the point of view of the people we need to align with our plan for ministry if we hope to activate the full potential of their generosity.

So here are 10 reasons I’ll never give to your church

  1. “You never asked.” This seems simple and straightforward, but it’s true. Some leaders are so scared about asking people to give that they avoid it. That results in little to no giving over time.
  2. “You haven’t given me a reason to give.” It’s unlikely that the people in the pew will think that they must give to your church. If you don’t give them a good reason, you won’t capture the dollars God intended to flow through them into your offering plate.
  3. “All you ever talk about is what you need.” Most people aren’t interested in perpetuating programs. They want to be part of something that matters, and that aligns with what’s most important to them. Don’t assume they will make that connection to your church on their own.
  4. “I don’t see why giving to ministry should be limited to my local church.” It’s not uncommon to hear in donor interviews that giving to ministries and para-church organizations is as important to them as giving to the local church. Don’t assume the person in the pew believes his or her entire tithe should be reserved for local church ministry.
  5. “I never see or hear about any results after I give.” Past results are indicative of future behavior. The reason why this is important is that if I don’t see results from the last time I gave, then it makes me less confident the future will be any different.
  6. “You don’t tell me why you need me to get involved.” The next generation of givers in your church will never be satisfied by outsourcing ministry to someone else. They want to be part of the mission delivery process somehow. And givers who have those experiences are much more likely to donate generously because they are emotionally connected to the impact.
  7. “I know you do a lot of good things, but I can’t tell you what, specifically, you do.” In an effort to find something that interests everyone and anyone, we’ve confused the matter for the person who sits in the pew for 75 minutes once every seven to 14 days, on average. The truth is most of your extended church staff can’t tell you what your church does. That’s a disconnect that must be resolved.
  8. “My role is not to keep you employed.” No one, especially a financial leader, is interested in just paying the bills. That’s important. And we must rethink our approach and conversation around operational giving, because it supplies the infrastructure necessary to do and accomplish the more “sexy” things in ministry, such as missions, outreach, etc.
  9. “The church appears to have enough to be able to accomplish all it needs or wants to do.” This is a quote I’ll never forget from a recent donor interview. He felt like his substantial regular giving was sufficient to accomplish the present needs and ministry demands as he understood them. So he decided to redirect additional available charitable dollars to other organizations with a greater need. Again, this is not about reality, but perception, because perception is reality.
  10. “While the church is in the top five philanthropic priorities, I believe I can make a bigger difference elsewhere with my money.” As I study the giving habits and charitable behaviors of church members, it’s fairly consistent to see “religious giving” in the top five philanthropic interests, but it is rarely in the top three. I believe this is more an indictment of our ability as leaders to communicate in a compelling way than it is an indictment of the giver. God will provide the people, but it is the leader’s responsibility to cultivate and grow them over time to fully activate and realize the potential of their generosity.

Trends don’t have to be your future

Don’t feel defeated. It’s a different way of thinking, but it’s not an impossible switch to make. It’s critical to understand your current reality before you can ever hope to affect it in a positive way.

If you don’t believe my assessment of giving is accurate, I challenge you to pick 12 people or families in your church in each category of giving—those giving at the major gift, middle and general fund levels. Ask your executive pastor, finance director or stewardship committee chairperson to identify these families. (Note: It’s not important that you know what they give for this exercise, but someone needs to validate they do give at the various levels identified above.)

The answers to these questions will tell you everything you need to know

In a casual and non-confrontational setting, ask those people four questions:

  1. Tell me about your earliest memory of giving to a church. What stands out for you?
  2. If someone were to ask you why you give to your local church, what would you say?
  3. Thinking of a time when you gave more than you ever had before, what were the circumstances of that gift and what caused you to give at that level? How did that change you?
  4. If money were no object, what one project should the church accomplish in the next 12 months?

And don’t forget to take good notes!

I promise if you follow through on that exercise, you’ll learn what’s important, what motivates and what inspires the people who sit in your pews to give. The hard part of this for some leaders will be to set aside the moral and theological imperatives to give to your local churches. Assume, at least for the sake of this research, that it’s not a requirement, but an option.

The future of your ministry doesn’t have to be limited by current giving at your church. You can impact the culture of stewardship and generosity in your congregation. But it starts with getting out of the pulpit, stepping off the platform and taking a good hard look at your church through the eyes of the people in your pew.

CHALLENGE: If you were to visit your church for the first time, what would you experience that would lead you to generously give your time, talents and treasure with boldness and conviction?

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