The Stewardship Drive


Imagine with me that one day I go to the animal shelter and get two or three dogs to keep on my farm — more than one because they are pack animals and need companionship.  They are each only a year or two old and very rambunctious.  I want to train them, but only in ways that are compatible with my values.  My first training rule therefore is to support their right to a free and responsible search for Truth and Meaning.  I will offer my dogs guidance but not give them “commands”.  Rather than telling them to “sit” or “come” or “lie down” I will say in a firm, clear voice “Be Good”.  They will determine for themselves what that means.

Then, when one of my dogs actually happens to come toward me or lie down upon hearing “Be Good” I will not say “Good Dog” or offer a treat.  It is best to not make remarks singling out particular individuals for praise I think; it could bring on diminished feelings of self-worth among the rest of the pack.  Each has inherent worth and dignity after all; raising one up for special treatment undermines valuing them equally, or might seem that way to others.  How long do you suppose it will take me to get my dogs trained, to change their patterns of behavior so that we can meet each other’s needs and live together in peaceful community?

Every stewardship drive and every special appeal is fundamentally about getting people to change patterns of behavior.  We are concerned foremost with ourselves and our families.  Stewardship is about adding others to the calculus of decision-making.  This requires some community discussion, community agreements about what we will strive for, affirmation of our individual efforts, and rewards for our successes.  We need to re-think how we can promote generosity and stewardship in our churches — or nothing will change.

We solicit people in the church community not to get their money, but to help them actualize their dreams for the church community.  People give money to the church to realize something about themselves, something they see expressed within their beloved church.  As their friends and supporters we have a duty to help them articulate what they want.  When we approach another member of the congregation to ask for a commitment of support we must understand our role as pastoral at its core.  One of the most serious conversations one can have with another member is helping them imagine how their dreams fit within the life of the congregation.  The annual stewardship drive is an opportunity to help those we love reconnect with the meaning and purpose of their lives.      

In earlier editions of this book I counseled leaders to do the stewardship drive well (by which I meant intentionally) but that no one form of a campaign was superior to another.  I was wrong, or at best sloppy, in making such a statement.  I was blind to some of the more crass approaches to stewardship used in some churches.  There are decidedly inferior formats, and doing some forms of a budget drive “well” does not save them from predictably dismal results.

Some church leaders develop an attractive brochure and mail it with a giving commitment card, requesting that each parishioner complete the enclosed postage paid card and return it in the mail.  “After all,” they note, “that’s how the Audubon Society does it.”  Short of not conducting a campaign at all this is probably the most inappropriate of all approaches for a church community.  Consider the subliminal message in such a request: “We really don’t want to know you any better.  Even in this most intimate request for your support of our programs we are not much concerned with how you feel about the congregation right now.  You are, at the most fundamental level, not very distinguishable from others.  You are a source of funds, little else.  While we hope you will contribute, why you contribute and how much you contribute are of little concern to your church leaders.”

You may or may not get a card back after having mailed it out; if you do, it will probably not include an increase.  The implied request of a stewardship drive mailer is that the members continue in their existing relationship within the community, whatever form that takes —  and this is the most predictable response, even if the brochure is printed in color on glossy paper.

Slightly better is the campaign that follows up the attractive mailing with a telephone call.  A phone call is a step closer to personal contact — okay, a big step closer — but it still lacks sincerity.  For example, when you call you do not know whether this person has other things on his or her mind.  Even if you ask, chances are they will interpret this call for what it appears to be, an effort to get this distasteful job out of the way with as little involvement on your part as possible.  Further, when a solicitor telephones a household with two or more members the conversation generally includes only one of them.

A positive stewardship drive will usually involve the intimacy of private face to face meeting.  Meet in their home, have them come to your place for dinner, take them out for coffee.  (Never solicit important commitments during coffee after the service or in the parking lot!)  Or, it can be done through small group dinners.  If the small group gathering is the selected vehicle, include the minister, the Director of Religious Education, or a trustee.  Then, the minister can preach after the drive is completed on “What We Learned about What You Want”.

