What Is Church Stewardship?
With the many negative connotations the word stewardship can have, we should first define what we mean by it. And different denominations and churches can have distinct nuances in defining it. But there are some basic concepts that should be common across congregations.
Stewardship comes from the Greek words “oikos,” which means “household” or “estate,” and “nemo,” which means “to arrange.” The combination, “oikonomous” or “stewards,” is used throughout scripture to refer to many different things.
These include government and other official money managers, or treasurers (Romans 16:23). It refers to administrators responsible for their employer’s possessions or affairs (Luke 16:1). “Stewards” also defines Christians tasked with spreading the message of God (1 Corinthians 4:1).
The way most churches talk about stewardship today is some combination of these definitions. A very basic understanding could be the responsibility of doing what you feel God wants you to do with the resources you have been given.
9 Church Stewardship Best Practices
As we mentioned, talking about stewardship can be hard for church leaders. Everyone feels some level of discomfort when asking for money. To help you and other leaders with this important concern, we identified some pragmatic ways you can reshape the meaning of stewardship and increase giving for your congregation.
1) Make Stewardship About Doing
The Bible gives us much more robust explanations of stewardship beyond its characterization of certain roles. One of the best-known examples juxtaposing good and bad stewardship is the parable of the talents (Matthew 25:14-28). Here, a man entrusts different amounts of money to three servants.
The master scolds the servant who merely saved his bag of gold. Whereas, the two who put their allotments to good and productive uses were praised and given more responsibility.
One take away from this parable is that stewardship should not be about giving only, but doing. This outlook should inform your messaging to your congregation. If you are asking members to give without articulating a vision of what the giving will do--for them, the church, and those who are impacted by it--then the request is no more than charity.
In fact, the majority of Bible verses addressing money deal with the responsibilities of the individual and not the needs of the church. But, like most congregations, you probably have members who are financially well off, others who are struggling, and many in between. The emphasis should be on what they can contribute, not how much.
Members are a part of the mission of the church, not merely funders of it. All giving should be about how they are contributing to God’s work.
2) Put Heart into Stewardship
Jesus teaches us that we cannot serve two masters (Matthew 6:24). Giving should be inextricably tied to our spiritual lives, not something that is apart from it.
One biblical indication of the spirit of giving is the story of the widow’s offering (Mark 12:41 - 44), where Jesus sat with his disciples in the temple courts and witnessed many wealthy people contributing large amounts.
He points out the small gift made by a poor widow, emphasizing that she gave all that she had. The point here is that you want your church members to give from their hearts, regardless of the amount.
Consider another biblical story, also in Mark, where a woman anoints the feet of Jesus with expensive perfume. The disciples are indignant at the apparent waste, suggesting that it could have been sold and the money given to the poor. But Jesus encouraged them to focus on the heart of the woman and her extreme act of selfless giving.
If these are discussions that members of your church have not had in a long time, you may consider starting meetings to talk about issues surrounding money. This can be an opportunity to address broader issues, such as consumerism, greed and what role money plays in our society. It is a chance to talk about financial security, and more broadly what money should mean to Christians.
This also can be a chance to look at what the Bible says about debt and how God wants us to live fruitful and productive lives. It can be an opportunity to talk to your congregation about financial peace. And it can be a good segue into brainstorming about how to promote stewardship within the congregation.
3) Make Stewardship About the Cause
Stewardships should be driven by the mission of your congregation, whatever it is. It may be some version of the Great Commission, to “share the gospel of Jesus Christ and to live it out in the world.” But each church has a unique vision for what they want to accomplish with the gifts they have.
There are of course times when you have to talk about seemingly mundane financial aspects of your church’s mission. These include maintaining the building, janitorial services, staff salaries and other financial aspects that keep the doors open.
When addressing these issues, be sure to emphasize the blessing of having a space to meet and fellowship. Encourage members to be thankful for the cleaning staff that has the sanctuary vacuumed, the floors swept and the bathrooms mopped before anyone arrives. These are blessings that cannot be actualized without the financial resources to pay for them.
In this way, you can also be comfortable talking more about money, not less. Because it becomes a necessary component of the life of the church, not a tangential subject that must be addressed from time to time.
In short, the causes you wish to support may not be grand or lofty. They can be continuing to do what you are already doing. But, whatever these goals, they should be the central theme of any church stewardship campaign or conversation.
