Reopening and Re-Engaging Our Churches in the Mission (Part 4)
“Money back guaranteed” is probably not the phrase that comes to mind when you think of tithing and stewardship. But Athens Church is doing things differently.
If you read the latest edition of our Unstuck Church Report, you would know that giving actually increased in most churches during the pandemic. It looks like many (but not all) churches are financially healthy coming out of this season. But regardless of your church’s current financial health, we can all agree that stewardship and finances are tricky topics to navigate. How do we encourage our people to view giving as something that actually enhances their life?
REOPENING AND RE-ENGAGING OUR PEOPLE IN THE MISSION
In Part 1 of this series, Amy and I interviewed lead pastor John Kenney and executive pastor Sarah McDonald from Quest Church to hear their church’s story about trying to re-engage people in serving. In Part 2, I interviewed lead pastor Matt Manning from Crossroads Church to unpack the intentional strategic shifts they’ve made over the last several months to re-engage people in weekend services at their church. And in Part 3, I was joined by Reggie Joiner and Kristen Ivy from Orange to discuss what kids and student ministry should look like in a post-pandemic world.
In the final part of our re-engagement series, I sat down with Bronson Crawford, the Stewardship Director at Athens Church in Athens, Georgia. Even before Covid, they were thinking intentionally and getting creative when engaging their congregation with the topic of stewardship. I was really impressed with the unique ways they’ve sustained financial health (before, during, and after the pandemic) while also fostering a culture of generosity.
Whether your church’s giving is up or in decline, I think this conversation will have some wisdom for you. Here’s what we discussed:
- The 5 strategies Athens Church has implemented to sustain financial health
- How to incentivize online and recurring giving
- How to reframe stewardship in the lives of your people
- Two action steps and one key takeaway for you and your leadership team
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Links & Resources from the Episode
- The Q1 2021 Unstuck Church Report
- Athens Church
- Reopening and Re-Engaging Our Churches in the Mission: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3
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Welcome to The Unstuck Church Podcast, where each week we’re exploring what it means to be an unstuck church. In the Q1 Unstuck Church Report, we learned that giving had actually increased in most churches during the pandemic. In fact, it was up nearly 2% over the previous year. At the same time, as we work with churches, we’ve seen a trend of the number of overall giving units decreasing. So you could easily assume that more churches have less people carrying the financial load. Today on the podcast, Tony shares a conversation with Bronson Crawford, the stewardship director at Athens Church, on how churches can reengage giving in their congregation. Before you listen, if you haven’t yet, be sure to subscribe to get the podcast show notes. Each week, you’ll get resources to go along with that week’s conversation, the leader conversation guide and access to the podcast resource archive. Sign up by going to theunstuckgroup.com/podcast. Let’s join Tony and Amy for today’s conversation.
During this series on re-engaging the church, we’ve talked about several topics, which seem to apply to every church in this season. And this topic though, will likely be more pressing for some pastors and church leaders who are listening, but not everyone. Wouldn’t you agree, Tony?
Yeah. Yeah, I do. Because today we’re talking about re-engaging people in giving and you know, Amy, we just talked about this maybe a month or two ago. If you look at churches as a whole, though, Amy, the data we collected indicated giving was up by 1.7% across all those churches. Also cash reserves increased over the last year from 15 weeks of cash reserves a year ago to 22 weeks of cash reserves now. And then over the last year, churches have continued to reduce the amount of debt they have. So if you were to just look at the statistics on the surface, just look at these averages, it would indicate many churches are actually pretty financially healthy coming out of this season. But on the other side of those averages, I also am hearing from churches that have really taken a financial hit in the last year, and some churches more so than others, but I know there are a number of churches and I’m assuming a number of pastors and church leaders that are listening today. This is an area that they’re feeling pressure in. So the good news is whether you’re giving is up or it’s in decline, I’m confident there’s going to be some nugget in this episode today that will help you when it comes to engaging your church in this area.
