September 2019
Mobilizing our Assets for Mission

The Top Five Stewardship Myths

This article is also available in Spanish here. Este artículo está disponible en español aquí.

The word myth is often used to describe ideas or beliefs that are false or just plain wrong, but widely regarded as true. That definition fits lots of ideas about stewardship that circulate around the Church. Below, I take on the five most commonly held views, describe just how unhelpful they are and offer better ways to teach and address stewardship in our congregations.

1. Stewardship is just about money

This is a pervasive myth. It’s so easy to use stewardship as a shorthand for fundraising, but true congregational stewardship is so much more. There are plenty of old models that get to the heart of this issue, and a favorite in The Episcopal Church has been “Time, Talent, Treasure.” In this model, stewardship is defined as all the things you bring to your church – including your time and your talents, as well as your treasure.

We also need to develop a more holistic understanding of stewardship that includes the environment and our lifestyles. How we care for God’s creation as stewards of the world is an important aspect of our life as disciples of Jesus Christ. Likewise, the way we live says a great deal about how we are living out our call to follow Jesus. Gandhi’s famous quote, “Live simply so that others may simply live,” provides a touchstone for lifestyle stewardship. An example would be examining the ways you support businesses that have harmful effects on the world.

Stewardship campaigns are discipleship campaigns. Everything we do in our Church points towards a more fulfilling life in Jesus Christ. For stewardship to help us enter into a deeper relationship with Jesus, we need to think more holistically about what it means.

2. Knowing your congregation’s giving history will affect your ability to be its pastor

Will knowing a person’s giving history and current pledge change your pastoral response to that congregant? If so, there are other issues at play. I can certainly understand the frustration you might feel if a member of your church cuts their pledge in half over an issue you think petty. But would that really prevent you from appearing at their side in the midst of a crisis? The same is true with regard to major donors. We love having people who have much to give and will give back to God in big ways, but should that really effect your pastoral response to the rest of your congregation?

It’s important to think about the information you miss if you don’t track people’s giving. It is an unfortunate truth that many people air their grievances through their pledge card. If you don’t know that one of your most stable congregants just turned in a pledge card for $1.00, you’ve missed a huge communication!

Being above reproach is important. We don’t want our parishioners to think that their giving has anything to do with the way they are treated in their faith community. However, I think there are many ways to accomplish that without leaving yourself blind to details that are important to the life of your congregation.

3. Fundraising is easier for big churches

Yes, big churches bring in more money. They have more people giving and more people giving usually translates into larger total giving numbers. I don’t think that means it’s easier, though.

Something that we hardly ever talk about in church fundraising is Return on Investment (ROI). Alumni development officers at your university track ROI very closely. The question boils down to, how much did it cost you to raise one dollar? What seems to be a good marker for the industry is about 24 cents for every dollar raised. I would hope that our churches could get that number a little lower, but there is no real data supporting an industry standard ROI for churches.

Smaller churches should have a relatively low ROI. That means your small church congregation will spend less to raise needed funds. Look at some of the resource-sized parishes in the Episcopal Church. Some of these churches spend as much on their stewardship campaign as smaller churches spend on their whole budget! Something that a smaller church can promise is that more of a congregant’s hard-earned treasure is going back into the community and back to the ministry of the Church.

4. Endowments are the enemy

I love this one: “If we create an endowment, it will kill this church!” Everyone seems to have a horror story, where a church was going along fine and then they started an endowment and everything fell apart. I’d just like to say correlation is not causation.

Yes, I have seen churches that have experienced setbacks about the time their endowments reached a particular size. I just have never walked away convinced that the endowment was the actual reason for those setbacks. Poor leadership, troubled relations between ministries, a total inability to deal with conflict – those things create trouble. Sometimes the trouble comes from arguments over what to do with the endowment, but that’s not the fault of the endowment. That’s just people being people.

The inverse of this argument is also a myth. Some people think that endowments will fix everything. Recently the podcast, Future Perfect, released a series on the problems with large endowments that exist far beyond their intended life span. It was a fascinating look into the difficulties that can come with creating pools of money that might outlast us all. Endowments are tools that can be extraordinarily powerful under the right management. Getting the management right is critical.

5. Shrinking pledges, shrinking numbers, dying church

This one is tough, and it’s a real problem for more and more churches. You see a consistent decline in all your numbers. There are fewer people in your pews, and they are giving less. There are fewer people who are giving. You think your church is dying.

Your church might be dying. I’m not going to be able to judge that for you in this short article. However, your church just might be changing. That might be okay. The metric I think we should always fall back on is this: Are you forming disciples of Jesus Christ, regardless of the age of the people sitting in the pews?

If you have a church that only has 25 people and they are all over the age of 65, are you forming those amazing boomers to be followers of Jesus? Are you providing them with spiritual food and pushing them to increase the boundaries of their love? Are you tending to their needs and giving them the tools they need to deepen their spiritual life? Are you able to do those things with the resources the church is providing?

The last question is really where it all comes apart. You might say yes to every question and then say no at the last one. If so, then it might be time for part-time leadership, or even lay leadership, at your church. That doesn’t mean the church is dying, it just means it’s changing.

Good stewardship means taking a real hard look at your church’s situation. Yes, some churches will need to close down. I don’t have a great way to blunt that truth. However, if your community is still fired up about being disciples of Jesus Christ, then maybe there is some life still left!

Bill Campbell is the Executive Director of Forma | The Network for Christian Formation. He is now a program director at ECF through a collaboration between ECF and Forma that combines the best discipleship practices and networks of Forma with the amazing leadership resources and networks of ECF.


This article is part of the September 2019 Vestry Papers issue on Mobilizing our Assets for Mission