There’s an old preacher’s saying that often comes out when it’s time to raise some money: “Look at someone’s checkbook, and you can tell what matters to them.” (It’s obviously an old saying because who uses a checkbook anymore? But I digress.)
This saying is often quoted to form an imperative to give more to the Church and to her efforts. The (sometimes not) unsaid follow up sentence is something like: So if God matters to you, then you’d better make sure your checkbook shows it.
As is often the case with old sayings, this one is mostly true despite the unhelpful negative implication that we will be judged by our giving. The (again usually unsaid) insinuation is that at the pearly gates St. Peter will simply pull out decades of check registers and see if we’ve paid up enough to be admitted. Clearly, such a notion is theologically dubious at best, and it is almost always ineffective at increasing dollars in the plate.
But, like I said, there is something to that old saying. One can, in fact, tell someone’s priorities by how they allocate their money.
Chrysostom put it this way in a homily collected in the volume edited by Robert Van de Weyer, On Living Simply (1997):
We do not need to buy air, water, fire, sunshine and things of this kind. God has given enough of all these blessings for everyone to enjoy them freely. The sun shines equally on the rich and the poor, and they both breathe the same air. Why is it, then, that these necessary things, which sustain life, are created by God for common use, while money is not common? The reason is twofold: to safeguard life and to open the path to virtue. On the one hand if the necessities of life were not common, the rich, with their usual greediness, would take them away from the poor. In fact, since they keep all money for themselves, they would certainly do the same with these necessities. On the other hand if money were common and available to all, there would be no opportunity for generosity on the part of the rich and gratitude on the part of the poor.
There’s a lot to unpack in that quotation, but I’m just going to focus on one critical piece: Money exists and not everybody has it, so that those of us who have it might develop virtue.
Parish giving programs (often dubbed stewardship programs — a misnomer that reduces stewardship to being about an annual parish pledge, but that’s another post for another time) are notoriously bad. Usually, they are some cobbled together amalgamation of guilt, desperation, and scriptural proof texting; these programs are often toxic to guests and new members, as well as ineffective for committed parishioners. And their ineffectiveness is a double-edged sword: Not only do they usually fail to raise enough or much money, they often do more damage than good in the making of disciples.
According to Chrysostom’s purpose for money, and my own parish experience, making parish giving programs fundamentally about discipleship makes them more effective both for furthering a parish’s formation goals and for raising funds.
A moment of confession: I love stewardship season, and I love asking people for money. Why? Because Chrysostom’s right: Learning to use money effectively for God’s purpose is fundamental to our discipleship. Parish giving programs create a hotbed of energy that ought to be directed toward the formation of Christian disciples. When congregational leaders talk about money, people listen. And the moment folks are listening is the moment to make sure they are growing as disciples.
One parish I know of fundamentally reshaped their giving program after years of giving declines. They were in a financial crisis — without giving improvement they might have closed within the year — and yet they essentially banned all discussion of the budget during their month long giving campaign. Rather, this parish took lessons from the Scriptures about money, and through a variety of communication tools, they worked toward teaching their people about what God would hope for regarding their stewardship of financial resources. And these teachings weren’t all about tithing nor were these teachings obviously directed toward parish giving. Rather, they were honest lessons, trying to form serious Christians. Pledges were up over 20% that year, and, perhaps even more remarkably, the actual money received from pledges (in past years in this parish some pledges went unpaid) was 110% of the amount pledged.
Those results were exceptional, but they prove the point. Parish giving programs ought not be a chore for leaders or congregations. Rather, they ought to be just another season of Christian formation where people encounter the resurrected Jesus and respond to his abundance.