Preaching, teaching generosity
Pastors share thoughts, advisors offer tips
Pastors don't like to preach on money.
Sermons that ask, encourage and, dare we say, beg are hard, very hard. Whether you call it giving, generosity, tithing or any other term, contemporary culture says money is not a topic of conversation for polite people.
But, talking money at church is necessary, and pastors do their congregations a disservice if they don't teach about the importance of sharing God-given gifts with the giver. Jesus talked about giving a lot. If he considered it important, it is.
So what is a reluctant pastor to do?
Last spring, the connectional giving team at United Methodist Communications asked almost 400 United Methodist pastors and staff leaders questions about giving. Four related to teaching and preaching:
How do I best educate my congregation about giving that helps express our unique UMC approach to generosity?
How often should I talk to my congregation about giving and generosity? Should I do it throughout the year or save it for a year-end push?
How can I make a positive connection between giving/generosity and discipleship rather than approaching it as an obligation?
How can a pastor shepherd individuals and families with capacity to follow a path toward deeper generosity?
As they educated their churches about the United Methodist approach to giving, pastors reminded their congregations how far their offerings go and that they are a part of something bigger than themselves.
The Rev. Dedric Cowser emphasizes to the people of Sweet Home United Methodist Church in Gadsen, Alabama, how their giving is part of a gift that goes beyond their church.
"Each Sunday from the pulpit, I express how a percentage of each dollar a person gives to our local church goes to benefit the work of mission and ministry around the world. Simply put, I express that our connectional giving helps to make a global impact for the kingdom of God."
The Rev. Matt Lipan, pastor of Gateway Community Church in Indianapolis, keeps it simple. "I simply remind them, on a regular basis, that their practice of generosity as a result of their relationship with Christ is what enables us to be present, available and accessible for our community and beyond."
The Rev. Dayne Zachrison leads Epworth United Methodist Church in Valley City, North Dakota. He reminds church members of the expectation and responsibility of being a member of The United Methodist Church. "I stress that our vows include our work to build up the kingdom of Christ. Our money is a symbol of our time and energies and a part of the way we can answer that call and that vow of service to the world. John Wesley called those of us who would claim the name Methodist to commit acts of mercy, not simply sit in the pews."
A topic year-round
How often to talk about giving is another conundrum. Most seemed to agree that it is best as an ongoing conversation, rather than just a once or twice a year emphasis.
The Rev. Suzanne Calhoun, pastor of Ely United Methodist Church in Nevada, said, "It is not a season of the church year. Generosity should be a part of daily Christian life; therefore it should be something I talk about all the time."
"Stewardship is part of the heartbeat of the Christ follower, not a tattoo or an add-on," said the Rev. Jeff Sterling, pastor of St. Paul's United Methodist Church in Alison Park, Pennsylvania. Stewardship education is best woven into all phases of ministry, including worship, Sterling said.
The Rev. Sarah Lawton, pastor of Northeast United Methodist Church in Minneapolis, makes it a point to talk about money at least four times a year. "We consider giving money to be a spiritual practice (we talk about spiritual practices a lot). Giving is good for our souls and good for the world."
Giving as discipleship
Connecting giving and generosity to discipleship is important for many pastors as well.
"It is important to connect giving and generosity as central to the call of discipleship and service," said the Rev. Piula Alailima, pastor of Wesley United Methodist Church in Honolulu. He organically brings up generosity and giving throughout the year.
The Rev. John Garvis, pastor of Fountain City United Methodist Church in Knoxville, Tennessee, sees giving and generosity as obedience to Christ. "Jesus said, ‘Those that love me obey me.' I believe that love is the focus and obedience follows."
"I talk about giving as ‘evidence of our trust in God,'" said the Rev. Jean Schwein, pastor of Christ United Methodist Church in Salt Lake City, Utah. "Having faith is about trusting God. The opposite of this kind of faith is anxiety. Giving is our daily, weekly, monthly reminder that we trust God to provide for our future – whatever it may be."
Be an example
Many pastors agree leading by example is important to help congregations learn how to walk a path toward greater generosity.
The Rev. Joel Scheller, pastor of Stoney United Methodist Church in Ponder, Texas, is adamant that it is vital to lead by example when talking about giving. "Sheep don't follow any old shepherd. It is the one that cares for them at the cost of personal sacrifice that earns their trust. Isn't that the very reason we follow Christ?"
