Does your congregation struggle to explain, model or implement a “culture of generosity?” Many find that all of the talk about generosity can leave members of their congregation exhausted or isolated when their personal experience doesn’t match the rhetoric or talking points about giving.
It is true that many of us aspire to live a life that reflects Christ, yet not everyone learned to give at an early age, has a wonderful history of growing up in a generous family or have had the experience of radical generosity in life altering personal stories that affirm their beliefs. How do we help congregations actually do the work of fostering authentic, generous church communities? If we embrace the truth about our complex structures, pews are filled with people who struggle with the topics we preach and teach about. Authentic faith, authentic relationship and authentic practices can breed generosity.
First, we must commit to authenticity. It requires us to get real and operate with a core set of (at times uncomfortable) values anchored in honesty. Sometimes people aren’t generous in our congregations because their needs are not met, their hearts have not been inspired, the examples have been limited and casting big vision has become rare. If we can’t address the hurts and concerns of people in a genuine way, it is impossible to foster generosity. What is intended for good can sometimes come across as begging for resources and support. Henri Nouwen proclaims in the Spirituality of Fundraising, that fundraising is the opposite of begging. We are called to proclaim vision and to invite people into the experience. Generosity requires relationship.
This past week I had the opportunity to present a plenary session at Pathways to Generosity: Signs of Hope, a conference sponsored by Ecumenical Stewardship Center, The Episcopal Network for Stewardship and the Center for Faith and Giving among others. The time in Dallas, Texas, was designed to help individuals explore their paths to faithful generosity and inspire new opportunities and experiences for diverse faith traditions and congregations across the country. I dedicated my time to sharing with faithful leaders the importance of being specific about how we tend to the path of generosity. Before we can address the tips and tools of effective giving systems, we are best served with lessons on how to live our faith in ways that attract, connect and build on the strengths of believers.
I have explained the concept of imperfect allies, championed the importance of shaping giving in children and addressed the importance of transparency. I have found people to be interested in the technical changes that are necessary for their stewardship practices, without understanding the significance of the adaptive changes. Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky define adaptive Leadership in ways that offer meaningful lessons to our communities. At its best, adaptive leadership helps congregations to re-evaluate the entire approach to giving, by understanding the role of generosity, money and resources from a broader vantage point. There is something critically important about separating generosity from financial giving alone. If we are to tend to the path of generosity, we must both see the role systems differently and learn to talk about the hard topics; including but not limited to money.
In the early moments of the plenary session, I shared reflections prompted by Suzanne Shanahan, Director of the Kenan Institute of Ethics, who has inspired many to rethink generosity to include the gift of giving the benefit of the doubt. As people of faith, there is a temptation to recast critical money conversations with industry code words, “culture of generosity, stewardship, philanthropy.” Yet, it is difficult to have a conversation about resources if we are not first prompted to re-examine what it means to be in authentic relationship with one another. While we respond to examples of a generous God that has blessed us, we can oftentimes rob people of the grace, mercy and dignity that has led to our own personal transformation. Generosity requires building different muscles when we are asked to intentionally think the best of those who disappoint and frustrate us; we are called to give to others the benefit of the doubt.
Philanthropy simply means love of humankind. Many within our pew don’t see themselves as philanthropists or benefactors, because the images and messages they have internalized cast others as having the resources and capacity to make a difference. In reality, Christ calls on each and every one of us to use our gifts and abilities to bless others. A culture of generosity is more about how we grow in relationship and treat one another, than any tangible gift or resource. As we’ve discussed the concept of a culture of generosity within the Ph.D. Program in African American Preaching and Sacred Rhetoric at Christian Theological Seminary, we’ve expressed it in this way: To shape a culture of generosity is to cast a vision of generously giving and graciously receiving so great in scope and spirit that all may thrive in an environment where the essence of everyone matters. A culture of generosity is an environment where relationship, connection, and transformation are critical to the how and why of operations.
Over the next few months, I will explore some of the building blocks that can foster culture of generosity:
- Spiritual Practice. Spiritual disciplines are activities undertaken for the purpose of inducing spiritual experiences. Generosity is a discipline and is anchored in response to the generosity we have witnessed and received. For people of faith, this core value is directly tied to beliefs about God and a theology of giving. In worship, the sacred practices, including giving, are essential rituals of faith that must be both recognized and celebrated.
- Radical hospitality. A spirit of welcome requires that everyone in our midst take responsibility for how we greet, engage, and follow up with guests — in how we welcome visitors, care for the sick and shut in, and the way that we attend to the needs of those in the margins. Gratitude and warmth are signature practices not to be delegated to clergy or a ministry leader. We are the hands and feet of Christ in the lives of others.
- Re-Think Generosity. Over my lifetime many of my mentors have taken a chance on me, offering access to unparalleled opportunities and experiences. Bill Enright, founding director of Lake Institute on Faith and Giving, welcomed my unique skill set into the shaping of workshops and trainings across the country. Within our congregations there are countless ways that sage leaders can build bridges to new opportunities and intentionally share the gifts and talents of others.
- Cast a compelling case. Gone are the days when the development of an effective case statement are enough to lead the actions of grant writers, stewardship committees and fundraisers. The reality is – Money follows Mission, it always has and it always will. As a church, we should be talking more about how we understand our purpose, calling and mission. What is God requiring of us personally? What is God requiring of our congregations?
- Learn your Giving Story. One way we explore generosity is by understanding how God has been visible in our lives. Not everyone learned generosity at the hand or heel of a generous parent or grandparent, not everyone has a story of an amazing church with Sunday School, Bible Study, Vacation Bible School, Good Fiscal Management, Small Group, life altering scholarships, mission, outreach and evangelism excitement. For those with that experience, we have something to learn and something to teach from those rich experiences. We also must make room for those who have a story that is very different from our own.
At the conference, a woman quietly walked up to me after my first workshop and shared that her family of origin was not generous. She had been taught generosity at her church and she celebrated that her life had forever been changed by the lessons she had learned. Each week the sermon has the potential to interrupt life as usual and cause people to approach their faith in a new way.
We can’t teach and model what we do not understand. Well-informed believers and donors are more likely to give again. Whether or not they give now, every stakeholder needs to be reminded of the lasting impact of ministry and the why behind what we do.
Seeking a path to generosity? Be certain that you are able to articulate:
- Why do we exist?
- Why does it matter?
- What do we aspire to do in the world?
- What we aspire to accomplish in the world?
- How will the world be different when we fulfill God’s calling?
The sheer inability to share what God has asked of us compromises more than generosity. Lack of mission focus compromises the call to evangelism and limits our ability to share God’s transformation at work in our lives. Generosity begins when we refocus our attention on what matters most – our relationship to God, our call to mission and the ability to impact the lives of one another.
Interested in learning more about the how? Stay tuned to the pathways to generosity, where there are more lessons to come.