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The Rev. Dr. William H. Willimon The Rev. Dr. William H. Willimon

The Rev. Dr. William H. Willimon is Professor of the Practice of Christian Ministry at The Divinity School, Duke University. He retired after serving eight years as Bishop of the North Alabama Conference of The United Methodist Church.

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Bishop Will Willimon: Money and Mission

October 19, 2009

In many ways, this summer has revealed this to be the worst of times and the best of times for raising money for the work of Christ's church. Historically, churches feel the effects of a financial recession about a year after the recession's beginning. We are certainly finding that to be true. Our Conference receipts both for mission and for clergy benefits have taken a dramatic drop. We could receive the lowest percentage of apportionments this year in the last decade. Anticipating a shortfall of many hundreds of thousands of dollars, we have made some painful cuts in our Conference staff and budget. (Sadly, few of our congregations have had to cut their budgets as much as the Conference has been forced to cut its budget -- a commentary on the trend of some of our churches to keep more money within the confines of their own congregation.)

On the other hand, this was the summer that our churches raised over $400,000 within a couple of months to save Sumatanga. This was an unprecedented outpouring of support for our beloved institution. I have not seen such generosity since our response to Katrina. On top of that Matt Lacey tells me that this summer saw a marked increase in short term mission teams being sent from our churches to places of need all around the world.

I'm sure that there are many lessons to be learned about stewardship in this worst of times, best of times. In order to learn as much as I could, I read J. Cliff Christopher's Not Your Parents' Offering Plate: A New Vision for Financial Stewardship (Abingdon Press, 2008). Christopher chides church leaders like me who sound the alarm and plead for more money for ministry:

The church is the only nonprofit I know of that seems to believe that the more you cry that you are sinking, the more people will give to you. The exact opposite is true. No nonprofit I know of would ever send out a donor letter stating that they are running a horrible deficit and they just want the donors to help balance the budget. They know that such a letter actually discourages giving rather than motivates it. A nonprofit board will deal with budget matters in a board meeting but never publicize such to its donor base. The church goes out of its way to do just that.

In the nonprofit world, two institutions continue to outperform most of the others. The Salvation Army continues to get more donations each year than any social service agency or group. Harvard University leads all universities in endowment-giving year after year. Do they send out a message that they are dying on the vine and must have one more contribution to stay afloat? No, they say, "We took your money last year and we did great things with it. If you will give us more, we will do more great things." And people give and give to them. People want results and these institutions give positive results!

Above all, Christopher stresses that "money follows mission." He asked a group of pastors why people give:

They started blurting out, "taxes, guilt, involvement..." No one was even close. Finally, a lady who had been sitting quietly in the back raised her hand and said, "Number one is a belief in the mission. Number two is a regard for staff leadership, and number three is fiscal responsibility." She was right. I was stunned. I asked her where she was a pastor and she sheepishly said, "I am not a pastor, but my pastor told me about this seminar and thought I might learn something. I am the Executive Director of Habitat for Humanity."

The one absolutely most important factor in why people give is mission:

People want to make the world a better place to live. They want to believe that they can truly make a difference for the better. There is embedded in us, it seems, a desire to finish out our work on this earth with a sense that we amounted to something. To sum it up, people want to be a part of something that changes lives.

The best way to raise money for your church is simply to DO YOUR JOB! I get frustrated reading newsletters of church after church that tell me how the men's group is going to have a breakfast on Saturday and the women are going to have a bazaar next Thursday and the youth will have a dance next Friday after the ball game. Then, over in the corner, usually separated by a bold line so that it stands out, I see financial statistics, which usually indicate that a certain amount was needed and a lesser amount was received, with a quote underneath, "God loves a cheerful giver."

When I see that I want to say, "What have I got to be cheerful about?" Did you show me one life story in this newsletter about how the church has been making our world better? Is there one life-changing story in the entire document? Do you really just exist so that men can have breakfast, women a bazaar, and youth can dance? What is it exactly that you want me to support?

I have noted, in our churches, that apportionment giving seems to be a barometer of the spiritual health of a congregation and of the congregation's confidence in their pastor's vision. Christopher confirms this:

What I have learned after working with over two hundred churches is that the person leading the flock makes a lot of difference in whether today's donors contribute as completely as they can. When they see a pastor who has a great vision and shows excellent skills in leadership, they will invest in that pastor's vision and trust in his or her skills to make the hopes of the donor come true.

How is your church doing in its stewardship fidelity? ... Let us all see the current financial crisis as a time to reconsider our commitments, to focus on the main mission of the church, and to enable all our people, through their giving, to be part of Christ's mission.

Will Willimon

[Taken with permission from the "Weekly Message from Bishop Willimon," 10/19/09]

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