4) Make Stewardship Ongoing
Large contributions by wealthy members can do a lot of good and go a long way towards achieving your goals. But a congregation full of “givers” is not reliant on personal wealth and not susceptible to economic fluctuations. Members giving all that they can throughout the years will yield successful stewardship not just now but down the road.
Just as you do not address finances only when you need money, you should not initiate stewardship campaigns just because giving has waned. Stewardship should be inextricably tied to the vision and mission of the church.
Consider shifting from seasonal fundraising campaigns to a continual conversation about stewardship. This also moves away from the feeling of “it’s time to talk about money again.” It becomes more commonplace and is not separate from the goals and ongoing work of the church.
5) Make Stewardship Pragmatic
Now that you have a sense of what stewardship should mean generally for your congregation, you can consider some ways to help encourage and maintain that perspective.
After you have a clear vision of particular programs and objectives, be realistic about what it will take to accomplish these goals. And lay out steps to get there.
Be practical about your fundraising objectives. Look at what you raised last year as a baseline for what is realistic.
Establish a timeline and set mini-goals. Especially in larger churches, planning and implementing an outreach strategy can take months. Having deadlines for meeting particular milestones can help keep you on track.
Go as far as necessary with specific objectives. If a component of stewardship is to sponsor scholarships to summer camps for underprivileged youth, know how many kids you want to support.
There can be a lot of energy behind bigger goals, especially if funding is for a new service or ministry project. But, success or failure will most likely be determined by how well you and your congregation stick to the many specific foundational steps.
Give particular attention to new initiatives in church stewardship campaigns. Decide whether a particular objective will be funded solely by solicited giving or part of the general operating fund. Will you have fundraisers for a specific cause?
Some churches have stewardship campaigns, usually towards the end of the year. From a stability and planning standpoint, these are valuable. Also, people who pledge tend to give more than they otherwise would.
Involve the Right People
It is important to be discerning when assembling a leadership team to address stewardship. Have a diverse group, including younger and older members, if possible.
It may make sense to structure a planning committee within a deacon council, vestry or another leadership group in the church. But it also could be useful to reach out to lay members who have knowledge of financial planning or wealth management experience to participate.
For the more grassroots aspect of stewardship, make sure that you have the right people to do the heavy lifting. You want participants who are comfortable doing fundraisers, asking their fellow members for money and who can articulate the larger mission associated with the fundraising efforts.
It is important to know your congregation and not determine ministry goals just based on the desires of the few most vocal members. These people may be impassioned, sincere, and ready to work hard to achieve goals. But you want a broader sense of what your congregation cares about.
Goals are important but relationships are too. You could have the noblest cause in the world, but if you are not leveraging the particular gifts of the people working on it, it will fail.
6) Understand Why and How People Give
According to the Barna Group, which has tracked stewardship trends for decades, the main reason people give to any cause is an emotional connection to it. This means that they feel they can make a difference or are compelled by a motivating story about the issue. The next most common reasons for giving are a sense of purpose and having a relationship with someone involved in the project.
These realities have been proven during the 2020 pandemic, where we have seen close to a 20 percent increase in charitable giving across the board. COVID-19 has hurt the economy in many ways, but people have responded by supporting businesses and organizations that they believe in. People want to feel good about the money that they give, that it is going to a worthwhile cause.
It is always a great idea to frame conversations about stewardship in terms of “the gifts” the church has been given, as opposed to what it is lacking or what it “needs.” People are more receptive to the idea of contributing to something positive, rather than filling in a deficit.
It is your role to inspire and motivate people, even if it is for activities your church has been doing for a long time. In short, give people a good reason to give.
Don’t take for granted that even longtime members give all of their charitable giving to the church. People often support various causes that are meaningful to them. Make the case for how what they give will make a difference.
Be Aware of Giving Trends
Take into account unique giving patterns. Some people like to give lump sums, while others will include giving in their monthly budgets. And some people will give only when they are at church.
This has presented its own challenges amidst pandemic, but technology has helped mitigate this. If you haven’t already, consider investing in web services that make donating easier. The availability of online contributions could increase giving by more than 30 percent at your church.
These portals can streamline fundraising events and can be useful to members as well. They can allow them to easily log on and see where they stand with annual giving relevant to their pledge. And these programs can make automatic withdrawals an easy option for members.