In thinking about organizing face to face commitment meetings, understand there are four levels of givers among our congregants, and they each need to be treated differently.  While it may be possible to gently move someone over time from one level up to the next, in general members will not be responsive if they are told they should have a set of motivations substantially different than those they have already settled into.

Some people are PRESENT to support the church and what it stands for, but not as a major expression of their own life priorities.  They are uninvolved beyond sporadic Sunday attendance. Their giving tends toward a standard of “What is the least I can do that is still respectable and gives me some measure of standing in the community?”  These people will pay the commitment all at once or in a few payments over the year.  Their gift will not be a financial burden to them.  They are not always the lowest givers – some make above average gifts, although giving will be less than 1% of their income.  They are unlikely to increase their giving without a direct, personal reason.  The Vision Budget described earlier will often have little meaning for them, though it may if it is discussed during a personal visit.

A CONSUMER wants to give a “fair” amount based primarily upon what they see friends or others doing.  They can be motivated to increase if they understand that “other people just like them” give more.  From a spiritual point of view this is the most difficult group to deal with.  They see themselves as reasonably decent people who belong to the church.  The consumer perspective is self-centered; their growth requires that they develop generosity as an end, rather than giving instrumentally to serve their individual needs.

The next group is very supportive of the church, want to be CONNECTED, want the congregation to be healthy and want to feel that they are an important part of the community and are usually highly motivated by a Vision Budget showing where the congregation wants to be in three to five years.  Finally there are the COMMITTED.  They are wedded to the congregation.  They receive a major part of their life’s meaning already from their involvement and support of what the church is doing.  They will generously supply what is needed to further the church vision — if it is made clear and if they feel listened to in shaping it.

It is best if you can form groups of members with similar or compatible motivations when asking them to converse with each other about their gifts.  Here are a few other guidelines for the face to face stewardship drive:

1)   Every gift commitment must be followed up with a personal written note from either the minister or the board president thanking the person(s) and naming the amount.  There is nothing wrong with the solicitor sending such a note too.

2)   If your membership definition includes teens as members, they should be approached about their stewardship gifts separately from their parents.  Every member needs to know what membership entails.

3)   No single solicitor should be asked to conduct meetings with more than five persons; even if they complete their five and volunteer for more, seven is the absolute maximum.

4)   Never send a “consumer” to ask about the stewardship intentions of a highly committed contributor.  In fact, don’t ask anyone who is only “present” to solicit others in the pledge drive.  Working in the stewardship drive is not a motivational tool to boost involvement of those who are marginally present.

5)   If there are not enough stewardship leaders to cover the entire congregation with private face to face meetings, concentrate the effort on the those you believe are among the connected and committed.  Work down from there.  Use a less intensive venue for those remaining.  Everyone who has been a member for less than two years however should be treated as though they have sufficient interest to become connected.

6)   If someone cannot see a way to fulfill their stewardship desire with money, suggest alternative ways to donate (not services).  For example, have the library committee develop a list of needed books.  The person can commit to scour the used book stores to try to find at least three or four during the year.  Or, have them agree to bring snacks for the RE program six times during the year.  Everyone needs to be relied upon.

Finally, you may want to conduct a Celebration Sunday in place of the face to face visits.  It takes every bit as much work in planning over several months.  Because it is an entirely fresh format for the congregants however, it can bring about renewed excitement and commitment to the congregation.  I have included a stewardship drive planning calendar in Appendix 6 and a sample guide that could be given to every canvasser in your stewardship drive in Appendix 8.


Recognition of those among us who are most generous runs against the grain in many churches.  When it comes to church giving we seem to think people should give money solely because of other-worldly motivations, unrelated to here and now societal connections.  Inviolate secrecy in giving practices is the most powerful force strangling generosity in churches.

Think about my dog training program and why it won’t work.  We know that training pets is a process of setting clear expectations and then consistently praising the desired behavior when it happens.  We know that rewarding outcomes is more effective in getting the behavior repeated than inattention, punishment, or shame.  This is what we know about getting desirable pet behavior:  We offer clear signaling of expectations, and clear rewards for meeting them.

