[Part 3] The Reason 80% Don't Give: Lack of Trust

[Part 3] The Reason 80% Don't Give: Lack of Trust

Statistics show that only 20 percent of regular attendees regularly donate financial support to their church. Why are the other 80 percent getting lost? There are lots of possible answers to that question, so we’re giving them time and consideration in this four-part series. In Part 1, we considered the barrier of simplicity, and in Part 2, we discussed a deeper connection to the story of giving. Today, we’re getting to discuss another barrier of donating to church: Lack of trust.

Cultivating a Generous Heart in Your Church Depends on Fostering an Atmosphere of Trust

Some of the 80 percent don’t see the need to donate to church, some see themselves as unable to give, and some don’t know where to start. But the hard truth is that almost certainly some of the 80 percent are struggling with trust. Cultivating a generous heart in your church depends on fostering an atmosphere of trust.

Before We Can Get to Trust, However, We’ve Got to Talk about Fear

Fear is the enemy of a generous heart. Whether you’re talking to the 80 percent, the 20 percent, or your own church staff, you can be sure there is plenty of fear operating around finances within your church. If my own story and those from my circle are any indication, just about everyone is tired and worn out from living in fear of finances, tax season, mortgages, car payments, school loans, and creditors. There’s even a name for the phobia relating to mismanaging money: Chrometophobia.

I Remember as a Little Girl….

For some, trust may have been broken in the past by a leader, church, or ministry. Whether it makes the headlines or not, misuse and abuse of finances is too common for comfort. The clergy as a profession doesn’t top the charts when it comes to trusted professions. I remember as a little girl hearing the grown-ups speak about a family friend who was in trouble for some misuse of religious funds. It struck me as a very difficult dilemma at the time—he should have told the truth, but he was still helping people with the money, just in a different way than he had promised. My eight-year-old mind thought of all the people who could not get helped anymore, because people seemed to mind that he didn’t tell the truth about money. Similar heartbreaking stories about ministries, churches, or leaders who have broken financial promises can wreck trust among members for years.

Odds are, whether you know it or not, and whether it’s your church’s fault or not, you’re operating in a trust deficit among some of the 80 percent. It’s going to take long-term investments to rebuild, and a lot of that investment has to happen slowly by changing the deeper conversation of finances from fear to freedom.

Trust doesn’t come from knowing everything about money management (although financial classes can help to combat some of the fear), nor does it come from knowing every detail about all the salaries of the church employees. Author Seth Godin put it this way:

“We trust people because they showed up when it wasn’t convenient, because they told the truth when it was easier to lie and because they kept a promise when they could have gotten away with breaking it. Every tough time and every pressured project is another opportunity to earn the trust of someone you care about.” 

Building or rebuilding trust in any leadership situation is a long-term process marked by humility, consistency, and transparency. One of the best things churches can do to foster real trust is to build these values deeply and consciously into their culture—to show up, tell the truth, and keep promises.

Value #1: Humility

From the Sunday school volunteers to the directors, everyone needs to understand on a deep level how much giving is not about the money but about the heart. The family friend I mentioned? He forgot that part. He saw needs to be met, and his answer was money—gathered and given under his vision and control—instead of God’s action through the hearts and hands of God’s people.

In some ways, it was a mistake of pride to exercise control over the money and mission. While this man’s intentions were ostensibly for good, he forgot that he was merely a steward of God’s resources.

While pride tells us we hold on to control of our finances, humility debilitates fear by reminding us we never were in control. Humility in leaders shifts the unequal power balance that gives fear a home.

Value #2: Transparency

It’s easy to get lost in the midst of the financial decisions that have to be made around the many projects that go on in the church. A surplus of donations for the building fund? A mission trip group needed a little extra to meet their goals? A great local ministry needs some short-term assistance to stay afloat or buy a property to house their offices? Priorities are constantly shifting, and decisions have to be made, sometimes fast.

When your team is acting in the best interests of the resources and priorities involved, it can be easy to forget that givers don’t have a live feed to the church general ledger.

Communication with your “stakeholders” is critical to building trust; going the extra mile to consciously install communications systems around voluntary giving can empower staff and volunteers to show up by effectively stewarding both the finances and the relationships. If a change of direction is needed, being open and responsive builds trust.

Transparency is so much more than just having an annual finance meeting with lots of powerpoint slides and zeroes; true transparency means involving your congregation in the full story of generosity.

Value #3: Consistency

Consistency is simply being faithful in the small things—keeping promises. Consistency is valuing your accountant’s perspective (and understanding the value of a good accountant). It’s reporting more than you may strictly need to in order to tell a story of trust. If you’ve raised more than you needed, what did you do with the surplus? If there was a shortfall, what fund did the balance come from? Your money movement is a wellspring of stories that can build and regenerate trust and become a living demonstration of faith. These kinds of stories can destroy fear by showing the 80 percent what it really looks like to trust God with financial decisions instead of living in fear.

Have you experienced any of this in your church? Share in the comments below either pains or solutions you’ve seen. 

Jana Gering
Jana Gering

Jana Gering is freelance writer with extensive experience in the non-profit and faith based sectors. She's passionate about using content as a means to develop community.