Well, in each of these episodes we’ve been talking with church leaders who are on the ground, learning firsthand what’s working and what’s not, and today is no exception. So Tony, can you introduce today’s guest that’s on our podcast?
Yeah. So joining us today is Bronson Crawford. Bronson is the stewardship director at Athens Church in Athens, Georgia. In case you’re not aware of this, Athens is the home of the University of Georgia. So, go dogs, if there are any Georgia fans listening.
That’s where all your kids went, correct?
That’s Right. So I pray often for Athens Church because I’ve had three kids in Athens, Georgia at the University of Georgia. Here’s what’s interesting about their ministry, of course, they’re engaging many college students in their church. But I don’t know if you know this or not, Amy, college students don’t typically get paychecks. And as a result of that, they don’t maybe support financially churches as well as some of their older peers. And so, as a result of this, Athens, they’re doing great ministry, but they’ve learned they have to be really intentional about how they look at stewardship at the church. Bronson and I talked about several of these stewardship strategies at Athens Church, but I began the conversation asking about his unique role. Our team at The Unstuck Group serves very few churches who have stewardship directors. So here’s how he responded to my question about his position at the church.
Honestly, I feel like I have a dream job. I get to champion the generosity culture for our church. My hope is to lead the most generous church with the most generous people. Ultimately a win for me is helping people embrace biblical financial principles, and I’ve loved what we do.
Yeah. And so you’re the stewardship director and what’s interesting, and we chatted about this a moment ago. You don’t actually have a financial background. Your background is as a pastor. So why did Sean hire you to be the stewardship director with that in mind?
Yeah, that’s a great question. History of student ministry, church planning and pastoring. I think for this role, Sean wasn’t looking for a fundraiser. I get that a lot. In fact, just at the ball field the other day, a dad on my son’s team asked what I did, what was my role at the church? And I said, stewardship director. And he said, Oh, you’re the fundraiser for the church. And I think that we wanted to take a different approach with this role, rather than just meeting with high capacity donors, trying to generate large gifts. Just pastoring people and helping them to embrace biblical stewardship principles. And it’s just been a lot of fun.
Yeah. So with that foundation, during COVID, we heard from a lot of churches that experienced a substantial decline in giving over the last number of months, and then others actually saw an increase. So what was your experience in Athens Church over the last year, year and a half? What have you seen and what do you think influenced what you experienced as a church, Bronson?
Yeah, it’s been a difficult time, obviously, for a lot of churches. We have been very fortunate overall on the backside of it. We’re up about 10% and giving on this side of the pandemic. But to start with honestly, it was pretty scary for us. It was a lot of uncertainty. After two weeks of not meeting in person, I ran some numbers and just went to our team and said, it’s looking like we could be facing a substantial loss of income here. And I’m just really proud of how our church leaned into generosity. Each fall, we do a generosity campaign called “Athens, I love you,” where we collect a special offering and give it away to local nonprofits serving our city well. And instead of waiting until the fall to do that, we decided that we would go ahead and lean in and not do a special offering, but rather just commit to giving away 10% of everything that we received to those local nonprofits in the midst of the pandemic. Just wanted to be a blessing to our city. And, honestly we just felt like we had some miraculous months of giving following that. And it led us to really honestly depend on God more for providing for our church than we ever had in the past. And so a lot of great things came out of that, but ultimately we just credit God for taking care of us.
Well and taking that step of faith and taking a big risk, it sounds like, to be generous in your community, not knowing how your church would respond. So that’s pretty remarkable that, I mean, people were generous, it sounds like, in this season.
Yeah. I mean, I use the word miraculous. One of the things that came out of this was I started leading our staff through just giving prayer points. So each month I would set a giving goal, so to speak, and we would just pray that God would provide for us. And it didn’t always provide exactly what we prayed for, but there were months that miraculously, he provided above what we prayed for. And I think it just built all of our faith during that season. And we still actually are doing that to this day as a result of that. And so it’s been great to see, not only how God’s provided for us, and we’re super thankful for that, but just how he’s built our faith, even as a team, during that process.
