In Vegas they call them “whales.” Major universities call them “investors” or “special friends.”
But in a church setting individuals who give very large amounts can be a curse, if we let them.
In the last several months I have had two conversations on the topic. The first is the pastor at Hasbeen UMC. This is a church on the decline and they all remember Larry, a prominent businessman for whom the church was a serious financial priority. Whenever the church was in trouble the pastor would call Larry, tell him how much was needed and a check would be in the offering plate on Sunday morning. His Christmas Eve gift could always be counted on to make up that end of the year deficit.
The second conversation was with the pastor at Struggling UMC. This is a good, active church that while it is not growing significantly it hasn’t seen the declines that many of our churches have seen. This church counts on John, a current member who also gives generously. The problem there is that everyone is willing to take a step back and let John give all he wants. The pastor told me that at a recent Tuesday evening Finance Committee meeting it was announced that there was not enough in the checking account to cover payroll coming up on Friday. The committee had a serious discussion after which someone said, “John sure needs to write a check this week,” and they moved on with the agenda.
In both examples, the donor has his heart in the right spot. Neither pastor reports that the gifts came with excessive strings attached or the individual sought undue influence. It was simply a matter of a wealthy, committed Christian who tithed.
Is that a curse?
Not in and of itself.
The problem came when the leaders of the church, both lay and clergy, decided to give the rest of the church a pass. Too often I hear “We don’t need to do a stewardship campaign, we always have enough money to pay our bills.” In fact on Saturday I talked to leaders from a group of churches and not one of them reports doing a campaign.
In both churches, the members have been taught that extravagant generosity is something that someone else does. Only rich people do that. If we can get one guy to give a lot, the rest of us can go get 100 inch televisions and a larger boat.
The obvious problem is that these guys don’t last forever. One is already gone, the other is in his 70s.
But the other problem is that in these two churches none of the other members were ever invited in to make the church a part of their sacrificial lives. If they’re giving pocket change, how committed are they to prayer? Worship attendance? Missions?
Is their entire spiritual life made up of coins and pocket lint?
I love major donors, I think we need more of them. Lots more. But once we get them, we have to remember the purpose of the church is not to pay its bills, but to make disciples.
Even if there is plenty of money in the plate.