By Chris Willard with Warren Bird
Generosity expert Jim Sheppard had a question for a church planter during an era when money was a taboo subject in churches.
“There had been some abuses in the church with money, so there was a reactionary movement and pastors just said, ‘OK, we won’t talk about money,’ ” says Shawn Lovejoy, who founded and pastored Mountain Lake Church, Cumming, Georgia from 1999 to 2015.
Jim’s question for Shawn then, and to other pastors who currently resist talking about finances and addressing the discipleship value of biblical money management, was this: “How’s that working for you?”
“I was about to starve to death, and I was starving my staff and programming to death,” Shawn reflects. “The whole movement was slow because we didn’t have the resources to fund it.”
That is just one of many valuable lessons Jim and Shawn are relaying to pastors about building a culture of generosity in their churches. They shared a few more of those lessons with me recently:
Normalize the Conversation about Money
It takes money to get things done in churches. Talking about money is not the issue; the issue is talking about money only when you need it.
“People are listening for someone to cast a bold vision they can get excited about,” Jim says. “Can we just talk about the money it takes for that vision more often and make it something that’s normal about how we do business?”
Other ways to normalize the money conversations include maximizing the offering with consistent and clear messages, preaching on money as part of the whole of Scripture and addressing the personal debt problem of many people.
“That’s when it becomes fun,” Shawn says, “when you help free people to get in a better financial position.”
Prepare for Growth Without Presuming on Growth
Jim has seen it countless times in churches, and Shawn was tempted to do it: Presume upon a current wave of growth to continue or even increase, and not leave room in the church’s systems if the growth doesn’t come. “Especially in finances, if it doesn’t happen the way you planned, you need enough margin that it won’t impact the entire ministry,” Jim says.
Shawn says senior leaders get in trouble when they cast “2020 visions” that presume their church will be a certain size by a certain date. “I always tell pastors, ‘If you say the Lord gave you a number, he better have given you a number,’ ” Shawn says. “I can’t presume God is going to bring 10,000 people, but I can prepare if he chooses to do so.”
“The Lord will never bring us more people than we can effectively steward, so get prepared in the event God wants to bless you.”
The Borrower Is Servant to the Lender
There are no hard and fast rules or biblical mandates about churches taking on debt. Jim says financing has a place in helping churches grow ministries—but there are limits. “Debt’s not a sin, excessive debt is,” Shawn says. “You just need to know that if you go in debt, the lender is boss, as Proverbs 22:7 affirms.”
Both guys stress keeping watch over the percentage of debt in the church’s budget. Shawn worked with one church that tied up 60-70% of budget in a facility. “Don’t ever think, ‘If we build it, they will come,’ ”
Shawn continues. “If you don’t have the leadership and infrastructure in place to use that facility, the building will be a noose around the church’s neck.”
Jim said some churches can operate with debt equaling the amount of the annual budget but when debt reaches two times annual income and beyond, problems escalate. “You can’t continue to spend more than 100% of what’s coming in,” Jim says. “You end up with less for staff and for programming.”
Stewardship Is Discipleship
At the end of the day, developing good stewards and generous people is good discipleship. “It’s always good to remember, when people are writing checks to your church, first and foremost those are spiritual transactions,” Jim says.
Shawn adds that church leaders are taking people on a spiritual journey when they help develop generosity. Per capita giving—total giving divided by weekly attendance—is a statistic that can be used to measure how we are doing, and Shawn says it should be given more attention.
“It’s fun to see our church become a more generous church over time,” Shawn says. “But you didn’t go into ministry to raise money. You’re working with God to change the hearts of people.”
Andy Williams contributed to the writing of this article.
Generosity Strategies and Tactics is an ongoing series brought to you by Leadership Network thanks to a grant from the Lilly Endowment. To learn more go to www.leadnet.org.