Bronson, my suspicion is that what you have experienced in the last year was in large part maybe due to some groundwork that you laid pre-COVID. Do you agree with that? And if so, what were some of those maybe strategic moves that you implemented before last year?
Yeah, absolutely. I mean, my guess is that some of the churches that probably face difficulty were churches that didn’t have online giving presence or culture built in. We were fortunate to have most of our giving coming in online already before the pandemic hit, which was a huge blessing to us. And we’ve worked really hard over the last several years to increase recurring giving in our church. And I think that it just really sustained us through that season and all of hard work produced a lot of fruit. So we were fortunate to have a culture of generosity online giving, recurring gifts in place before the pandemic that kind of helped sustain us through that and allowed us to not have a worse story to tell.
Yeah. And in fact, related to recurring giving, Sean, your senior pastor has shared a little bit with me in the past. It’s a pretty intentional strategy you have in place. Can you share some of the practical things that you’re doing to encourage that recurring giving?
Yeah. First of all, we talk about it fairly often during stewardship moment on stage. And a lot of it is just personal stories of people on staff sharing how we personally support the church in that way. But we’ve done some intentional challenges in the past. We’ve done what we’ve called automation challenges. We’ve done a generosity challenge, and most recently we’ve done a tithe challenge, and essentially we incentivize people to make their giving automatic. And we’ve done that by giving away an item from our “Athens, I Love You” store, just for people to sign up. Bbut ultimately we have just kind of modeled the way and allowed people to know that that’s an option. I think some people don’t even know that that’s a viable option because they don’t hear about it much. And I think we talk about it enough that people, you know, they hear automatically generous. Oh yeah, I should prioritize my plan to support my local church. And so this has been very beneficial.
Well, I understand it, and I’ve lived through it personally, and the way I’ve described it to other folks is, you know, in every area of my life where I sense I need to take a step forward to experience health, I actually have to embrace new disciplines before I experienced the benefit of health on the other side, whether that’s physical health, spiritual health, relational health, but even financial health. I’ve learned personally that I had to embrace new disciplines before I could experience that health on the other side. And I would argue intentionality around giving, it’s a piece of that financial health that we can all experience. So Bronson, as we get to the other side of the pandemic, we’re talking with a lot of churches, of course, that are trying to re-engage people and physical gatherings, but what do you think churches need to do to refocus on how we reengage people when it comes to their giving as well?
I think, first of all, I think probably felt need is going to drive a lot of that strategy. And we’re fortunate that we were coming out with a surplus in giving. And so we didn’t feel a need to lead in a way that might’ve been unhealthy. But I would say, honestly, just focus on, you know, what you want for people in this area and not what you want from them. I think sense desperation and oh, the church just needs my money or wants my money. But if you can lead in such a way to teach people that their lives are actually better or blessed because of generosity and lead them in a way that disciples them and benefits their lives, then they’re more likely to engage with you. Specifically for us in January, we started the year actually teaching on the principle of the tithe, which was the first time that we’ve outright taught on the principle of the tithe, I think, in the history of our church, explicitly like we did, and it really just came out of a couple of stories that we had of people during the pandemic. One specifically was a guy named Eric, who stopped by the church, good buddy of mine, about two months into the pandemic. He was commission only. And he shared with me ultimately that he was going to stop giving to the church because he needed to take care of his family. And of course I assured him like, listen, you have no obligation to give to this church or support this church. And, you know, obviously you need to take care of your family. But then he kind of, he leaned in and he was like, I bet I’m not the only one, right? Like most people are probably stopping their giving to the church. And I got to share how we took a step to be more generous and how God blessed us for it. And I just felt prompted by God to kind of lean in with him and just kind of challenge him. You know, this is a time in your life where you could like put your faith to the test, and you could give in spite of your need, in the midst of your need and just see what God might do. And actually gave him the book, “The Blessed Life” by Robert Morris. And he literally essentially took a tithe challenge without us offering a tithe challenge. And three months later he had the second largest monthly commission in the history of his job. And he just said, man, I’m just such a believer in this. And so out of that, we had some more conversations and just decided in January, hey, why don’t we lead more people into this experience? And we’ve had some pretty incredible stories come out of that tithe challenge. So I think teaching people principles that you may assume they already know is helpful and then challenging them to take steps and making it easy for them to take steps. You know, the principle of the tithe challenge for us was essentially, you know, if you feel like you want to tithe, but you’re afraid to take that step, we’ll guarantee to give you all your money back at the end if you don’t feel like God’s provided for you. And so it just helps people take a step they may want to take, but maybe they’re afraid to.