The Rev. Dan Corretore, pastor of North Rose United Methodist Church in New York, agreed. "First off, it's important for a pastor to lead by example. Then, inspire givers through sharing stories of the life-changing impact for Christ of their gifts. Ideally, engage them in hands-on ministry. And, always, express appreciation for their gifts."
The Rev. Tom Peterson, pastor of Centralia United Methodist Church in Washington, believes being upfront about his own family's giving is important. "I let the church know that my wife and I tithe to the church. We don't tell them an amount, just that we tithe."
Now some advice ...
Help is available for pastors and other leaders who struggle with how to preach and teach on giving.
The Rev. Tom Berlin, pastor of Floris United Methodist Church in Herndon, Virginia, is author of Defying Gravity: Break Free from the Culture of More (Abingdon Press). In the new four-week small group study and stewardship campaign, Berlin explores what is required to sustain a vibrant life, needs versus wants and ways to avoid being pulled into the orbit of materialism. In video segments, Berlin introduces friends who tell how generosity has changed their lives. These "Generosity Moments" provide a tone and context for group discussion about giving as an expression of discipleship.
Berlin offered several ideas to help pastors preach more confidently when they are encouraging their congregations to give.
"Identify your top five donors," he said. "Make an appointment with them and ask them what motivates them to give. Then ask if they might give a testimony on video or in person in church. Their comments will greatly assist your preaching.
"Read books or take courses on generosity, giving and personal financial planning. Your confidence will increase with your training. When you help people order their financial lives and become generous, you are doing them a huge favor."
His paramount suggestion to help a pastor be successful when asking the congregation to give: "The pastor must be absolutely certain that what he or she is asking from the congregation is something he or she practices and is a blessing to his or her personal life. You cannot lead people to a place where you have not been."
Author of Stewardship in African-American Churches (Upper Room Books), the Rev. Melvin Amerson is an elder in the Texas Conference and a stewardship consultant for the Texas Methodist Foundation.
Amerson believes it is entirely possible to create a culture of generosity in a church. To do so, he said, "Pastors must boldly commit to teach giving as an act of worship, while casting a compelling vision for transformative ministry that changes lives and communities.
"Use the time prior to receiving the offering as an intentional invitation to worship the Lord through our giving," he suggested. "The offering is an ideal time to inform, inspire, educate and celebrate God's grace and generosity. We have 52 weeks – or opportunities – annually to creatively nurture giving as an integral part of discipleship through the use of scripture, litanies, ministry moments, sermonettes, video clips, testimonies and skits. Together pastors and church leadership must be instrumental in changing the current attitudes and giving trends in our denomination."
Is tithing outdated?
Tithing is the tradition of giving 10 percent of your income to the church. But, is tithing still a realistic goal for pastors to teach?
Michael Reeves is director of educational services for Horizons Stewardship. The company assists faith-based institutions to make strategic decisions and grow in faith, while securing the necessary capital to accomplish their vision for ministry.
"In our culture, tithing has come to mean anything we give," Reeves said. " But tithing is a term associated with the temple tax in the Old Testament. Considering that so few mainline members tithe, a better perspective might be from 2 Corinthians 9:7: "Everyone should give whatever they have decided in their heart. They shouldn't give with hesitation or because of pressure. God loves a cheerful giver" (CEB). Giving is a matter of the heart. If tithing is the standard that (pastors) want to embrace, it must be accompanied with regular preaching, teaching and testimonies."
Even so, Reeves said he has often heard pastors share three things that present difficulties as they lead their congregants to give to the church.
First, pastors do not feel equipped to address the connection of faith and money. They generally have not been trained in their theological studies or through continuing education. This is an area where seminaries need to offer training, Reeves said.
Second, many of their congregants poorly manage their personal resources, including consumer debt and out of control spending, lack of saving and a lack of understanding of the connection of faith and money. While it is not due to poor management, many pastors and their church members carry near crippling student debt that can create a huge obstacle to being a generous giver to the church.
Third, the traditional ways of teaching or encouraging giving in most mainline denominations have been ineffective for years, relying on approaches that are 50 or more years old.
A significant cultural change that would help moves talking about giving from a seasonal fund-raising event that is an adjunct to core spiritual values to embracing generosity as a core value of discipleship.
Polly House is a freelance editor and writer living in Nashville, Tennessee.
For more ideas and resources for teaching and preaching on giving, check out "Together We Do More" (umcgiving.org/togetherwedomore), a new section of the United Methodist Giving website, www.umcgiving.org. Also consider using United Methodist Communications' online course on connectional giving, www.umcom.org/learn/connectional-giving.