Note: This post originally appeared on Voices of Stewardship, a newly sponsored initiative by Vanco Payments. I've written a lot about church stewardship and giving over the last decade. Review a diverse sampling of that work here.

No matter how you voted or what you believe about the candidates, this presidential election made it painfully obvious that polls and election data are flawed. They are based on assumptions and paradigms that are no longer true. Thus, those who conducted the polls and reported on them were consistently surprised as that data led them to incorrect conclusions.

But it would be overly simplistic to say that the data itself was wrong when data is merely a reflection of the assumptions and bias built into the framework of the model itself. What the discrepancies revealed is an unwillingness to believe anything had changed. Therefore, there was little motivation to tweak the models and be open to new outcomes and information that might have emerged in doing so.

If there is one thing this election cycle revealed, it’s that politics will never be the same again. The traditional paths of communication, what it means to be a presidential candidate, and how to win an election have all been redefined. We’ll spend the rest of our lives trying to unpack and understand what just happened.

The Future of Ministry Funding

But pollsters and politicians aren’t the only ones feeling the effects of a shifting climate. Church leaders are feeling it, too, both in the offering plate and the pew. And those changes have tremendous implications on what ministry will look like in the future.

This is, no doubt, uncharted territory. If you are honest …

  • You are working harder than you ever remember with diminishing financial results.

  • People are attending Sunday services less frequently than in years past, which is complicating methods of communication.

  • Ministry models that worked for decades are showing cracks in their foundations and leading to incorrect or incomplete conclusions.

  • You don’t feel prepared to pivot fast enough to keep up with a millennial approach to money—especially related to funding ministry.

It can be a frustrating and defeating place to be. Caught between your vision, today’s pressing needs and the inherent limitations of people, programs, and dollars, how do you mitigate the relentless demand for more?

The good news is, you’re not alone. There is, collectively, a swell of concern taking shape in conference rooms and coffee shops alike. While the tried and true stewardship strategies are deployed, many leaders are wondering what exactly needs to change to create new possibilities and opportunities for breakthrough outcomes.

Church Leaders Are Experiencing:

  • A decline in key multi-year givers. If it takes 8-12 new givers nearly three years to replace the value of one key multi-year giver, the compound effect of any loss in this category is enough to take your breath away.

  • An increased dependence on a smaller number of people giving exponentially more. As we race toward a generational shift of wealth, we are painfully close to watching the few who have given the most transition out of their peak income-earning. And this will and already is having a direct impact on your giving.

  • A lack of success in increasing first-time givers and then consistently converting them to second and third-time givers. Given the generally accepted practice—however flawed—to avoid the conversation of money until much later in the engagement process, church leaders are not meeting the acquisition demands to keep pace with the costs to support a growing ministry.

  • A decline in the frequency in which people give. While it wasn’t unusual to see 12-15 gifts annually per giver, those numbers are dropping in recent years to a painfully infrequent 6-8 gifts annually in more and more churches. This is surely the result of disruptive and more inconsistent attendance patterns. Nevertheless, it is a troubling trend indeed.

The Cost of Not Being Responsive

If you don’t adapt, then your ability to fully fund your ministry plan may become practically impossible. But how do you know what to change when everything seems to be changing at the same time? And how can you be sure that you know what needs to be changed first?

Those are important questions. But this is not a time for philosophical discourse. On the contrary, this is a time for decisive action. You can paralyze yourself and your staff with endless conversations about stewardship without acting on anything. But the cost is too high. Once you lose the attention of your congregation and they start to direct their funds elsewhere, it will be virtually impossible to regain those dollars.

The only choice you have is to create a culture of stewardship. Not a touchy-feely, emotionally driven concept. I’m talking about a fully integrated strategy that shifts the posture of every staff member, volunteer, and member to an engaged disciple who believes everything we have—our time, talent, treasures, temple, and testimony—are assets to be invested in the Kingdom rather than discretionary options subject to our personal preferences.

A Culture of Stewardship Versus a Culture of Safety

The move to create a culture of stewardship is not one you can make if your goal is to create a culture of safety. Here’s why:

  • A culture of stewardship encourages open conversations about money. A culture of safety fears that money will become a barrier to engagement and growth.

  • A culture of stewardship believes every staff member, volunteer and member is an ambassador for the impact the church is making. A culture of safety reserves the conversation of ministry ROI to the platform—or worse—monthly business meetings.

  • A culture of stewardship turns a vision into a ministry plan and then challenges God’s people to invest. A culture of safety quietly passes around pledge cards and builds a ministry budget based on uninspired and predictable commitments.

  • A culture of stewardship believes that every person who walks through the doors of the church deserves to be counted and should be encouraged to begin a carefully constructed journey of spiritual growth and formation. A culture of safety posts a sign for a new member’s class and hopes someone shows up.

  • A culture of stewardship champions the act of giving over the method of giving. A culture of safety limits giving methods, frequencies, and options to a small set of personal preferences.

  • A culture of stewardship builds a ministry plan around what God is calling that community and its leaders to accomplish. A culture of safety incrementally increases (or decreases) budgets based on industry averages or benchmark studies.

  • A culture of stewardship reaches for technology, social media, and analytics to provide interactions and insights based on behavioral cues to measure the effectiveness of a ministry plan. A culture of safety believes that technology, communication, and measurement is a distraction from authentic ministry.

The outcome must justify the means. Part of stewarding the people in your care means you must reach for every tool and strategy available to ensure that they grow into fully devoted and engaged followers of Christ. Anything short of that places your preferences above the spiritual development of those in your care. And that will fundamentally limit your potential for Kingdom impact.

Too Risky to Play It Safe

I met a banker turned Episcopal priest a few years ago. He shared with me his faith journey. He did not become a follower of Jesus until adulthood. It was through an intentional stewardship effort that inspired him to give at a level that ultimately led him to faith and to later leave the banking world to become a clergyman.

What strikes me in his story—one I’ve heard time and again—is that most church leaders believe that giving just magically happens. Such is not the case. This story proves that people give when they are asked. Even more important than that, a challenge to give ultimately sets in motion a faith journey that will impact the Kingdom in a material way.

Many church leaders I know would struggle to make room for a testimony like this in their ministry. That’s the point. When you aren’t open to new ideas and new ways of thinking, you eliminate the ministry opportunity and potential that is right in front of you.

In a rapidly changing environment, playing it safe may prove to be the riskiest ministry strategy you could deploy. And it could come at a price you are not ready or prepared to pay. Perhaps it’s time to embrace a culture of stewardship and leave behind your present culture of safety.

REFLECT: How would you define a culture of stewardship? Are you playing it safe or smart? How is your ministry plan positioning you and your church to invite people to accomplish something meaningful, significant and purposeful?

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