Before Thanksgiving, I had the chance to lead a webinar with the Diocese of Churches for the Sake of Others to talk about increasing generosity at the end of the year. As we’ve posted elsewhere, the end of the year brings challenges. You’ve got this year’s budget gaps, next year’s budget planning, end-of-the-year appeal letters—it’s a lot. On top of that, Christmas is fast approaching.
There are two temptations during seasons like this in ministry.
I’ve seen plenty of pastors who shy away from talking about giving at the end of the year. Maybe they did their big push in November and now, they think, it’s time to just bury the reality of the situation under the guise of not killing everyone’s Christmas buzz. After all, it’s not really a good time to be talking about money—everyone is already feeling squeezed at the end of the year. These pastors just hope that things work out in the end.
It’s a reasonable temptation, but it’s ultimately destructive. There’s a measure of dishonesty in this—you aren’t being transparent with your church if you aren’t presenting them with the reality of the financial situation. Also, when you swallow all your concerns, you distance isolate yourself from your community. No one is saying that you should hand out spreadsheets with the order of service on Sunday morning, but there needs to be an open understanding of the church’s needs at the end of the year.
The pendulum can swing the other way. If the there’s a big gap to close, and if we start to hear all the other voices competing for end-of-year gifts, and if our view of giving is tunnel-visioned into a bottom line, then we can overdo it. This is when the offertory becomes a revivalist’s altar call and the church’s budget hangs above the doors to the sanctuary like Dante’s Inferno: “Abandon all wallets, ye who enter…”
It’s true that the end of the year is a unique time in the giving life of a church. People are more generous around Christmas and they begin to notice by how much they’ve fallen short over the course of the year and they want to sneak in that last donation before the tax year closes. But our call isn’t to abuse this situation, or to seize the opportunity and compete with other causes for every last penny. Our call is to meet people in their present context—wherever they may be—and provide them tangible ways to live out Christ’s call to live generously.
Make a List…
In the face of these temptations, I always want to strike a balance. I want to be intentional and open—I not to shy away from talking about money just because the calendar turned to December. But I also don’t want to become Ebenezer Scrooge, reducing a season of generosity to abstract numbers in a ledger. That’s how I ended up with the idea for a Christmas Wish List.
Perhaps your family does not exchange Christmas Wish Lists. Maybe you are one of those wonderful families who surprise one another with homemade gifts based on your deep knowledge of one another. For the rest of us, we have our lists disseminated by Thanksgiving. It’s got everything from the big ticket items (mine are usually from the Apple Store…) to the stocking stuffers (dress socks, please!).
So, my challenge to you this December is…write a Christmas Wish List for your church!
…For Your Sake…
You should make this list for your own sake, even if you never show it to another soul. Simply sitting down and writing out the tangible things your church ‘wants’ will help you clarify your vision. As I’ve written about vision before, sometimes we can get so lost in the clouds that we take our boots off the ground.
You can start with the needs—the maintenance to the building, the replacement furniture for the nursery—but then allow yourself to dream. Maybe your church website is good, but could really shine if it had an overhaul. Maybe you imagine a church van that could help facilitate some of your ministries in the community. What about new vestments? Artwork for the narthex? A coffee upgrade?
We spend so much of our ministerial life operating on a shoestring that sometimes we rule out new and potentially valuable ideas simply because they seem to us too extravagant or impossible. Think like the six-year-old version of yourself—ask for that Red Rider BB gun, that Super Nintendo. Let someone else think about the practical stuff for a minute.
Let this be a sifting and sorting exercise. Get everything down that you can imagine your church wanting in the next year, then see if any patterns emerge. What does this list tell you about the direction you see the church moving in? What does it say about you as its leader?
…For Their Sake…
Making a list like this is a good exercise for yourself, but it doesn’t have to stop there. Putting this list out to your congregation is a great way to make giving concrete. This is why WorldVision doesn’t post the multiple-trillion dollar figure it would take to eradicate poverty; instead, they show the picture of a child who has a name, who needs a few dollars a month to go to school. This is why Angel Trees pop up everywhere each December. People don’t want to throw money to push a big thermometer a little higher—they want to provide a family with winter coats. I outlined this in Giving Up, but you’ve got to connect the giver to the receiver through a gift.
A list like this also defuses the temptation to compare. When you move people’s vision of giving from giving dollars to giving gifts, it lets everyone participate equally. Everyone can find something on the list that they could afford—the new coffee pot, new crafts for the kids. Every gift counts the same. Moving from dollars to gifts allows giving to feel a lot more like the early church’s vision of sharing “all things in common” (Acts 2:44).
It can also challenge someone who might be ready to make a larger gift. When you are just talking about dollars, the benchmarks seem arbitrary—why give $10,000 as opposed to $30,000. When there are real purchases to be made, those price points aren’t just conjured out of thin air. You may have people in your congregation who have been playing it safe in their giving because they haven’t had anything firm set in front of them to move them toward giving sacrificially.
I know a pastor who put a half-million dollar parking lot on their church’s Wish List. It was just what one donor was waiting for—they wrote the check on the spot.
If you do this, make sure you make it fun. Put some creative effort into the design—share it out in lots of different ways. Let people get involved. And—as with your own Christmas Wish List—don’t pout about what doesn’t show up under the tree!
At the end of the day, we are called by Christ to give joyfully. When we force giving into a quiet corner because we are embarrassed to talk about it, we miss that joy. When we make giving about dragging everybody to the financial finish line, we miss that joy.
Making a Christmas Wish List isn’t a silver bullet—it’s one of hundreds of ways that you can invite people into a vision of generosity that isn’t coercive or guilt-laden. You can invite people to “be imitators of God” and “walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us” (Ephesians 5:1-2).