By Ken Idleman
In 1977 I was a 29-year-old, green-as-grass Christian leader when I was body-slammed with a vocational reality: I had been called by the trustees of Ozark Bible College to be, among other things, a “fundraiser.”
I was vaguely aware of that item on my list of job responsibilities as executive vice president/president-elect, but I did not understand its impact on my future leadership priorities. I learned the importance of that responsibility early on because one of my first assignments was working to eliminate a $300,000 cash-flow deficit. That doesn’t sound like much money now, but the equivalent in today’s currency is almost $1.3 million. (Imagine needing to find an extra $107,917.95 for 12 consecutive months!) Additionally, the college needed about $2 million per year to operate—a sum needed for educating and training hundreds of Christian leaders and laborers for the mission fields, churches, and ministries of our Restoration Movement, but still not enough to buy the first brick for new campus construction!
Thirty years later, I “retired” from Christian higher education to become senior pastor of Crossroads Christian Church in Newburgh, Indiana. The church, at that time, was falling short of their $79,000 weekly budget and was $4 million in debt. Once again, I took on the leadership responsibility of increasing income and retiring debt, or, in the vernacular of today . . . fundraising.
All this to say, the responsibility of any senior leader, whether serving a Christian college, church, or ministry, is not just conceiving and casting vision, but also resourcing that vision.
But I want to try to both soften and qualify this fundraiser designation (as very few senior pastors like the term). Here’s the first thing to know: A pastor seeking to raise funds need not be a manipulative salesperson on one extreme or a groveling beggar on the other. You can actually be true to your spiritual calling as a pastor-teacher and at the same time see your ministry vision adequately underwritten financially. See if this biblical approach is more palatable.
Realize that Partners Funded the Ministry of Jesus and His Apostles
When Jesus began to preach and teach about the kingdom of God full-time, his mission had to be underwritten financially. Housing, meals, and travel had to be provided. And there is no evidence Jesus and his disciples were employed otherwise. While it is largely an argument from silence, we are left to assume that people like Nicodemus, Mary Magdalene, Lazarus and his sisters Mary and Martha, and a number of others—who were undoubtedly grateful for Jesus’ healing and teaching ministry—likely stepped up to support his ministry. Matthew or Zacchaeus might also have invested their considerable wealth in the mission.
The apostles, including Paul, would later depend on the partnership of churches in Jerusalem, Antioch, Philippi, and Corinth. Scripture specifically mentions Barnabas, Lydia, Priscilla, and Aquila as contributors. There is irrefutable evidence that “those who are taught in the Word must share all good things with those who teach them” (Galatians 6:6; all Scripture quotations are paraphrases by the author).
Scripture mandates that those who devote full-time attention to the health and growth of the church should be “worthy of their hire [fairly compensated]” (1 Timothy 5:18). So, let’s begin by getting comfortable with the easy way the Gospels, Acts, and the Epistles represent “fundraising” as a normal requirement for accomplishing the Great Commission. There is no reason for paranoia about fundraising; it is a natural component of effective lifelong ministry.
Embrace Generosity as a Matter of Personal Commitment
You cannot lead your church to places you have never been. Paul’s command, “Follow me as I follow Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1), sought to teach a vital leadership principle. We cannot effectively preach or convincingly lead people unless we have obeyed up to the level of our own understanding.
God-honoring stewardship includes the practice of tithing as a matter of obedience and giving offerings as a matter of generosity. Tithing is a good place to start but a poor place to stop when it comes to giving. The moral authority to lead people to faithful tithing and exemplary generosity will providentially flow from our own practices. In the life of your church, you will “reproduce after your kind.”
Through the years, I have observed that generous churches are invariably led by senior pastors known for their generosity. Christians naturally follow and defer to leaders they perceive to be sacrificial. When I started in ministry, I resolved never to set my salary, require a fee for service, or ask for a raise. I promised the Lord that if I were ever fired, I would go quietly into the night rather than divide his people over my character, personality, or leadership style. I am convicted these values have something to do with effectively leading a Christian community to financial health and fiscal wholeness. This perhaps is why all Christian fundraising professionals require the senior pastor and elders to lead the way in taking on a significant fundraising challenge.