People experience hardships and unexpected financial challenges. If you run into these issues, ask them to give what they can. But the most important thing is to not let this issue be a source of embarrassment or something that keeps them from attending church.
For long-term planning, take a look at who is giving and how much. Analyze patterns and trends. It is good to be cognizant of what variables could impact your fundraising goals.
For instance, if a large percentage of your fundraising comes from much older congregants, then you could be susceptible to abrupt declines as this group continues to age.
And once people begin to give, they usually continue to do so. And when members commit to donating a certain amount, they follow through on it if they can. This also can be helpful with budgeting and planning.
Categorize Donors for Outreach
Across the board, new donors will give less than current ones. In fact, a good portion of new fundraising may come from increases from those already donating. Be sure to structure your campaign based on these different groups.
This has proven to be an effective strategy for a number of congregations. It allows you to tailor your wording and framing of the different types of donors. It also allows you to ask for varying dollar amounts from each group.
For established members who give regularly, or “sustainers,” you can be comfortable asking for a bit more. In fact, with this group, it doesn’t hurt to ask for a much larger amount. They’re already invested in the church and are more apt to increase giving than any other group.
You also might separate out those who give but have not pledged in years past. Since they already contributed, they are more likely to pledge than non-givers.
Also, this group tends to donate sporadically. And they may have very little idea how much they contribute over the course of a year. A pledge commitment will encourage them to set and meet goals.
You might also target those who have never given. One idea is to offer a matching gift, up to a certain amount. It is a way to motivate them to throw their hat in the ring.
This also is a great way to raise funds among established members. Ask them to pitch in on this stewardship campaign, using their donations for the matching amounts.
What About Tithing?
Your church may or may not focus on tithing as a foundational aspect of stewardship. “Tithe” comes from the Hebrew word “maasar,” which means “tenth,” which is why the standard is to give 10 percent of your income.
There are many places in the Bible where this is referenced, including in the stories of Abraham (Genesis 14:20), Moses (Numbers 18: 26), and throughout the New Testament, in reference to Jewish Law (2 Chronicles 31:5). Tithing also is an important part of Hebrew tradition.
Regardless of whether this is part of your theology may be insignificant from a pragmatic standpoint. Statistically, tithers only make up about 10 to 25 percent of any given congregation.
Think about an effective comprehensive communication strategy for your stewardship efforts. In addition to advertising the fundraising goals on your church website, be sure to leverage social media to get the word out. Emails also are a direct and reliable way to make sure you reach out to everyone in your congregation.
Of course, you do not want to hound people about money, but quarterly emails or other messages with pledge balances isn’t off-putting to members who have made commitments. And it is a convenient way for congregants to keep up with where they stand on annual giving.
Even if you are nervous about newcomers, you can always ask people to “give what they can.” Make sure they know that, if they cannot contribute the suggested amount, every little bit helps and that they are a part of the mission.
Be transparent and specific about the financial goals of the church, without being tedious with details. Mention that you can provide a detailed budget for anyone who is interested in looking at or discussing line items.
After you receive pledge commitments, always follow up. No matter how big or small a gift or pledge, be sure to follow it up with a gesture of appreciation. And, returning to the idea of being “good stewards,” ensure that people who give know that their contribution is being spent responsibly to the furtherance of the cause.
8) Use Free Stewardship Letter Templates
Communicating about stewardship is even harder when it comes to putting your requests in writing. Don't burden yourself by starting from scratch. Use these dozens of templates as a springboard to get started. In the resource, we've included samples and instructions for nearly every type of church stewardship campaign.
9) Try Creative Stewardship Campaign Ideas
When it comes to asking for gifts, it helps to craft unique appeals to break up your regular giving requests. These creative calls to stewardship help members reevaluate their giving habits. Once members are ready to think about their giving, it's easier to persuade additional donations.
Try these 15 creative ideas to boost stewardship within the church.
Next Steps for Your Church Stewardship Campaign
Now that you have some general and specific ideas on how to reshape “stewardship” at your church, put a plan into motion. There are many tools you can leverage to make stewardship efforts less stressful, more effective and meaningful to your congregation.
If you're looking for more information on church stewardship, we have an entire virtual library complete with hundreds of free resources to help your church.
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