Up in Smoke

 In Culture, Faith, Fred's Blog, Giving, Money, Philanthropy, Young Givers

Growing up Southern Baptist I have indelible memories of the Sunday School offering envelope used by the church. It was more than a tracking device for offerings. We were also graded by our teacher on bringing our Bible, preparing for the lesson, and attending church to hear the preaching afterwards.

However, I don’t have any recollections of our asking the church about its own performance during the week.

I remember hearing occasionally about attendance, baptisms and money – and that was pretty much the whole list. We gave our offering because we were supposed to give and had been taught to do so out of obedience, not unlike the Old Testament rules for bringing the offerings to the Temple.

The Israelites did not bring money to the priests, but living animals they had raised – sheep, bulls and birds. And then what happened? What they brought was literally burned up in front of their eyes. The offering went up in smoke except for a portion that was set aside to feed the Temple staff.

Try to imagine the Old Testament model of sacrifice and offerings happening today with money – our currency and checks piled up and set on fire. It is almost impossible to think we would allow that without serious resistance.

But even now in the church budget approval process, I have yet to hear anyone ask a question about impact. Expenses – yes. Some church members are even bold enough to question salaries. But when is the last time you’ve heard someone ask for hard data about what has actually been accomplished?

It’s instructive to me that almost every study on giving and voluntarism I have read concludes that how we first learn to give and volunteer come from this early relationship with church. People who attend church give more and volunteer more because this has been the only institution where we are encouraged and taught to do both from an early age.

But somewhere along the way, we have confused the good of giving out of obedience with the idea that we should not ask pertinent questions. We have been trained to believe the church does not need to produce results with what is given.

So, it should not come as a total surprise that people are far less concerned about results in their giving than one might think.

One study by the BBB Wise Giving Alliance, a charity watchdog, concludes donors are more interested in how a nonprofit’s funds are spent than in the results it achieves:

“About 46 percent of people surveyed by the BBB Wise Giving Alliance said they base their trust in a nonprofit on its finances, which include the amount spent on overhead costs like salaries and fundraising versus allocations to its programs. Only 11 percent of donors said the results a charity gets from its activities engendered the most trust in that organization.”

The second study reported that after eight years and a $12 million investment, The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation announced that it is discontinuing grants to organizations who provide information about nonprofits (such as Charity Navigator, GiveWell and Guidestar) because few people actually investigate the performance of nonprofit organizations:

“While 85 percent said that a charity’s performance is very important, only 35 percent conducted research on giving, and just 2 percent gave based on a group’s relative performance.”

Ironically, it has been assumed that all of the talk about performance and impact has actually changed the game for how we decide to give, but it has not. We still make our decisions the way were trained as children. We look at expenses but not performance. And given that most of us were taught to give at church, why would we expect anything else?

I think we can no longer assume that the church is the primary trainer for the next generations of givers and volunteers. Instead, young people are learning from school fundraisers, volunteer projects, popular and highly visible social causes, peer pressure and nonprofits.

The church’s influence is being lost as fewer churches are asking for offerings during the worship service, and children are no longer learning to bring their envelopes to church. Children do not see their parents give and are not expected to give themselves. And while stewardship sermons were probably as unwelcome then as now, there was at least the weekly expectation that giving was just something you did and the church recorded it. Giving was regular and public.

As well, while the church has adopted many of the disciplines of business such as marketing, advertising, management and leadership development, there is still very little discussion (for now) about organizational performance. What are we paying for? What are we measuring? How do we model obedient giving to the next generation while also teaching them to ask questions that really matter?

These are not going to be comfortable discussions, especially for church staff and members brought up in a different time. A new generation of donors trained outside the church is bringing a set of expectations that will be intimidating and disrupting to traditional churches for years to come.

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Showing 22 comments
  • Avatar
    Jack Modesett
    Reply

    Bad manners to ask about outcomes. We have some recent experience with short-term missions that makes me wonder whether we should have stayed home.

    • Fred Smith
      Fred Smith
      Reply

      Talk about a can of worms! There are so many different perspectives and experiences on short term missions. (We insiders refer to them as STM) My take is there is a direct correlation between the amount of preparation done ahead of time and the overall value of the trip. Too many organizations spend a disproportionate amount of time and staff on keeping the volunteers busy, entertained and focused – especially when a cause makes everyone want to go see their work. However, there are some positive things to be said about STM and I wish more churches did the spade work required.

  • Avatar
    Kim King
    Reply

    Fred, you make some very good points. We don’t have to insist on our way, but we do need to see the plans and then the results from the plans. Without questions we become more inward focused, comfortable, and complacent. If we don’t see results in some fashion (that’s a whole other discuss) then is the Holy Spirit at work?

    Thank you for the perspective.

