Acting Outside The Box: Stewardship – Part 1

We are trying out a new occasional blog series in which people doing ministry can talk about outside the box wild ideas for ministry that they have tried and what they learned from them (whether or not the ideas work). We are calling this new series Acting Outside The Box, because just thinking about what’s outside the box is waaaay too passive. Ken Howard kicks off this series with some counter-intuitive stewardship strategies he’s run into (stumbled into, really) over the years.

Changing Language Changes Behavior

For the first decade of my ordained ministry, I always hated stewardship season. I never felt like I was being entirely transparent with my congregation. I always seemed to be starting out the season preaching about stewardship as a spiritual practice, when what we really wanted them to do was to give us money to support the work of the church. But by the end of the season, I was increasingly talking about how much more money we needed to meet our budget (while still cloaking the need in spiritual terms). 

Using words like “pledging” and “tithing” seemed less and less helpful as more and more newcomers to the church had smaller and smaller religious vocabularies. They sounded more remote and archaic, like the way the rite of Holy Matrimony used to require the bride and groom to “plight their troth”). I was always telling people that a “pledge” was really only a “best estimate” of what they desired – and more importantly, what they could afford – to give.

It all came to a head for me one year when I got a distressing call early in our pledge drive from the wife of a young couple with two small children. They were starting their fourth year in the congregation, experiencing the third pledge drive, the second in which they were making a pledge. I heard a hint of tearfulness in her voice as she said, “Father Ken, I’m calling to say we are so, so sorry that we will not be able to pledge as much this year as last. My husband lost his job this year and we had to take out a second mortgage to fulfill the pledge we already made.”

I was horror struck. I told her I wanted to take whatever was left of what they had borrowed to pay they church and either apply it to the loan or use it to live on. I explained, yet again, that their pledge is only an intention, only an estimate, and we did not expect them to pay more than they could afford. She remembered me saying that. But the word “pledge” simply carried too much emotional weight. “Just remember,” I said, “you are not married to the church.”

And then it hit me. What if we just abandoned our archaic baggage-carrying language and just spoke in plain English first, rather than explaining after. And so in the very next year, we changed the language. We announced our “giving campaign” and asked people to discern what God was calling them to give and what they thought they could afford, and then submit a “Giving Estimate.”

What happened as a result of our change of language?

To begin with, no more tearful calls about second mortgages (reason enough to make the change).

But there were also several unintended (and very surprising) consequences:

• More people turned in Giving Estimates than had made Pledges (some who had been members of the church for years and had never pledged).

• People returned their Giving Estimates more quickly than they turned in their Pledges in previous years.

• People made more generous Giving Estimates than they did Pledges.

And most surprising of all…

• People were also more generous in fulfilling Giving Estimates than Pledges.

Totally counterintuitive, right?

But that’s what happened.

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