I assert as a father (and not as a child psychologist) that the same process holds true for children.  We may (or may not) feel a little more sophisticated when we train our children and do not like to think of it in the same context as training pets.  Yet, when pressed, we admit that the process of learning and socialization is remarkably similar.  We show children a lot of love; we tell them what we want them to do; and, we reward them with more love and praise when they behave in ways we wish.  This approach to child rearing is “good parenting.”

Finally, when I look at the adult world I see indications everywhere that the same generalization applies again.  People of all ages are more willing to change their behavior or engage in a difficult series of behaviors when an appreciation by others, commendation, or title accrues through such efforts.  One might say “But, adults are not like children; they are mature.”  Meanwhile we strive for letters after our name (and display them); we seek promotions; we covet the symbols of well-being; and when our affinity group is recognized in the press, we proudly hang the picture and story on the wall – thinking it says something about us.

All of us, no matter our age, respond readily to praise and recognition.  We want to be known by our good accomplishments.  We will do more to make ourselves Good People if others, in fact, witness our goodness.  We respond positively to praise and recognition no less than our Golden Retriever, although perhaps more subtly.  One might still argue that the real rewards of a well-lived life are going to be shown to us in the Hereafter.  I do not dispute the possibility, even though I do not share that view of eternity.  The rewards we know and respond to most predictably are those that come to us in this lifetime.  My religion tells me to focus on the lifetime I am in, and to let the Hereafter take care of itself.

So, if we are trying to change people’s beliefs and behavior about their own generosity it makes sense that we would use the same proven methods that we apply in other areas of life.  We should not, for example, spend our time and energy focused on the poor performance of the lowest level of givers, preaching shame or damnation.  Rather, we should recognize generous behavior whenever and however it occurs and hold it up as a positive example for others — frequently and consistently, just as we do for pets and children.  Trying to train a pet or child in the absence of any reward system seems futile.  Similarly, it makes little sense to try to change giving patterns in a church community without identifying and heralding with our love those among us who already demonstrate a generous spirit.

Of course, the church leadership can continue to conduct stewardship campaigns shrouded in complete secrecy — but don’t expect behavior to change.  Secrecy of giving and praise of generosity cannot co-exist.  Yet many church leaders are set in the notion that all generous giving should be kept secret.  When questioned about why, and not accepting the various versions of “that’s just the way we do it around here” the response is frequently “some people might be embarrassed.”  Or alternatively, “It’s just nobody’s business.”

Embarrassment or shame arises out of the strong incongruity between the self we hold out for others to admire, and some actual behavior we engage in which is different.  When our behavior is seen to fall short of the image of ourselves we display, we are embarrassed.

Part of what we are about in religious communities is living lives of integrity — claiming values as our own and applying them in our daily living as consistently as we can.  This integration of one’s values and one’s manifest life patterns is healthy religious work.  Church leaders have a responsibility to help parishioners define what they value and then to live consistently within those values.  It is quite appropriate that some people choose to not embrace the church as much as the devoted do.  What we want to overcome is allowing anyone to claim he or she values the church community highly (and is entitled to a weighty opinion about its affairs) while adopting parsimonious and irresponsible giving patterns.

The argument that it is nobody’s business when others are generous is also strange.  We are supporting our staff, facilities, and programs as a common endeavor.  It is our business — our communal religious business.  When individuals stand out in their contribution of time or money we need to know and appreciate what they are doing for all of us.   Stated or not, people expect something in return for their contributions.  They certainly deserve well-evidenced respect by the leadership of the congregation.

How should we reward generosity?  Send a thank you note in response to every stewardship commitment as a starter.  Follow up the stewardship drive with public recognition of all those who make a commitment, perhaps especially noting those who increased the most from the prior year or those who are most generous within their means.  Many churches list giving levels, such as Stewards and Benefactors.  Recognize those who are most supportive in giving with special social invitations, or opportunities to participate in small group discussions where they are asked for their advice.  Do not leave the most supportive members of your congregation wondering if they are alone, unknown in their efforts, and chumps for that.

In addition, throughout the year bring forth the names of those who have taken on some extra service responsibility, or have donated heavily toward a special appeal.  Recognition should be slightly more public than the donor will initially be comfortable with.  Those who are at the highest giving levels should be invited to a dinner or dessert with the minister.  This is yet another chance for the leadership to talk with those who are most committed to the future of the community about what can and should be the future of the church. 

