Church leaders learn tough truths from stewardship expert

“We’re struggling,” said the Rev. Steward Warner of his church, First UMC Perkasie. “That’s why we’re here.”

“Here” was the “Keys to Effective Financial Ministry” seminar at Glen Mar UMC in Ellicott City, Md., Feb. 25, led by financial stewardship author and expert Clif Christopher and sponsored by the Mid-Atlantic United Methodist Foundation. The foundation, a non-profit financial investment resource for the Eastern Pa., Peninsula-Delaware and Baltimore-Washington conferences since 2010, has invested generously to have Christopher speak to church leaders on several occasions. He will return to our area twice in the fall and again at the 2015 EPA Annual Conference.

Warner, who brought three church members with him, said the five-hour seminar shed new light on his church’s challenges. He was not alone in that assessment, as more than a hundred attendees paid close attention to Christopher’s pearls of wisdom, often nodding their heads, chuckling at his humor and taking notes.

The only question that remains, Christopher acknowledged later, is how many will actually shine that light into the dark corners of their struggling church finances and begin to make needed changes. Some might, but many will not, he mused. Yet, if they hear it again and again, some might finally decide to break with traditional modes and mindsets that keep their churches poor when they could be rich.

After their last giving campaign and before coming to the seminar, Warner’s team read Rich Church, Poor Church (2012), Christopher’s latest of three revealing books on the sociology of church finances. Now more of the church’s leaders are reading it. Soon they will begin to dialogue and put some of its teachings into practice, their pastor vowed. “We have to do something, and this information will help us,” he said.

That information came in three sections during the seminar: “Rich Church, Poor Church”; “Capital Campaigns Keys to Success”; and “Planned Giving is Easy Money.”

“A failure to articulate our mission and how we’re accomplishing that mission is our greatest failure,” Christopher told the crowd. He named low expectations, lack of effective leadership and oppressive debt as the other chief obstacles that hinder people from giving to many struggling churches.

“People are giving, just not to your church,” he asserted, citing increasing donations to nonprofit groups but declining donations to religious groups in particular. “People want their gifts to make an impact, to change lives,” Christopher explained. He named the one key “product” that churches must offer and promote to givers: “a changed human being, a changed life altogether.”

A former pastor and a certified church growth consultant, Christopher founded his Horizons Stewardship firm in 1992 has helped raise over $1 billion for churches.

Competition for charitable dollars is greater than ever, he said, and churches cannot compete with nonprofits that are better at presenting their mission and benefits in more compelling ways. He cited three reasons people choose to give: belief in the mission; confidence in the leadership; and assurance of fiscal responsibility and sustainability. So communicating a bold vision and vitality is essential, while portraying a dearth of resources is unlikely to rally support.

And while members must feel confident they know their leaders, pastors whose job involves nurturing stewardship must also know their members, including their commitment to giving, according to Christopher.

“There’s not a line of work that I know of where guessing is better than knowing,” said the giving guru, citing a surprising statistic that nearly 74 percent of pastors don’t know what their members give or who their top givers are, and only about 26 percent do know. It was visibly the most uncomfortable moment of the seminar for some, as if to prove his statistics.

One EPA clergy attendee later reported asking to see her church members’ giving amounts when she returned home.  Her alarmed finance secretary balked at first, she said, but finally brought her the books when she promised not to let anyone else know.

She said she was shocked at the giving records of some leaders who had much but gave little and some who had little but gave much. She was also shocked to see another of Christopher’s predictions bear truth: that about 20 percent of the members were paying about 80 percent of the church’s bills.

“There was a lot of important learning in that room today,” said Jack Brooks, Mid-Atlantic United Methodist Foundation (MAUMF) executive director. “Some will begin to realize why so many of our churches are failing in stewardship when they could be succeeding, and some may finally begin to make changes. But we’re going to keep trying to help.”

The foundation, which provides training in stewardship, endowments, investments and fiduciary best practices, will bring Christopher back to our area three times in the fall. It also plans to launch its new Financial Leadership Academy with the first class in January 2015.

The agency managed more than $750 million for than 300 client churches in 2013; and it paid more than $5.5 million directly to clients’ ministries, while providing matching grants of more than $30,000 for ministry support. It also advised and assisted the EPA Conference in its successful capital campaign.

For more information about the foundation and upcoming training events visit www.midatlanticfoundation.org or contact Jack Brooks at jbrooks@epaumc.org.

By John Coleman, EPA Conference Communications Director

Rich churches tend to focus on:

  • The church’s mission
  • Discipling members
  • Passion for ministry
  • Choosing leaders based on stewardship
  • Desire to succeed and see members grow
  • Christian education and tithing as expected
  • Stewardship emphasis all year long
  • Communicating stories of transformation
Poor churches tend to focus on:

  • The church’s survival
  • Appeasing members
  • Fear of rejection
  • Choosing leaders based on reputation
  • Desire to please and see members content
  • Christian education and tithing as optional
  • Stewardship emphasis once a year
  • Communicating fiscal information
[Adapted from Rich Church Poor Church, by J. Clif Christopher]

 

Upcoming Clif Christopher visits to our area:
Sept. 17: Avenue UMC, Milford, DE
Sept. 18: Mt. Hope UMC, Ashton, PA
Oct. 21: Wescosville: Bethany UMC, Allentown, PA