Why pledging is so very important, and why it’s not at all.

Sometimes I talk about how critically important it is for your members to pledge.  At other meetings I talk about why it’s not important at all, sometimes in the same church.

The difference is which committee I’m talking with.

The stewardship committee should emphasize pledging.  A pledge represents a goal, a decision made in advance.  Any successful business leader will tell you that you must start out with a goal, preferably one that challenges you.

In my stewardship work I often challenge parishioners to determine what percentage of their income they are currently giving to the church, then to increase it one percentage point each year until they reach a tithe.  In spirituality and discipleship conversations pastors often challenge members to grow their giving as their relationship with God has grown.  It is these discussions and journeys that lead to tithing.

These are times with a pledge is critically important to reaching that goal.

But the group that I tell not to emphasize written pledges is the Finance Committee.  In my years at the Foundation I have only known of a single church that added up all the pledges in November and used that as their income number for the following year.  A balanced budget meant that they could never plan to spend more than the total of the pledges.  Incidentally this led the church to a very tight budget each year, which always ended in a significant surplus around Christmas time.

Nearly all of the churches I have worked with base the income on some historical figure.  Often it is last year’s total giving number, or an average of the last several years.    Sometimes to make the budget work they fudge a little, the previous year plus three or five percent.  All of these can be effective approaches to a number that is always uncertain.

Cleveland weatherman Dick Goddard once compared predicting lake effect snow to “stapling Jell-o to a wall.”  That analogy fits here as well.

So why should Finance Committees nag members to complete a pledge?  Younger generations don’t like to pledge, and generally don’t.  Folks whose jobs are uncertain, or are predicting other significant changes in their lives may hesitate to write down a number as well.  So why don’t we just show them some grace?  If Bob and Mary give $X per year, we can reasonably expect that they will continue to do so, or something close, whether they give us a pledge card or not.

While I think it is imperative that we teach all generations, especially young generations, about giving and tithing, this should come from a generosity point of view, not a church-needs-the-money place.

So in your stewardship campaign, continue to offer pledge cards as a way for your members to set a goal for themselves, or even make that commitment to the finances of the church.  But don’t clobber anyone over the head if they’re not willing to do so.  Keep them engaged, keep them on a discipleship path and let them reach that place as part of a greater journey in their lives.

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