What I’ve really appreciated from your perspective on this topic, Bronson, is the priority around what you want for people and what you want for your community before you consider what you want for your church. And I have to think that’s one of the reasons why God’s continued to bless Athens with the resources, Athens Church, with the resources that you need to engage the mission that God’s given your ministry. Any final thoughts you want to share before we wrap up today’s conversation?
I would just say, you know, I think it’s okay to address insiders. A lot of our churches are built to be church for the unchurched, to reach the outsiders. I think there’s a way to address insiders and engage them with some biblical principles while kind of excusing the outsiders in the process. And so I would just say don’t hesitate to lean into some insider language, as long as you’re willing to kind of caveat, Hey, if you don’t call Athens Church home or you don’t call yourself a follower of Christ, you know, you can just chalk this up to crazy things Christians do, it’s not necessarily for you. But we’ve just seen that people respond when we offer some fairly aggressive challenges. It’s been great.
Well, as always, there were some great insights in that conversation, Tony. So in this one, what stood out to you?
Well, Bronson, like everyone we’ve interviewed in this series, doesn’t claim to be an expert on this topic, especially in the season. However, it’s clear that he has helped Athens Church with several very intentional strategies that have served the church well. Many of these strategies were in place pre-COVID, but they’re really helpful for where the church is today on the other side of what we’ve experienced. And so specifically these were some of the things that stood out to me. Number one, they actually hired a stewardship director, and I think this is just a brilliant move for churches like Athens Church, but for really all churches to consider. And I know not all churches are able to hire a staff person, like Athens Church did, but I think it would be wholly appropriate for churches to consider identifying a leader, whether that’s a staff person or a lay leader in your church, that brings this type of focus to your ministry in really helping people in your church take their next steps towards Jesus in this area. Secondly, I love how Athens Church led with generosity in this past season and really focusing on how can we be for community and continue to invest in our community? Especially early in the pandemic. I loved the fact that they just decided, and it was a big risk in a season when churches, including Athens Church, were very uncertain about financially the impact that the pandemic was going to have on their ministry. They just decided in that moment, we’re going to give away 10% of our offerings to continue to support our community partners and other nonprofits. The third area, and I mean, I don’t want to over spiritualize this, but I think the fact that they’re prioritizing prayer around the stewardship strategies they’re engaging is critical. And I love how Bronson talked about giving prayer points that he just keeps in front of his team so that the team can join him in praying for these areas of the ministry. They moved into online giving, they moved into recurring giving. And in all of these ways, helping people set up new disciplines, so that they can over time, begin to see some health too, in this financial area of their lives. I mean, what I really appreciated from the conversation with Bronson was this line. He said, “this is what we want for you rather than what we want from you.” And I just think that is a great way to give perspective and maybe reframe the conversation that churches need to have with people as they’re engaging in their ministry and helping people learn what it is to be generous and to begin to practice these biblical stewardship principles.
