I can’t believe I did it because I am not normally an impulsive person. It was a typical fall church conference Sunday in the Grand Rapids District. I left the house at 7:30 a.m. and didn’t get home till 9 p.m. I ate my breakfast, lunch, and supper in the car, hoping that I would not spill any food on my clothes. After spending the morning in Montague and the afternoon in White Cloud with a lively cluster of 4 churches, I drove back towardMuskegon for one more meeting. On the way home to Grand Rapids, I made 4 follow-up phone calls and prayed that I would stay alert enough to avoid the deer.
My companion on the road these days is Blue Lake Public Radio. With cell phone coverage erratic in rural areas, I find myself listening to more music and making less phone calls, which is what my spirit usually needs anyway.
I was between New Era and Hesperia early Sunday afternoon when I heard Buck Matthews from BlueLaketell a few hilarious stories about organists who liven up church services by surreptitiously slipping in melodies like, “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” in the middle of hymns. It was the time of the fall pledge campaign for Blue Lake Public Radio, and Buck was softening up his listeners to contribute. After relating how the congregation at his own church, Marne UMC, cracked up when their musician played “March to the Scaffold” at a timely moment, Buck said, “For all of you United Methodists in West Michigan, call 1-800-889-9259 right now, tell us how the sermon went this morning, and make your pledge.”
I was so taken by what Buck Matthews said that I stopped by the side of the road right then and there to make my first pledge to public radio in a dozen years. Not only did I pledge $75 and say that I heard a great sermon that morning, but I also asked to talk with Buck. I wanted to know why people do what I just did: that is, give to Public Radio. The substance of Buck’s reply was this,
“Our audience gets it. We don’t have to whine or twist arms. We are licensed to a non-profit fine arts organization rather than to a university, so we do not receive any state money. There is a certain magic between our listeners and the radio station. They enjoy the programs that we offer and know that they have a responsibility to support that which gives value back to the community.”
It’s the time of the fall pledge campaign in most of our United Methodist churches as well. At least it should be. I am still amazed at the number of churches that do not conduct an intentional annual campaign to ask for financial support for the ministries to which God is calling them. I am also disappointed when pastors will not preach about money and choose not to take an active role in the financial leadership of their church.
So what can we learn about giving from Buck Matthews and non-profit organizations like National Public Radio?
- Ask, and you will receive. My husband, Gary, was recently at a workshop led by Dr. Clif Christopher, President of Horizon Stewardship Company and a United Methodist minister. Dr. Christopher reflected that there were about 350,000 churches in our country 30 years ago, and there are about the same number today. In contrast, there were around 600,000 non-profit organizations 30 years ago, and there are 1.8 million non-profits today. The number of non-profits has tripled, and they aggressively ask for donations all the time. It’s no surprise, then, that churches only receive about 35% of the average person’s charitable contributions today compared with almost 60% of contributions just 30 years ago.
- What this means is that churches cannot be shy about money. Other organizations are asking skillfully, creatively and relentlessly. We also must invite people to give. We must encourage people to be generous and present meaningful opportunities for their giving. Ask, and you will have the possibility of receiving. Don’t ask, and you likely won’t receive!
- Tell the story of how the church changes lives and provides value to the community and the world. People do not respond well when the only time they hear about money is when we harangue them about how far behind we are in the budget. No one wants to be pressured into giving. Rather, people of faith are eager to give their money to churches that are effective in transforming the lives of people in the church, community and world. Telling the story is an opportunity to say, “This ministry (tutoring in a school, working in the food bank, visiting the sick…) means so much to me and to the people involved. Thank you for making it possible!”
- Create an atmosphere of trust. People are more apt to give when:
- Their church has clear vision and mission statements and creates budgets that are aligned with their mission.
- They know that the church is administered well, with appropriate policies and procedures.
- They have developed a trusting relationship with the pastor(s) and lay leaders.
- Their money will not simply be used to pay the heating bill but will make a significant impact in the community and the world through mission and outreach.
- Encourage generosity. Churches that depend on $75 pledges, like the one I made to Blue Lake Public Radio, will fail. We need to teach the biblical principle of tithing and clearly communicate the expectation that people will work toward giving 10% of their income to Christ and his church. Other charitable giving is on top of that.
- As Christians, we give because we need to give, and it’s a joy to give. We rarely give because the church needs our money. Nor do we give to a budget. Nor do we give so that we will receive something in return. We give as a grateful response to God’s grace in our lives.
- Develop a plan, and keep it simple. Finance/Stewardship committees don’t need gimmicks or elaborate schemes in order to raise money. However, we do need a well thought-out plan that is not thrown together at the last minute. At the very minimum, that plan needs to provide an opportunity for all church members and friends to make a specific estimate of giving. We make commitments in all other areas of our lives, and the church should be no different.
- Don’t forget to say thank you. In a world where so much communication today is impersonal, the personal touch keeps people connected and makes all the difference. Have members of the Finance Committee send hand-written thank you notes to people in the congregation. Take every opportunity you can to verbally thank people for their faith and generosity. Model gratitude.
So thank you, Buck! You taught me a lot last week about “making the ask” and the value that non-profit organizations add to our lives. Most of all, you reminded me of the intangible “magic” between the giver and the organization. That magic is the relationship which is at the heart of all giving: our relationship to God, with each other and with our world.
My pledge to Blue Lake will never replace my pledge to the church. You already knew that, though, because you’re a faithful United Methodist. But whenever I’m driving in the Grand Rapids District, I’ll be listening toBlueLake; that is, if I’m not on the phone.