10 Counterintuitive practices that will improve your stewardship (even during a pandemic)

By Ken Howard

In my more than 25 years in starting new congregations and redeveloping existing ones, I have gained a number of hard-won insights into what makes stewardship successful. These insights are the results of much congregational experimentation and reviewing giving research, and most of them go against the grain of our stewardship traditions. I offer this list ten DOs and DON’Ts below:

Stewardship DOs and DON’Ts:

  1. Don’t use the term “pledges” (call them Giving Estimates instead). The word pledge is rapidly becoming archaic in modern culture and carries with it serious baggage, especially with people under 35. No matter how much we explain that a pledge is merely an estimate of what they think they can give, they tend to view a pledge as a contract.  My church stopped talking about pledging after a new, young, formerly unchurched family took out a second mortgage to fulfill their pledge. The next year we started calling it a Giving Estimate, with unexpected results: Giving Estimates came in faster, were more generous, and were fulfilled at a significantly higher rate than when we called them pledges. 
  2. Do allow people the space to discuss the reasons they might not want to give. For example, if the economy is uncertain, give them space to talk about how the current situation might hold them back from giving. When we gave our people permission to do this, the discussion invariably led to them talking about why they might want to give as well. The first time we did this in a congregation at which I served, we saw a nearly 25% increase in giving over the previous year.
  3. Don’t be so somber about stewardship (develop a sense of humor). You don’t have to be somber to be serious. The more somber you are in your giving the more reticent people become about giving. One year we modeled our giving campaign on how National Public Radio conducts theirs, telling them we would shorten the sermon by two minutes every week we met our Giving Estimate goal.
  4. Do tell people regularly that they can reduce their Giving Estimate at any time, if their circumstances require it. It’s paradoxical, but it has a positive impact: reminding people they can reduce their pledge when necessary does not reduce giving, because it gives people the confidence to increase their Giving Estimate, as well.
  5. Don’t talk about Time, Talent, and Treasure. Unless you are prepared to give Time and Talent equal time and energy, people will tend to view it as a smoke screen, see right through it, and become more reticent to give.
  6. Do practice year-round stewardship. It takes a lot of the pressure off both the leadership and the congregants, with positive results. Focus on stewardship (including Time and Talent) at least quarterly.
  7. Don’t tell people to mail in their checks, especially during the pandemic. Not only does it put givers (especially older ones) at greater risk, research by Givelify shows it is inversely related to frequency of giving.
  8. Do encourage people to use their cell phones to give and Integrate cell-phone giving into the service. This is especially important while we are live-streaming our services, but also during in-person services. Telling people to turn off their cell phones during the service doesn’t work. They will be looking at them anyway, just hiding it. According to research by Givelify, when we build cellphone giving into our offertory liturgy, it results in higher levels of giving. Also, once they get used to it they will tend to use their cellphones to give at other times they are feeling thankful… like dinnertime.
  9. Don’t hide your requests for money behind spiritual lingo. Nowadays, when we mention stewardship in services during the giving season, people tend to think to themselves, “Yeah, yeah – they’re after our wallet.” People tend to respond more positively if we are straightforward and unashamed to talk about the bottom line.
  10. Don’t tell people to give sacrificially. If we push people, they tend to push back. Instead, tell them not to give any more than what they believe their prayerful discernment has revealed to them that God is encouraging them to give. 

It goes without saying that you should not take my word as Gospel but rather ground your discernment about your stewardship practices in data: both from research and the results of experimenting you undertake with your own congregation (people respond better to “experiment” than “change”). Much of what I am saying may seem counterintuitive and paradoxical, but those also qualities of God. 

So test and see!


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