Yeah. Tony, I don’t know if you remember, but I was actually at Athens Church shortly before COVID. I was working with them and attended their weekend service. And at that service, they gave a vehicle away to someone in the community. And I don’t remember all the specifics, but I do remember how great it was. Like I found myself being, I want to be part of a generous community like this. So generosity obviously is something that’s been important to them, and they’ve modeled it for years. Well throughout this series, I’ve asked you to highlight just one next step every church could take in this season. So when it comes to re-engaging people and giving, Tony, what would you encourage pastors and church leaders to consider?
Amy, I know I’ve been providing in all the other episodes one next step, but I want to cheat this time. I want to offer two next steps because I do. I don’t want to gloss over this. I think the first step is you need to begin praying, and you need to invite your team to begin praying in this area. So this is the opportunity to get very specific about what you’re praying for, for the people in your church, for your community, for your ministry, and invite your leaders to join you in this. Pray for your mission. Pray for financial resources. Pray for people. Pray for leaders. This is the opportunity to get very specific though about what you’re sensing is needed to accomplish the mission that God has for you. And invite others to pray, because this will create an opportunity for you to also cast vision for where you’re sensing God is taking your ministry in the future. So that’s the first next step. The second next step is to begin to talk about this with your church. You need to teach people about biblical stewardship principles. You need to tell stories, share stories of the life change that’s happening in the person that’s giving, that’s being generous, and share the life stories of the life change that’s happening around those that are on the receiving of generosity. You need to help people engage new spiritual disciplines. And we talked about online giving and particularly recurring giving. This is an opportunity to encourage folks to begin to make decisions in advance so that they’re able to follow through with these principles, these biblical stewardship principles, that begin to reprioritize their lives. But also, obviously, we’re reprioritizing how we view our relationship with Jesus and our trust in this particular area. And then remind people what you want for them rather than what you want from them. This is an opportunity, I think many churches shy away from because we don’t sense that people want to hear the church talking about money, but time and time again, Amy, what I hear is this is a challenge in the person that we’re trying to reach, that they’re facing in their lives. And even for those folks that are part of our congregation, getting financial health and getting maybe understanding of what it is to be generous and to practice these biblical stewardship principles, people are actually looking for good coaching and good training on this as well. And so we shouldn’t shy away from teaching on this.
That’s really good. All right. Well, Tony, any final thoughts before we wrap up today’s conversation?
Amy, I’ve really enjoyed this discussion over the last four weeks, mainly because we weren’t talking about what to do in COVID, but rather what to do on the other side of it. So I almost just continue this episode, this series, if we can, but we are going to extend the conversation in a way, because we’re going to be offering a free webinar on this topic on July 20th. It’ll be all about re-engaging your church. And again, I don’t pretend to be an expert in this season on this topic. And so I’ve invited some church leaders that are actually engaged in ministry in various regions around the country, around the world, to give voice to the unique challenges they’re facing and then the best practices that they’ve discovered as they’re re-engaging their churches. And if you and your team would like to join us for that experience, you can register at theunstuckgroup.com/webinar. And then Amy, as I mentioned last week, there are no experts in this season. We’re all learning. We’re all trying new things. And because of that, you’ve maybe experienced something that would be helpful to another church, another church leader. And so if you have, we’d love for you to send a note on Facebook or Twitter, or email us at email@example.com. We want to pass along your learning experiences, your wisdom to other church leaders, as we all try to figure out together how we’re going to navigate this unique season.
Well, thanks for joining us on this week’s podcast. Like Tony mentioned, we’d love to have you and your team join us for the upcoming round table webinar on re-engaging our church in this new season. We’re inviting you to join us and a few of our ministry friends for a really candid conversation about the challenges and successes that they are experiencing as they reopen and re-engage their churches. To sign up, just go to the unstuck group.com /masterclass. At The Unstuck Group, we work every day with church leaders to help them build healthy churches with coaching and planning to focus them on vision, strategy and action. And if that’s a need in your church, we’d love to talk. Start a conversation by visiting us at theunstuckgroup.com. Next week, we’re back with another brand new episode. So until then, we hope you have a great week.