Percentage Commitments 

            It is time let go of a “minimum” dollar expectation from each member.  Too often congregations extend voting membership to those who give no money to the church; or, a congregation will accept “any recognizable gift.”  If a minimum is set, it is on the basis of the church’s “marginal costs” of membership (for example, denominational dues plus newsletter mailings).  Many churches say, in effect, “We lose $85 per year on each member.  We are not willing to extend support to anyone, so you need to pay us at least that amount to be a voting member.  We insist that you to be generous with us, but we cannot see our way to be generous with you.  No one is entitled to be a burden on the community.”

On the other hand, the congregation says that as long as a person or family is willing to pay this very minor amount the community is willing to grant them full and equal status in membership — no further contribution to our communal costs of running the church is required.

Either represents a strange standard for a religious community to hold forth; neither falls within the meaning of right relationship.  Both approaches to setting forth a financial standard for membership are clearly unacceptable as a stewardship standard for members precisely because 95% of us can afford much more and more is required to maintain the community.   “Community” carries the implication that all who choose to become members will support the joint enterprise.  By “low-balling” our expectations, we undermine the covenant to be in community.  We undermine the formation of generous attitudes that are at the foundation of spiritual health we seek in the first place.

Money, serious money, is the evidence of serious choices.  The church “belongs” to those who take it seriously; so, serious financial commitment and membership are intertwined.  “Serious money” is best defined not in absolute terms but rather as a percentage of income.  It is the job of the leadership to articulate such a standard and then to support members in finding ways to embrace that standard as they embrace the community.

But how should we set a giving standard?  If we set a required minimum commitment level of, say, $50/month for each member, we violate the serious notion that we are available to all without regard to income level.  The very poor among us would be disenfranchised.  At the same time, the wealthy individual who might make several times that much in a single hour is not meeting a giving standard worthy of his or her income.

Rather, consider using a percentage standard for setting stewardship expectations.  For example, the leadership could ask everyone to donate at least one hour of their income each week to the church as a minimum, or 2.5% of income.   Adoption of that standard by all members in my denomination would double the size of our church budgets.

When I talk about percentage giving in workshops, invariably someone will ask “Is that calculation made on gross, adjusted gross, or take-home?”  Usually someone else wonders how we are to “enforce” percentage standards.  “Are we,” they ask loudly and disdainfully, “going to ask for a copy of their tax return?”  These are natural questions, obvious questions, and, after some thought, irrelevant questions.

Helping people understand their own stewardship standard as a percent of their income has four purposes:  First, it provides a benchmark:  while not an enforceable rule, it sets an approach to start people thinking about their values within community life.  Second, it provides more opportunity for people at all income levels to ask for acknowledgment of generous behavior even though their dollars are not as bountiful.  It also provides an opportunity for the congregation to recognize those who feel they are generous (even while not offering dollar denominated evidence), and to express gratitude to them.  Finally it provides some (somewhat skewed) data for the Finance Committee when looking to the future.

It’s not an audit. No one will be quizzing respondents or challenging the answers. The worst case is that someone overstates their percentage contribution because they want to feel what it is like to be treated as a generous donor.  As a matter of faith, I think most parishioners will find a way to embrace a 2%, 5%, or 10% standard that is more sacrificial than any fixed dollar standard we might all agree on. 

There is no way out of the reality that we only offer guidance to our members: clear, helpful guidance.  We do not need rules with the stiffness of an audit standard.  We give away the hard dollar standard we can audit in favor of a malleable privately applied standard that will be applied differently by different families.  Acceptance and interpretation of our guidance rests solely with each person and is part of their own struggle with commitment to community life.  It is part of the individual’s spiritual journey.

Monthly Contribution Commitments 

Focus on the monthly amount with members.  Train members to consider their relationship to the community as one that is continuous through time, month after month.  We want to match the commitment to our member’s income cycle.   Because mortgage, credit card, and utility payments are on a monthly cycle, and because most of us receive income either monthly or semi-monthly we all define our financial lives within that temporal structure.  Monthly finance is the context within which we most readily and accurately understand how much we can afford for a car payment, a mortgage payment, or to give to others.  Focus on the amount that members receive routinely each month and ask for a percentage of that amount.

