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 means of individuals and families to contribute some of what they have to the benefit of the whole. 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).
For many of our congregations, the offertory is a formal element of the worship service to enable congregants to contribute money to fund their operations. For many, the offering plate is simply a means of delivering their annual pledge payment. Some may let the offering plate pass them by because they already sent in their pledge. Has convenience and a ho hum routine supplanted the offering as an expression of heartfelt deepest convictions and gratitude for all we have been blessed to receive?
Clearly, pledges of annual support are essential for most faith communities to responsibly manage their finances. Religion continues to be the beneficiary of the largest share of charitable giving, but is rapidly losing ground as giving increases to other charitable organizations. Religion was once the recipient of 60 percent of all charitable giving, but has steadily dropped to around 30 percent over the past forty years. It appears that the competition for charitable dollars is heating up and religious leaders and consultants are asking, WHY? What matters most to our givers when it comes to choosing where they will give?
With an increasing share of charitable giving shifting to academic and medical institutions, social service, and environmental causes, religious organizations must begin to employ more current fundraising strategies to fund their missions and needs. These strategies and methods will require 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 its donors, their patterns of giving, their capacity and motivations for giving.
According to the experts, people give to their faith community for several key reasons:
1) They believe in the mission and faith values.
2) They trust faith leaders to be responsible and accountable for the organization’s financial decisions.
3) They recognize that giving to the faith community extends their own goals and good works in the world.
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 a sense of accomplishment. It is essential that religious leaders know how to effectively ask for contributions and to communicate with givers in ways that inspire them to give.
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, within and beyond the doors of the congregation. This level of change cannot be accomplished by busying our members with committee work and social activities, then to tell them there is not enough funding and more money is needed to keep it all going.
More and more congregations are establishing the practice of sharing their weekly offering (cash gifts, not payments toward pledges or other designated purposes) with worthy causes and organizations. In most congregations this shared offering practice is well received, inspiring congregants to boost their giving overall. Generosity holds significant meaning and satisfaction for the community of givers, for the impact of their collective giving is greater that most individuals can achieve alone.
What fundraising and stewardship strategy will your congregation need in order to fulfill the task of changing peoples’ lives and making a difference in the world?