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Topics of interest to Clerks of Session, Session Moderators and others who are interested in Presbyterian local-church governance.

Monday, June 4, 2012

The 80/20 Rule

With over 20 years’ experience running annual stewardship campaigns in the local church, there’s one rule I’ve found to be reliably true – in every church I’ve known, of every size and description.  A wise and experienced pastor shared it with me years ago.  Knowing this rule goes a long way towards dispelling the anxiety ruling elders feel about money, as they wonder how it is that stewardship campaigns still fall short of the glory of God.

It’s called the 80/20 rule.  It goes like this:

In any church, 80 percent of the money is given by 20 percent of the people.

“What’s that?” you say.  “That doesn’t sound right.  Why, it’s downright unfair!  Everybody oughta pull their weight.  We’ve got to fix that.”

Good luck on that one.

Every once in a while, some well-meaning church member will stand up in a congregational or session meeting and say: “I know the solution to the church’s financial problems.  Let’s just divide our budget deficit by the number of members, and ask everyone to pay his or her fair share.”

Nice idea, but it ain’t gonna happen.  It violates the 80/20 rule.

We’ve tried just about every flavor of stewardship campaign over the years (except the every-member canvass, an artifact of the 1950s that scares most contemporary churchgoers to death).  After the dust settles and the pledge cards are safely gathered in, that golden percentage survives pretty much unscathed.  80/20 rules!

Sure, we’ve had some successes over the years.  Some years we’ve had significant increases in overall giving.  Yet, always those increases come more heavily from the 20% who are already giving generously than the 80% who aren’t.

“Well, that’s no mystery,” you may be thinking.  “Surely the 20% are the wealthier members of the church.  They’ve simply got more to give.”

Wrong. Any experienced pastor will tell you that generosity in giving doesn’t track very closely with how much money givers have in the bank, or the mutual fund, or wherever else the propertied classes are parking their simoleons these days.  Some of the most generous contributors – the people who reliably come through in the clutch, year after year – are the last people you’d expect to be giving at those levels.  They’re people who live modestly, but they’ve also learned the grace of giving sacrificially.

Conversely, the wealthiest people in the typical congregation – the fortunate few who could easily dip into their more-or-less liquid assets and write a check to accomplish some wonderful things for the Lord – are more likely to be numbered among the 80% than the 20%.  Go figure.

Yes, that’s it precisely.  Go figure.  Lots of wealthy people have gotten to be wealthy because they spend a whole lot of their waking hours doing just that: figuring.  They’re good at it.  They’ve learned how to use money to make money.  They’re justifiably proud of what they’ve accomplished.

A financial-services company recently bought a series of TV commercials that portray people going about their everyday lives.  The good citizens of Commercialtown - an appealing, affluent suburb - all have a financial figure floating like a halo over their heads.  Each person's number is in the hundreds of thousands – in a few cases, even millions – of dollars.

“What’s your figure?” the voiceover asks.  How much money will you need in retirement, to maintain the sort of lifestyle you've come to enjoy?

I see what they’re getting at, but this sort of thing doesn’t do a whole lot for the cause of Christian stewardship.

For many 80-percenters, a whole lot of their personal self-esteem is wrapped up in that imaginary net-worth figure floating over their heads.  Asking them to put a small dent in that figure – even to advance the work of Christ – is sort of like handing sledgehammers to a roomful of diehard antique-car enthusiasts and suggesting they go out and start whaling away at the fenders of their classic Corvettes and Mustangs.  Not likely to happen.

The sad truth of it is: to wealthy 80-percenters, stewardship appears to be a losing game – no matter how big their net-worth figure has become.  That’s because there’s always someone trimming his hedges or washing her car outside the house next door, whose figure is sporting more zeroes than theirs.

Jesus may say “Consider the lilies of the field, they neither toil nor spin,” but lots of wealthy eighty-percenters devote oodles of time to making themselves more like “Solomon in all his glory.”  They know how to read the Wall Street Journal (from back to front, because that’s where the stock listings are found). They go online several times a week – some, even several times a day – to monitor how their investments are doing.  They’re forever figuring out new and creative ways to reduce their tax liability.  Heck, some well-heeled 80-percenters – most, in fact – actually hire people to help them do these things better!

Is it any wonder that, when it’s time for their church’s annual stewardship campaign, so many of them respond as though we were asking them to turn their fiscal canoe around and start paddling upstream?  (In point of fact, we are, but that’s neither here nor there.)  It all sounds so counter-cultural to them, so contradictory to their workaday (investaday?) values.  The Sermon on the Mount will do that for ya, every time.

The sad truth is, despite their impressive financial achievements, a great many wealthy 80-percenters are deeply fearful people.  Would that they could have more heart-to-heart conversations with a risk-taking 20-percenter!  Would that a neighbor in the pew (from whatever income level) could take them aside and witness to the peace and joy that comes of transforming a closed fist to an open hand!

At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter a whole lot what flavor-of-the-year the Session has picked for the stewardship campaign strategy – as long as it contains three elements:

The first is prayer. That goes without saying.

The second is preaching on a stewardship theme, ideally for more than one Sunday.  (It also helps if the preacher is a 20-percenter.)

Third, and most important, the campaign has got to include some way for one or two of the church’s 20-percenters to witness publicly to how much fun it is to lick and seal an offering envelope with a sacrificial gift inside (or to click their mouse on the “Pay” button, as the case may be).

I say “most important” because what we’re really up to in running a stewardship campaign is not raising money for the church.  We’re about the business of conversion.  Not only are we trying to convert a few more 80-percenters into 20-percenters, we're also trying to convert fearful, hesitant disciples into risk-takers who practice their faith with boldness, in every area of life.

Considering that money is, far and away, the most persistent and insidious idolatry of our culture, conversion often has to start there.  But it won't end there.

It won’t happen to every one of the 80 percenters, not all at once.  No stewardship campaign strategy is that good.  But it doesn't have to be.  Just a few conversions a year will do it.  Relying on the gracious and often surprising interventions of the Holy Spirit, slow and steady wins the stewardship race.

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