Dr. Ann Michel
At the beginning of the summer – which scarily seems like a long time ago – I gave a rave review for Generosity, Stewardship, and Abundance: A Transformational Guide to Church Finance. Co-authored by Lovett Weems and Ann Michel, Generosity, Stewardship, and Abundance offers clear and practical guidance for clergy and laity on many issues related to finance.
I knew that Dr. Michel, who is also the Associate Director of the Lewis Center for Church Leadership at Wesley Theological Seminary, had more to say and could probably offer additional insights on stewardship and how to do it better. And she did. I recently sent Dr. Michel some questions that she graciously took the time to answer. It makes for a longer-than-usual blog post but well-worth your time. Enjoy.
How did you land in the field of stewardship? Was there a certain path you took?
In the mid-1990s my church was conducting a capital campaign and received a special contribution to hire a staff person to help with the fundraising. I was hired for the job of Stewardship Director, not because I had any training or knowledge, but because I knew how to get things done in our church. I had to teach myself about stewardship. I read everything I could get my hands on and talked to lots of other professionals in the field. I went on from that job to seminary and then eventually to the staff of the Lewis Center. My stewardship background fit well with the Center’s focus on congregational finance, so I’ve had the opportunity to lead a lot of workshops, teach, and write on the subject. But in many ways, my core knowledge is grounded in my work in the local church. I don’t work exclusively in the field of stewardship. My co-author Lovett Weems and I both see stewardship as a part of a broader calling related to church leadership. To me, stewardship is an indispensable aspect of effective church leadership.
Why another book on stewardship?
For a long time, Lovett and I felt we couldn’t really add much to the many fine books on the subject, even though we have led, and taught, and written on stewardship and finances for decades. It was really the urgency of the situation that changed our minds. Sound finances have always been essential to the viability of any individual congregation, but we seem to be at a time when many more congregations are teetering on the brink. So, at one level, it’s an issue of institutional survival. But I see it as something larger than that. As we write in the opening of the book, “God’s purpose in calling us to lives of faithful stewardship and generosity isn’t merely to sustain the church. It’s the other way around. The continued existence of the church is essential to sustain the powerful, transformative message of our faith regarding how we are to live in relation to money and possessions.”
What are you hoping that people will get from reading Generosity, Stewardship, and Abundance?
I think they will get a lot of practical advice on everything from commitment campaigns to budgets and endowments – we really cover the waterfront in terms of basic information for congregational leaders. But the book puts a larger frame around a church’s work in cultivating giving and managing resources. This work is often seen as merely instrumental, or even a distraction from the “real” work of a church. We try to present a holistic framework for understanding how a congregation’s tasks related to generosity and stewardship connect to faith and discipleship, both for individuals and congregations.
What do you see is the difference between stewardship and fundraising?
It depends what you mean by fundraising. Fundraising sometimes has a bad reputation in the church. It’s thought of as secular, gimmicky, and manipulative – something wholly apart from stewardship which is churchy and driven by faith. But I’ve come to understand that good fundraising can be part of good and faithful stewardship ministry. I think savvy fundraising appeals can be “on ramps” for new givers who aren’t yet motivated to give for spiritual reasons. If someone starts giving through good fundraising appeals, we have an opportunity to teach them about the church’s mission and help them experience the joy of generosity. So, I see fundraising as one piece of a comprehensive giving strategy – a piece that is designed to lead people toward more purposeful and sacrificial generosity. But you never want to rely too much on fundraising. Some churches get trapped in a cycle of perpetual fundraising that takes up an inordinate amount of time and energy. And it can ultimately detract from the more fundamental work of motivating people to give for spiritual reasons. Church fundraising always must occur within the larger context of our biblical and theological beliefs. And it must be done with integrity and for the best reasons. But when it is, it can advance God’s mission and help people grow in faith and generosity.
What are the first three things you would advise a clergyperson – who has recently been appointed to a new church – do related to stewardship?
You asked for three. I’ll give you four!
- Get your own house in order. You can’t lead where you haven’t gone yourself. So, spend some time reflecting on your own attitudes toward money, your own giving, and getting comfortable with faith’s teachings regarding money. You’ll have much more credibility as a stewardship leader if you can lead by example.