“Joe and I want to move from 2% to a 3% sustaining member level over the next two years.  We can’t do it all at once; but we’ll do half this year. You’ve been generously contributing a little more than 1% of your income each month.  Could you join us in our long term goal and go to 1.5% a month at this time?” 

            Most churches print stewardship cards on which members formalize their monthly commitment level.  (See sample in Appendix 9)  Ask members how much they prefer to pay monthly and which month they would like to start.  Ask them to think of it as a reasonable portion of their paycheck.  Do not refer to an annual amount on the card.  Only the Finance Committee needs to use a calculator.[1] 

Collecting the Monthly Commitment 

The financial world is changing. Use flexible approaches in accepting payments.  Some churches use on-line banking services to collect the stewardship commitment on a monthly routine.  People will increase their commitment level substantially if it is made less painful.  Most banks charge modestly for fund transfers in which case the church pays the fee.  Such bank transfers do not require that the member pay any other bills in this manner; they simply authorize a monthly deduction from their checking or saving account to transfer to the church account.  In such cases provide forms during the  commitment drive to have funds automatically transferred from the member account on a particular date each month.  (There are web based services that are even cheaper than most banks; see for example.)   These services are inexpensive and allowing members to set up automatic transfers means the monthly cash flow is vastly improved and full payment is more likely.

Some churches receive donations on credit cards.  This costs the church in charges by the credit card company.  It’s okay to pay the credit card company — after all the church does not have to chase down the money.  While most of us probably find putting our stewardship payment on a credit card a distasteful thought, it is not immoral.  It can be an option.

Where I live we are allowed to use United Way to contribute to any not-for-profit organization, including churches.  Many people since payroll deduction attractive and painless.  However, the United Way organization withholds about 15% for administrative costs; but, at least it is part of the individual’s tax deductible gift, unlike credit card interest.

Some church Treasurers have avoided these approaches, looking at their cost and seeing a loss.  They offer advantages, however, in the certainty and regularity of the gift, in the substantial reduction in accounting workload, in getting funds deposited more quickly and in the possibility that the size of gifts will increase.  There are costs of “business as usual” too – the  reduction factor one must include in the annual budget when using only traditional collection methods, the cost in waiting for people to get around to paying stewardship commitments, and the cost of tracking them down when they don’t.  So, look at all the costs as well as all the benefits of each possible method of collecting the monthly stewardship payments.

This chapter is important.[2]  What follows is, I hope, a summary of what you encountered here, embellished by further observations:

1)         Generous giving is a learned behavior pattern.  The most effective means of teaching and learning any behavior is by modeling — in our case calling attention to those influential people who exhibit generosity, expecting others to follow the pattern, and rewarding them when they do so.

2)         The decision about who is to make the solicitation for a gift is as important as the act of solicitation.  Never send an ungenerous giver to ask for a generous gift.

3)         People give to causes they care about that address needs important to them.

4)         Generosity increases when donors feel they are supporting higher values rather than lesser ones.

5)         People feel inspired to support successes and the growth of successes, not to make up for failures or to maintain the status quo.

6)         Generosity increases over time as our gifts are shown to advance our own social and religious values, particularly when we are acknowledged and affirmed in our specific efforts to do so.

7)         Persons soliciting gifts will be more effective when they know how much was given in the past, and have a gift target for this ask.

8)         Donors do not give generously to support congregational budgets.  They are inspired to support commanding visions and well-articulated programs with realistic opportunities for achieving them.

9)         People enjoy working on stewardship campaigns where they have confidence in the leadership and like the people they work with.

            [1] Note that the adoption of monthly pledging does not imply that the church needs to have a monthly budget.  The church financial cycle is annual; the family financial cycle is monthly.  The two are unrelated.

[2] Many of the ideas put forth are not new, but need constant repeating.  I am indebted to Rev. Ralph Mero for helping me crystallize my thinking in this area.

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