Mar 20, 2024

by Mark Warpmaeker

In 2010, after 13 years as a pastor, I believed I had a solid grasp of stewardship after leading congregational appeals and stewarding donors before and after their gifts. I was confident in my abilities and thought I had enough experience to be a full-time fundraiser. However, when I took on the role of Executive Director at a nonprofit, I was humbled to realize that I still had much to learn.

After 14 years of leading and raising funds for four different ministries, I know I still have a lot to learn, but almost every week, something happens that causes me to think, “I wish I knew that when I was serving a congregation.” I mentioned this to Bishop Mike a few months ago, and he asked me to make a list and write an article about it.

Four lessons I’ve learned as a fundraiser that I wish I’d known when I was a pastor. (Humbly offered as practical advice.)

  1. Asking good questions always trumps talking.
  2. Don’t assume you know WHY a person, church, or foundation is giving.
  3. Changes in giving are often leading indicators for other changes.
  4. You can’t provide too many updates or check in too often.

1. Asking good questions always trumps talking.

Yes, the person wants to hear what the church has done with the money they’ve given and what it would like to do with future gifts, but they also want to feel like they are a partner in the ministry—a partner whose interests and experiences are valued as much as their money. Even if you know the answers, engaging them in conversations about their interests, participation, and concerns will demonstrate that you value their perspective and can guide future discussions. While most pastors are familiar with asking open-ended questions in pastoral care settings, we often overlook its relevance in other areas, such as leading meetings, teaching classes, or discussing giving. People don’t expect the pastor or stewardship chair to be experts on financial matters, but they do expect them to care about their reasons for giving.

2. Don’t assume you know WHY a person, church, or foundation is giving.

You won’t know unless you ask. As a pastor, I often assumed people gave to the church because they were members. And while that may be true to a certain point, it wasn’t why they gave sacrificially or made a planned gift. Knowing why a person gives will help you to steward them, connecting what God is doing in the congregation to their God-given passions and interests. In the last congregation I served, the two largest givers happened to be good friends. They were both retired teachers, participated in the same church and community activities, and even had similar laughs. When I asked them what inspired them to give generously, I learned that they had very different motivations. One had a heart for a specific area of ministry and was willing to give even more to see it grow, while the other gave so the church could continue in a rapidly changing community. Her parents were charter members of the church, and since she didn’t have children, she saw it as part of her family’s legacy. One got excited about where the church was doing, and the other wanted to know that we were continuing a mission that had started decades earlier.

3. Changes in giving are often a sign of a life change.

I know tracking how much people give seems crass, and if done poorly, it could easily land you in trouble. However, when done out of love, with tact and care, you may get to provide pastoral care before people ask or address an issue before it ruins a relationship. Calling to check in when you notice a change in giving doesn’t have to be awkward; only once have I had to bring up money, and that was with a person who was testing me to see if I’d noticed an unusually large gift. People often change their giving when they experience or think they are about to experience a change; this usually happens before they’ve talked about it with others. By noticing changes, I’ve had the privilege of listening to and praying with people who are worried about their jobs, talking about divorce or separation, thinking about moving to care for a parent or grandchild, struggling with medical issues, thinking about leaving their church, celebrating a promotion, or rejoicing at the sale of a business.

4. You can’t provide too many updates or check in too often.

It is easy to think that people don’t want to talk to their pastor about money. That may be true, but you aren’t calling them to talk about money; you are building and maintaining relationships with the people God provided with resources and led to your congregation. If you only call when it is time to pledge or give, then yes, it will be awkward, so call more often. If they are giving, they want the church to succeed and hear how they can help. Yes, they are getting your newsletter, listening to announcements, and hearing your sermons, but those are all one-way communication and do not build trust or relationships.

Finally, I want to share why I’m so passionate about this. In my current position, I serve donors who wish to do more for the ministry beyond giving monthly. Building a trusting relationship that will last requires a lot of listening, listening to where God is calling them, and then helping them name what they hope their gift will accomplish. As I’ve listened, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard a version of:

  • “My church/pastor treats me like a checkbook.”
  • “I only hear from them when they want more money.”
  • “They only talk about their vision for the church, never asking my dreams for it.”

Giving your largest donors extra attention may feel weird, but it is vital for the continued health of our church. We wouldn’t expect our Sunday School teachers, youth volunteers, or worship assistants to keep showing up and being excited about their work if we only communicated with them through newsletters, announcements, and an annual letter asking them to give more. Why should we treat people who provide financial gifts differently than those who give the gift of time or expertise? Don’t miss the opportunity to help people deepen their relationship with God as they use all the gifts God is giving them.