Last summer a friend of mine – we’ll call him John – shared with me his experience of moving to a new parish. He explained that from the very beginning, he was made to feel especially welcome. The parish priest did an orientation; coming out to meet his wife and children. They were introduced to programs in the parish and the community, told about service times and formats and given a calendar of annual events and activities. At church, parish volunteers were hospitable and encouraged him to partake in the various ministry opportunities that existed at the parish. Surprisingly, through it all, John was never once asked to consider supporting the parish financially.
I believe that John’s experience is not that unusual. Many clergy and lay volunteers feel uncomfortable raising the topic of giving; treating the subject as taboo for polite conversation. John thinks it is because the parish is afraid that if they ask for his financial support he will be put off and leave. They might also feel that if they immerse him thoroughly in all sorts of volunteer opportunities than the monetary giving will simply happen as a matter of course.
Fortunately, John believes that the act of giving is an important part of Christian discipleship and enrolled in Pre-Authorized Giving (PAR) within two weeks of attending his new parish. He couldn’t help but ask why any parish would leave giving to chance.
Three important lessons come to mind from this experience. First, the invitation to give in support of ministry should be made to all attendees. The invitation can be as subtle as including a PAR enrollment form in an orientation package or as direct as a personal request during a house visit. Second, parishes cannot survive on gifts of time and talent alone. It is wishful thinking to expect that the operational needs of parishes can be maintained exclusively on the energy of volunteers or the benevolence of a few generous givers. Third, there is need for on-going and regular stewardship education.
I think stewardship education is the key. If we make conversations about voluntarism, generosity and discipleship part of the very rhythm of parish life, then I believe engagement and commitment will increase. In fact, the experience of our most healthy parishes proves this very fact. Stewardship talk cannot be relegated exclusively to the autumn pledge drive. If we are to grow healthy stewards then conversations about what it means to be a disciple of Christ need to take place all the time – every Sunday in some way or form.
Churches everywhere rely on a constant stream of newcomers to energize, challenge, lead and support existing congregations. Newcomers seek meaningful worship, relevant preaching, engaging fellowship and answers to life’s important questions. When we respond to their longing for a deeper understanding of discipleship, let us not forget to invite them to support the very ministry that they seek to engage. After all, the endurance of our worshipping communities depends on their commitment to supporting life giving ministry.