- Take time to learn about your new congregation’s personality and practices with regard to stewardship and giving. I am constantly amazed by the diversity of practice among different congregations and different faith traditions. For example, an annual commitment campaign is something I took as a given based on my own church experience, but I’ve learned there are fewer churches that use the pledge system than don’t. So don’t make the mistake of assuming everything is just like it was in your previous church or the church you grew up in.
- Don’t try to do it all yourself. Pastors play a critical role in developing a culture of healthy stewardship, but they can’t do it all themselves, especially if they are new. I’m a strong believer in the importance of developing laity as stewardship leaders. So, if I were a new pastor, I’d have my antenna out, trying to discern who might be the natural leaders in this area and then build a team.
- Get to know people. Good stewardship ministry is inherently relational. So, spend time getting to know your congregants, where they are in their journey of faith and what’s important to them. This might involve getting familiar with their giving histories if the pastor is allowed access to giving records. If not, I probably wouldn’t fight that battle too early in my tenure.
What stewardship challenges do you see ahead for the church?
First, we find ourselves in an era when fewer and fewer people go to church. Even our most faithful members aren’t in the pews as regularly as they used to be. And fewer new people find their way into our congregations. That’s a challenge in and of itself. But it also points to a deeper challenge. All the traditional ways that churches develop people as givers – whether it’s preaching, Bible study, the weekly offering, pledge campaigns – assume that people are in church regularly. I believe that in our post-attractional era, we can no longer wait until someone comes through the doors of our churches to invite them to give. We need to find ways to extend our generosity ministry beyond the walls of our churches, primarily through electronic communication and online giving. In the Internet age, this is how virtually all other nonprofits cultivate their donors, and I think the church needs to learn from their example. It’s more than just fundraising. It’s a way to connect with new people and educate them about what the church does.
Relatedly, a second but larger challenge is that as our surrounding culture becomes increasingly “post-Christian,” the message of faith regarding generosity and stewardship becomes ever more counter cultural. Churches have to work much harder to educate and form people for faithful giving and stewardship. I think in previous generations you could assume that people learned these lessons growing up, in their homes or in Sunday school. That’s less and less the case. So, our task in forming people for lives of generosity and faithful stewardship is more challenging. It’s something churches need to work on constantly, not just one Sunday or one season of the year.
And perhaps, related, what are the long-term impacts of COVID on church giving?
On the positive side, the COVID crisis forced a lot of churches that had dragged their feet for years with regard to electronic giving to finally get with the program. Hopefully, churches will continue to move forward on this front. I think the biggest risk is that many churches will never fully bounce back in terms of attendance and giving. It’s too soon to know what the long-term impacts will be, but we need to be alert and really pay attention to attendance and giving trends. In almost every area I’ve studied, it seems that the pandemic didn’t really bring new challenges or trends, but intensified changes already underway. In the area of church finance, I think the pandemic will accelerate the search for new approaches to economic sustainability for congregations – new ways of connecting with givers, new ways of leveraging assets, new partnerships, and so forth.
What motivates you to keep going?
First of all, I love the church. I think most people who take up the difficult job of leading in stewardship and finances do so not because they are green-eye-shade types or because they love asking people for money. They do it out of genuine love for their church. Keeping that motivation front and center, rather than focusing too much on numbers, allow us to lead more effectively, I have found.
But the more I’ve focused on the theology of stewardship, I’ve discovered that the gospel message regarding generosity and stewardship is more than a fundraising plan for the local church. It’s one of the instruments that God is uses to transform us and transform the world. I don’t think stewardship ministry is about institutional maintenance. I think it’s about being partners with God in bringing forth the Kingdom. We live in a world that is rife with greed and economic inequity. The world stands in need of the gospel message of generosity, stewardship, and abundance.
Any last words you’d like to offer?
First, I want to thank you for your work. Over the years, I’ve come to appreciate the work of a relatively small number of thought leaders on the subject of stewardship. And you are one of them. We all learn from one another. We need more voices on the subject. So, keep up the good work.
But my last word is this. A lot of people think of stewardship ministry as a “hold your nose” subject. Something you know you have to do, but you really hate it. I have come to love what the Christian faith teaches regarding generosity, stewardship, and abundance. It’s a cool, radical, joyful gospel that I love to share. And my prayer is that more church leaders will embrace the true joy of stewardship ministry.