    • Fred Smith
      Fred Smith
      Reply

      Kim, I agree that we don’t want to fall into the trap of “he who has the gold makes the rules.” It’s sad to say but many people who have sat on the finance committee of churches change their wills to not leave money to the church after their experiences with the way churches regard money. I think the whole mindset of “burnt offerings” is going to change and, no doubt, there will be an overreaction on the part of some. We need to give out of obedience – but not out of carelessness.

  • Avatar
    Al Mueller
    Reply

    Very well written and documented. The Christian donor who practices generosity with discernment is still rare. Very few do their own homework, ask outcome questions or request reports that detail “performance”.

    Keep encouraging the Gathering folks that stewardship involves head and heart. Lots of examples in Scripture of absolute and relative measurements starting with the Creation story.

    We would be happy to offer access to our Intellient Philanthropy database free of charge to any friends who would like to use it.

  • Avatar
    Dave Stravers
    Reply

    Fred, thanks for this. This is not what we want to hear, but we need to confront reality. My question: Even though we are not there yet, are we moving in the right direction? Is there more concern today about what churches and Christian organizations are accomplishing than there was 10 or 20 years ago? Would your blog even have been written 20 years ago?

    • Fred Smith
      Fred Smith
      Reply

      Dave, I think there has obviously been far more movement toward results thinking in the parachurch world than in churches. However, there is a good deal more lip service paid to the idea than there is actual practice on the part of the donors. So, yes, there is a change going on but moreso in parachurch and non-profit giving. I do know churches – especially missional churches – who give a great deal of thought to what they are accomplishing and how much of their budget goes to what they do outside the “four walls” but it is still the case that a huge percentage of a church’s budget is spent on the inside programs. Actually, I think the numbers would surprise most church members not on the finance committee.

  • Avatar
    Ron McSwain
    Reply

    Fred,

    What works in business also applies to non-profits–“What Gets Measured
    Gets Done”. Being directly involved in the non-profits work allows first-hand knowledge of its effectiveness. While this is not possible for all giving, it is the best way to make your giving count.

    • Fred Smith
      Fred Smith
      Reply

      Ron, I agree. I think it is an easier proposition for non-profits than it is for churches. Just out of curiosity, have you asked your local church what they accomplished last year? I don’t mean that in a snarky way but am serious. How do churches measure compared to how parachurches and non-profits measure. My guess is there are some differences – and should be.

  • Avatar
    Cindy Wiles
    Reply

    Yes, Fred, i think this conversation is a “can of worms.” I am in the position of being the executive director of a non profit and also am married to the pastor of a local church. We have served in pastoral ministry for 31 years. While accountability is important, i think we have to be very careful when we select wordly instruments to measure Kingdom success. God probably looked like a failure to Sarah after promising her a son.It took Him 25 years to fulfill that promise. She measured God a failure and chose an earthly means of producing results. Our world has paid a price for that choice ever since. William Carey labored for 7 years before seeing a convert through his ministry. We must be careful when we elevate ourselves to the position of “judge” over the church’s successes or failures. I’m personally pretty cautious about becoming a judge over the Bride.

    • Fred Smith
      Fred Smith
      Reply

      Cindy, you are the perfect person to address the issue! Are there differences between how you measure the performance of a parachurch and a church? If so, why? There must be some differences. One of my concerns is that we would completely throw out the “obedience” model and move toward a pure “business” model in the church because the church gave up their role in training children (and adults) in giving. My wife’s grandparents and parents and family have been missionaries for generations and have experienced exactly what you describe as one of the dangers of trying to measure short term results. It takes generations for some things to grow invisibly.

  • Avatar
    Ron McSwain
    Reply

    Fred,

    While I am asking you not to post this comment, your question to me caused me to look in my files. I am sending you the 2012 Annual report plus the Prospectus for our Inner-City work, CityLink Center.

    I did not find a 2013 Annual Report so will follow up with the church to receive one. Thank you for the prompt.

    Ron

  • Avatar
    Gilles Gravelle
    Reply

    Fred,

    Your comments provide a good illustration of the problem with program-driven thinking rather than impact-driven thinking. Program-driven does not explain the “why”, only the how. Impact-driven begins with the “why.” North American church income is generally down because the program-driven mentality no longer resonates with people, especially the millennial and Gen-X believers, thankfully so.

    By the way, the Wise Giving Alliance study you mentioned was not so well-received by Chronicle of Philanthropy professionals. Most of the many comments on that study in the Chronicle challenged their findings. As a missions and philanthropy researcher, I was also surprised at their findings. Significant trends show that the givers are now asking the question “What difference did it make”. It’s a qualitative question, its complexity and non-profits will need to address this sooner. My new book, The Age of Global Giving, addresses this topic (and short-term missions) if you’d like to read more.

    Thanks for your very stimulating thoughts!

