Rescuing the Annual Pledge Campaign from the Shackles of Thematic Tyranny!

Rescuing the Annual Pledge Campaign from the Shackles of Thematic Tyranny!

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From Themes to Vision: The Path of True Stewardship

Rev. Michael Erwin
Stewardship Catalyst, Transformational Consultant


The Tyranny of the Theme

I frequently receive calls from churches seeking help with their stewardship efforts. These conversations often begin with a familiar refrain:

“Our church is struggling financially, and we heard that you assisted another church that experienced a significant financial turnaround. Could you help us too? We’re looking at the Stewardship theme materials provided by our denomination this year, and we’re wondering if you have any thoughts on that theme or a better suggestion?”

They always focus on the THEME. 

Essentially, they’re asking for a Stewardship Toolbox. They want advice on whether to use a circular saw, a jigsaw, a table saw, or a reciprocating saw. Churches often approach stewardship with a focus on the tactics (the tools) rather than understanding the strategic vision behind those tactics.

Beyond Themes to Vision

What they truly need is a MASTER PLAN. They must step back and see the blueprints before pulling a tool from the toolbox. And they should learn how to use those tools effectively. It’s not enough to possess a toolbox; you have to understand why and how each tool is used.

That’s how my conversation began with St. John’s Church. Initially, they believed selecting the right scripture or theme could perform a financial miracle for their congregation. 

But a catchy theme alone wouldn’t help them. Why? Because their financial struggles were far more profound than a new scripture and a fancy logo. What they needed was a spiritual transformation. 

St. John’s leaned heavily on its endowment. When I looked under the hood, I couldn’t believe what I saw! The congregation’s contributions covered a mere fifty percent of their expenses. The Council raided the church’s precious endowed reserves to cover the gap. 

One church leader reported a conversation he overheard among other members. “St. John’s doesn’t need my money. They’ve got plenty of money in their bank account to keep them going for years and years.”

A Spiritual Awakening 

The issue wasn’t about money. The church had a spiritual problem. For decades, they had neglected the call to challenge themselves to be generous givers. They didn’t need a new theme. They needed a spiritual turn-around, a renaissance, a repentance, a transformative awakening towards generosity.

The pastor and church leaders began a fresh approach to preaching and teaching stewardship and generosity. Our shared principles guided them: 

  1. Money serves as an extension and embodiment of our unique identity and character, one avenue through which our inherent, God-like generosity finds expression.
  2. Generosity is a divine gift deeply woven into our very essence – an element of being created in the image of God.
  3. At its core, the annual pledge campaign should nurture the spiritual practice of generosity.  

Guided by those principles, the leaders cultivated generosity within the congregation. Giving was no longer about whether the church could pay the bills. Members began to understand that generosity reflects our relationship with God. God exhibits boundless generosity. Therefore, the closer we are to God’s likeness, the more generous we become. 

From Financial Struggles to Generosity

St. John’s revival was genuinely remarkable. Depleting their resources marked their past. Their endowment had been dwindling alarmingly, on track to disappear in just a few years. 

Once they aligned their spiritual convictions with generosity, their reliance on the endowment plummeted to ten percent of expenses. This pivotal shift had profound implications for their future ministry. Now, they could preserve the endowment and even foster its growth, safeguarding it from depletion. 

The Tyranny of Themes Reprised

Their turnaround was an overwhelming success. Not long after, I received a call from an individual at another church.

“My brother attends St. John’s, and he mentioned how you helped them. Can you give us some advice? We’re trying to decide on a THEME for this year.”

What did I tell him? “The theme isn’t the focus.”

Further Up and Farther In: Beyond Annual Campaigns

Generosity is a spiritual discipline that warrants practice and encouragement within our faith communities. It’s on par with prayer, worship, study, acts of compassion, and the pursuit of justice. 

You can’t effectively teach generosity once a year. Encouraging stewardship is a continuous effort beyond the fall pledge campaign. It transcends the confines of your church’s budget; it’s about faithfully responding to God’s grace and provision.

In 2018 and 2019, CCS spearheaded a transformative generosity initiative involving sixteen churches selected from a cohort of nearly one hundred in that presbytery. This comprehensive endeavor spanned two years and encompassed a holistic enhancement of their stewardship programs. Our efforts extended across the spectrum, encompassing financial aspects and the spiritual foundation of giving.

During this period, the churches involved embarked on various vital improvements. They revitalized their theological understanding of money and stewardship, fostering a deeper connection between faith and financial stewardship. They renewed their energy around a vigorous annual pledge campaign and aimed to weave the congregation’s mission into each aspect seamlessly. The churches crafted missional budgets to align financial allocations with the church’s God-given purpose.

Crucially, their focus extended beyond financial mechanics. They used effective communication strategies to demonstrate the offering plate’s impact on God’s transformative work. They utilized year-round generosity plans that nurtured a culture of generous giving as an essential spiritual discipline. 

By equipping churches to forge meaningful connections between faith and financial planning, we strengthened the foundation for sustained support.

Resilience Through Holistic Generosity

The true testament to the initiative’s power arrived with the unforeseen challenge of the COVID-19 pandemic. Some churches encountered financial strains as pews remained vacant due to safety concerns. The disconnect between physical attendance and stewardship became palpable as contributions wavered.

Yet, those churches that had embraced our program, internalizing the ethos of holistic, year-round generosity, demonstrated a notable resilience. Equipped with the spiritual conviction that sustains giving regardless of circumstance, these congregations navigated the pandemic’s financial turmoil with remarkable stability. Reports echoed back to me that contributions remained steady even in the face of pandemic adversity. The testament to the power of embracing a robust and multifaceted approach to generosity could not have been more vividly illustrated.

Sustaining the Soul and the Mission At the Same Time

As churches seek the secret to flourishing stewardship, the answer lies not merely in a theme, a tactic, or a tool. It resides in the profound spiritual transformation that transcends financial struggles and ushers in a new era of generosity rooted in faith and grace. May the journey towards a more profound culture of giving be guided by the timeless principles that sustain the congregation’s soul and mission.

Until next time, 

Rev. Michael Erwin, Director
Church Campaign Services

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