If senior leaders are perceived to be “all in,” there is a trickle-down effect in the life of the organization or church. Others will commit to being all in! Take this “friend-raising” approach rather than a “fundraising” approach.
Don’t Try to Turn Around a Financial Challenge Overnight
Avoid the quick-fix approach to resourcing vision. If possible, allow time for patient teaching of the biblical principles of stewardship. Let the Holy Spirit convince and convict God’s people of the clear and relevant teaching of Scripture, rather than conjuring up a short-term fundraising program idea of some kind.
I found scores of online fundraising schemes for churches . . . everything from selling T-shirts to selling tickets to a Christian speed-dating event (very popular with some megachurches these days, as I understand). My favorite was the “Kidnap the Pastor” fundraiser. Stage a kidnapping just before the pastor goes on vacation to heighten the drama. Then let the people know, “If you give us money, you get him back!” (Or, I suppose it could be, “If you don’t give us the money, you get him back!”)
Also avoid the “cry wolf!” approach to resourcing vision. It is always wise to share bad news, if it is true. When a bill is due or a mortgage deadline is approaching or you want to add a much-needed staff member and you don’t have the wiggle room in the budget, make the need known. But keep in mind, this links up people’s giving motive with the pragmatic or the tangible. The stewardship principle of giving to the Lord as a matter of personal discipleship can easily become lost. God’s people should understand that practicing biblical stewardship is giving as an expression of love for the Lord; it’s an act of worship that puts the giver in a place to experience God’s blessing in every realm of life, starting with their own heart.
It’s far better to teach stewardship systematically, strategically, and regularly than to wait on a crisis and appeal for a bailout. Over time you will learn that it is not the “one and done” contributors but the committed tithers and faithful givers who can be counted on over the long haul.
Many pastors want to change the giving culture of their church as if they were turning a speedboat; they don’t understand that changing the funding vision of a church is more like turning a cruise ship. So take a deliberate onward, upward, and forward approach. I suggest tracking progress from year to year, but it should be evaluated only after the implementation/completion of a five-year teaching plan that includes preaching from the front (one sermon series a year) and year-round instruction of a curriculum like the ABC’s of Financial Freedom (by Barry Cameron) or Financial Peace University (by Dave Ramsey).
Keep This in Mind: God’s Primary Competition for the Human Soul Is Money
Money is in competition with God—it was true in the first century and it is still true today. Jesus said, “You cannot serve God and mammon [money]” (Matthew 6:24; Luke 16:13). Since the 1960s, thinking people have been turned off by the likes of Oral Roberts, Kenneth Copeland, Benny Hinn, and Paula White. Current television programs like Greenleaf and The Righteous Gemstones exploit the avarice and insincerity of health and wealth gospel preachers and entertainers.God’s Word and the proper Christian attitude toward money are regularly distorted in the media these days. It’s impossible to calculate the damage this combination of a few false teachers and Hollywood programming have done; they have poisoned the minds and galvanized the anti-Christian prejudice of many, keeping them from receiving the truth about God-honoring priorities.
For this reason, you will likely be rejected by some people when you expose and apply the Word of God to the subject of their resources, or when you challenge them to sacrifice.
In addition, among the biggest hurdles senior pastors face today are the incessant emotional financial appeals directed at our people from every sector of American life—politicians, charities to cure cancer and end global warming, etc. Come Sunday, they might have little money left to support reaching the lost and building up the body of Christ. Admittedly, some of these causes are worthy, but none is as important as seeking the kingdom of God and his righteousness; it is the one priority that trumps all others. And that is, after all, what Jesus came to do and what we are committed to doing in his temporary absence from the earth . . . to seek and save the lost.
So, get comfortable with the challenge of resourcing the vision of your church. Lead by example in generosity. Take the biblical teaching approach to enlarge the giving heart of your people. And address the challenge with the confidence that the Lord is on your side in this spiritual war for the resources to build his kingdom.
Ken Idleman serves as vice president of leadership development for The Solomon Foundation.