Not Your Parents’ Offering Plate

As the place of churches in the West is rapidly shifting, so churches must change the ways in which they are used to operating. Gone is the assumption of general societal knoweldge of and respect for the church and long gone is the expectation that everyone will belong to a congregation somewhere. Belong to and financially support a congregation somewhere. J. Clif Christopher is a United Methodist minister and is the founder of Horizons Stewardship Company, a consulting firm on financial stewardship for churches.

Not Your Parents’ Offering Plate is an effort by Christopher to address the changing circumstance of churches and offer advice on how to approach financial stewardship and management in the twenty-first century. He does this in eight chapters, each one taking on a different aspect of fundraising and giving, such as the “competition” churches face with other non-profit organizations; the reasons people give and suggestions on how to consider their capacity for giving; how to effectively communicate and emphasize the work that donations are doing; the role of a pastor in fundraising. This review is of the Kindle edition of the book.

Many of the principles that Christopher outlines are sound advice in the realm of non-profit financial stewardship and management. For example: presenting projects as a focus for fundraising rather than maintenance or appealing to a sense of obligation, or the importance of personalized communications, especially thank-you letters. Christopher is also very clear on the purpose of churches and how they must present themselves, which is a refreshing stance to see in this sort of writing:

You are in business to change lives for the sake of the gospel of Jesus Christ—that is it. You have no other reason to exist.

Not Your Parents’ Offering Plate, loc. 362

Unfortunately, the reference to churches doing business in the quote above is not an illustration in this quote alone. Rather, the entire model presented in the book is predicated upon churches possessing or adopting a very particular model and scale of operation. This stance greatly limits the practical applicability of the advice in this book at the very least. On a larger scale, the demand to apply principles of capitalist corporate practice to the church, an institution in no way intended for the production of profit at the expense of people, seems impossible to reconcile.

Not Your Parents’ Offering Plate assumes in its discussions that the churches making use of its advice are congregationalist in their polity. There is also an assumption that the congregations in question are of a substantial size, with 200 families or more on the church roll. The assumptions continue with the idea that every congregation has members, key to implementing the advice in the book, who are capable of making donations of tens and hundreds of thousands of dollars toward projects, and that the church history and culture will allow a cleric to be positioned as the chief financial figure in the community. If your church does not fit with these assumptions, Not Your Parents’ Offering Plate will have substantially less to offer your community. These facts are stated emphatically with little room for variation in context:

Pastors are the CEOs of their congregations. No single person is more responsible for what goes on in his or her church than the lead pastor. No one is more able to shape the future than the lead pastor. No one has more communication with the congregation than the lead pastor. No one has more ability to raise funds on behalf of the church than the lead pastor. Yet, very few of our pastors accept the responsibility to raise funds for the organization they lead.

Not Your Parents’ Offering Plate, loc. 680

I am not suggesting that clergy should have nothing to do with fundraising, but Christopher’s insistence that they take the lead is not a realistic possibility in every tradition. Equally problematic is the argument that part of clergy taking responsibility for fundraising is to prompt conversation with church members about their financial situations and their giving to the church. The only reason, Christopher claims, that they may not want to have these conversations is in an attempt to hide away sinful behaviour:

It is because most of [the congregation] are not giving as they know the Bible commands, and they do not want light shed on that fact.

Not Your Parents’ Offering Plate, loc. 712

This argument in no way accounts for culture, either congregational or larger, and potential taboos around the discussion of money. Whether such taboos are healthy or not is beside the point; churches and their fundraisers must be sensitive to and work within their context, even if part of that work is to change the context. To suggest that the complexities of the economy and human relationship can be reduced to adherence to scriptural instruction is overly simplistic and short-sighted.

I am sure that to not force such discussion would qualify, in Christopher’s assessment, as “clerical malpractice.” This phrase appears no fewer than six times in a very short book. On first use it seems effective as a way of driving home the importance the author sees in clerical involvement in fundraising. However, it quickly becomes over-used and, combined with other statements about the self-styled importance of the advice in this book (loc. 146), feels patronizing and unhelpful rather than carrying the impact that I think the author hoped for.

Overall, this book has some information that would be helpful for someone who had never worked in fundraising or charitable/non-profit financial stewardship. However, the overwhelming number of assumptions about one’s context and the tone throughout make it very difficult to pick out the useful nuggets of advice or digest them when found.

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