It has been like this for years.
I make a new list and began scheduling breakfasts and lunches with people who may be willing to write a check. I say a prayer—asking for wisdom—and create a rich monologue that I hope will inform people and inspire them. “God is doing a great work,” I might say, “and I thank you for being a part of it.”
If the ambiance is right, or if the food is particularly good and I can afford to pay for it, I might even ask them to write a check on the spot. “Could you give a thousand dollars today?” I might ask. “Or more?”
I’ve attended the workshops. Read the books. Learned for the famous gurus. Regardless of the nomenclature, the approach or the fancy turns-of-phrase, money is ever tight. Most people give—not because they feel a part of something special or because they share a vision of God or because they believe in an unseen kingdom—but because the pastor asks them to give. They give out of relationship. Sometimes out of respect. Or pity.
The fact is, most pastors now spend a great deal of time dredging up funds (or creating an atmosphere of stewardship), but one rarely talks about money (this is anathema to church growth); and all the top agencies, courses and schemes will tell you the same thing. They will teach you the proper words to use and the phrases to avoid.
“You’ll need to spend 50 percent of your time talking to people about money without talking about money,” a recent guru informs our group of lead pastors. “The senior leader will have to be out there shaking the bushes, visiting in homes, cold calling and essentially doing the work of a stewardship director. Think of yourselves as the CEO of a foundation. You are responsible for raising the revenue. Everyone will be depending on you to create a solvent organization.”
Mega-churches do this in spades, and when the guru introduces the guest speaker—a former pastor of one of the largest churches in America—he tells us tales of success: how he took a struggling congregation and transformed it into a mega-plant, rich with various income streams, self-supporting ministries of hospitality and recreation, and gifts of such incredible size that we could scarcely count the zeros.
“You can do it,” he closes. “Trust the Spirit.”
After this course, the Spirit carries me, excitedly, to yet another group of parishioners. I tell the story of God’s wondrous love, how blessed we are and wonder if some of these will consider a gift to God’s work through their estate-planning. “Don’t forget…God’s work continues,” I say. “A gift from our estate is a gift of perpetuity, ensuring that God’s work will continue for decades to come.”
Everyone listens to me carefully, hanging on my every word; but most shake their heads and seem to think I have asked them to travel to Mars on a bicycle. They never have considered their own deaths before—not even if they are 90 years old—and it is inconceivable to most that such things are possible. “Insurance, collectables, real estate…” I slide through the list the gurus have taught me and then depart with a prayer.
Another Workshop, Another Day
The next one is about the decay of the American church as it relates to stewardship. “Church folks give to many organizations,” the guru tells us. “People in the church also give to universities, health organizations, service organizations, clubs, political causes and more. Many are supporting family members, struggling with unemployment or shot through with financial worries. The church is now in competition for the dollars that our members used to give exclusively for God’s work. Everything has changed, and the largest gifts no longer go to the church.”
Indeed, I know the feeling. Most pastors do.
In addition to giving to the congregation’s budget and building funds, I realize my wife and I also are giving to an array of other needs and requests: a pension fund for third-world pastors, a conference program designed to help younger pastors with seminary debt, missionary agencies where I serve on the board of directors, my seminary’s annual fund, cancer agencies that are dear to my wife’s health history. I toss in my meager book royalties and writing income, giving this money to various missions over-and-above my tithe; but the list is staggering, and when I total the sum I am amazed at the breadth of our gifts, but also how challenging it is to paint a picture of God’s work through a congregation.
I hit the pavement again, this time to stave off a sharp downturn in our summer giving. I make my list. Check it twice. Begin by cold calling on some of our most generous people, thanking them and asking if they can give either a special gift or if they can increase their pledge for the coming year. I tell my story and share my commitment, too. I point out that in the coming year my wife and I will be giving five-figures to the budget and challenge them to consider doing the same.
Later in the week, I have lunch with a colleague, a pastor of another large congregation. “You look exhausted,” he tells me.
I don’t have the heart to tell him I have just returned from a vacation. Instead, I ask him about his congregation’s finances. “It’s a struggle,” he admits. “It’s like trying to find a nickel when you need a dime. Sometimes I feel like I’m just raising Cain.”
I’ve never heard this before, but I get the picture. From the beginning there were offerings, but not all of them lead to life.
We find solace in these conversations and the mutual struggles. “It never works like the books and workshops tell you it should,” he says as he bites into a Reuben. We joke about becoming stewardship experts ourselves, offering workshops, creating our own unique approach and selling full-color workbooks.
“Call me when you find that nickel,” I joke as we part.
“I will,” he says, “but it will be a wooden one.”
Days later, while sitting at home on my back deck working up a sermon outline, I begin to pray…not the type of prayer most would recognize, but a yearning, a longing I cannot explain or parse into words. My wife is at work. My daughter is married. My son is in college. I am alone, and deeply lonely; but I feel grateful for the work I do and the immense struggle and effort that pastoral work requires in our time. In fact, after 30 years of ministry, the work continues to become more difficult—not easier—and yet I cannot give it up, even though every ounce of my energies and my aging body tells me that I should seek a permanent Sabbath.
I consider my sermon again. I anticipate the next book and essay I must write. I go into the house, take out my checkbook, and write a fat one for God’s work.
And then I remember one more family in the congregation I need to call. It’s what I do. I want to thank them for giving to the Lord.