‘Tis the Season of Generosity!
The Holiday Season is filled with celebrations of light, love, and community. This is the time for honoring religious traditions and practicing the rituals of the faithful. As we move through the end of the year and across the threshold of the winter solstice into the new year, we are inspired by the impulse to give. In our religious communities, this often occurs through the offering in the context of worship.
The offering has been the central act of worship for human beings since ancient times. In the earliest times, sacrificial offerings of the best livestock or first fruits of the crop were ceremonially given to the gods. In modern times, money is placed in the offering plate during Sunday morning service to support the work of the faith community. Throughout time the offering has been a way for individuals and families to contribute some of what they have to benefit their community. Making an offering is considered an act of faith: faith in the community, faith is something greater than oneself, and a tangible expression of gratitude for all received in life. In its deepest and purest expression, the act of giving out of a sense of gratitude, is a spiritual practice.
Over time, this practice of the offering has been institutionalized by religions around the world. The concepts and practices are explicitly taught in many religions. In her book Giving—the Sacred Art, Lauren Tyler Wright refers to the practice of giving that each faith tradition brings to the “table of generosity.” She continues by describing the language and expressions of giving to religion:
Each tradition brings to the table a beautiful history of sacred texts, stories, and experiences, and each faith contributes to the intricate landscape of religious giving with a beautiful assortment of expressions: stewardship, almsgiving zakat (alms tax), sadaqah (voluntary charity), dana (charity), charity, Chesed (loving kindness), Tzedakah (righteous giving), tikkun olam (repairing the world). As I write, I imagine this wide variety of religious perspectives engaging in dialogue, not debate. While we may disagree on a host of ideologies, we can all sit around the table of generosity and share our understandings of this common practice. And in doing so, I have a feeling we will discover that our spiritual journeys are more alike than we may have thought.
Though religion continues to be the beneficiary of the largest share of charitable giving, it is losing some ground as giving increases to other charitable organizations. Once the recipient of 60 percent of all charitable giving, for the first time in recorded history, giving to religion has dropped to just under 33 percent. It appears that the competition for charitable dollars is heating up and religious leaders and consultants are asking, why? What makes the difference for people in choosing where to give?
Church fundraising consultant and former parish minister, J. Clif Christopher, is convinced that religious organizations must develop appropriate fundraising strategies using current methods to keep pace with their missions and financial needs. These strategies and methods will need to include greater involvement by the minister and board leaders in active fundraising and teaching of stewardship. More analysis must take place for each congregation to better know and understand its donors, their patterns of giving, and their capacity for giving.
Finally, it is essential that religious leaders know how to effectively ask for contributions and to communicate with donors in compelling, energizing ways all through the year. In other words, we need to get better at inviting generosity that brings joy to the giver!
We know from an array of studies that people who regularly attend religious communities give more. Givers give more when they are influenced by experiencing a generous culture. People are more generous when they learn how to give according to their religious teachings, observe generous behavior, feel gratitude for their community, and have opportunities to talk about money and giving as expressions of their faith values. Religious communities must be intentional about creating this kind of culture and learning experiences.
According to Christopher and others, the three primary reasons people give to congregations and other organizations are:
1) Belief in the mission of the organization,
2) Regard for the staff leadership of the organization, and
3) Fiscal responsibility.
In addition, people clearly want to make a difference in the world, to change lives for the better, and to leave a legacy that reflects this desire and to instill a sense of accomplishment.
Faith communities today have a big job to do—to change lives. We must focus on the task of changing lives and making a difference in the world, beyond the doors of the congregation day in and day out. This level of change cannot be accomplished by busying our members with committee work and social activities, then telling them there is not enough funding and more money is needed to keep it all going.
How will your community change peoples’ lives and make a difference in the world as we move into the new year?