    Gill Gravelle

    • Fred Smith
      Fred Smith
      Reply

      Thank you, Gilles. I think there is a marked difference between the criteria and mind-set donors bring to non-profits and and parachurch ministries and what they bring to the local church. I agree with you that people (at least the donors I know) are far more interested in looking at the results of a parachurch/non-profit but still not considering the “results” of the local church. However, once non-profits have begun to significantly influence the next generation to think about “making a difference” that is going to color their thinking about the work of the local church. I think we are in the first stages of that transition. That said, I would like to hear millennials describe how they make decisions about giving to non-profits compared to their giving to the church. Do you think there is any difference?

  • Avatar
    Cindy Wiles
    Reply

    Your question is a great one, Fred. In a comparison of measures between parachurch and church, i don’t think the issue has to do with “type” of organization. I think the real issue is drawing a distinction between that which is organizational performance and that which is of spiritual essence. For example, while i might be willing to address with a church staff the number of people they attempted to share the gospel with as a matter of reporting, i would be very hesitant to measure the number of salvations to those presentations as quantitative performance data. The work of salvation is God’s. We may see great results among one population segment and very little result among another segment even if they are based in the same community. There is much about church function that is measurable. But there is a great deal of the work of the church that is immeasurable and mysterious. My views on church are very high because i see her as invested with the authority of Christ. Jesus words in Matthew 16 cause me to tremble. He seems to invest a tremendous amount of authority in the Church – keys, binding, loosing…So let’s measure what is necessary to measure – but let’s be careful to not seek to quantify what is the spiritual work of God. In turn, I think it is Biblical to allow the church to measure our lives as well. That seems to be what Jesus suggested. How many of us are game for that? Ouch!

    • Fred Smith
      Fred Smith
      Reply

      While this may only muddy the waters it has helped me over the years. A wise friend told me there are some things you can measure and some things you can only appraise. For example, you can measure the frame holding the Mona Lisa but you can only appraise the value of the art inside the frame. Perhaps it is the same with organizations. They provide the frame for what is truly valuable.

  • Avatar
    Gilles Gravelle
    Reply

    Well stated, Fred. Christianity Today also challenged churches to think in terms of impact measurement earlier this year. From what I have learned, Millennials are indeed very different givers. They may define success and good outcomes differently, with less focus on numbers and more on relationships, holistic ministry and impact.

  • Avatar
    Kevin East
    Reply

    Good post, Fred. You know the ministry I lead is struggling through the “measuring impact” discussion. In fact, I just read Gill’s book he mentioned and hope to connect with him soon.

    When it comes to the discussion about churches measuring their impact, I would refer to Elevation Church’s annual report. You can find it here:

    http://annualreport.elevationchurch.org

    I think they do a great job of showing their mission drives them, they are being diligent to understand the impact that God is using their church to have, and relating it even to millennials in the way the information is presented.

    • Fred Smith
      Fred Smith
      Reply

      Kevin, I’ll check out Elevation’s site and see what they are doing. I am not proposing a “one size fits all” for either churches or parachurches. Maybe it is more of a change in mind set more than anything else. I certainly don’t want to provoke a revolt in churches and I don’t want to see other ministry groups hijacked by people who say “we ought to run this like a business.” After all, there are so many types of business and they measure differently. There is no one business model. A law firm, a car dealership, a contractor, a retail store all measure differently and to try and impose one business model even on another business is impossible – much less a generic business model on the church or ministry. Everyone has to find the one that fits their “business” and stick with it.

  • Avatar
    peter ochs
    Reply

    We are called tofirst give to God as an act of worship. At the same time or later we “bring our tithes and offerings” to the church with which we are affiliated. If we conflate these two steps to one, then what we bring to the church is an act of worship between ourselves and God.If we start to confuse that act with evaluation of the church’s use of the funds I fear we begin to move very much toward our consumer, choice-driven culture’s view of how money is used.
    Of course it is fair to question a church’s budget, to suggest changes and accountability but that needs to be separated from the act of giving. That is part of being an engaged and caring member. For most of us non-profits are very different- and different standards are often applied involving mission, goals, results and the like. But we are not members of one another in a non-profit, and have a very different level of personal commitment in most cases.

    • Fred Smith
      Fred Smith
      Reply

      Thank you, Peter. I think losing the reality of being “members of one another” would be a greater loss than the church losing the role of teaching giving. It makes me wonder how prevalent this teaching and perspective is even now. Do we see ourselves as members of a Body or members/volunteers of a Christian non-profit organization classified as a local church? Big difference.

  • Avatar
    Gilles Gravelle
    Reply

    Peter,

    Thank you for that important reminder. From the effectiveness side of things, I wonder how the parable of the talents, the wise manager, the shrewd manager, even the corrupt manager, and several other money metaphors Jesus used is understood by the church in North America today. It’s not just about money, as you said, but effective use of the resources God has blessed us with. I’m seeing more and more calls in both the social sector and faith sector to evaluate how we’ve done with all that God has provided; from the neighborhood church to the parachurch. Self evaluation has not been a strong suit of church and missions. Is God working through the new Romans 12 givers to correct this?

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