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Pocketbook priorities

What motivates congregations to give?

By Myra Holmes

They say that two heads are better than one. Let me suggest a corollary rule: 200 pocketbooks are better than one.

The U.S. Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches relies on multiple “pocketbooks” in the form of 200 congregations in carrying out its ministries. When these individual congregations make it a priority to give to the denomination, ministry expands beyond the reaches of any single congregation.

The number of congregations that open their wallets for the U.S. Conference isn’t very big—just 65 out of 200. What prompts these churches to give? To find out, I talked with pastors and church members from several faithfully-giving congregations. I learned that a sense of what Mennonite Brethren can do better together is a key motivating factor.

Loyalty helps, especially for congregations that have a significant history with the denomination. Fairview (Okla.) MB Church—now 114 years old—is a good example. Interim pastor Brad Penner says that the influence of loyal givers throughout the church’s history means that supporting denominational ministries is “in the DNA,” as Penner says. “It’s a good habit that has grown out of the vision and the mission of the forefathers of this congregation.”

A church doesn’t have to be 100-plus to have that sense of loyalty. Those I spoke with—from old and young congregations alike—say: “It’s just part of who we are;” “It’s our tithe;” “It’s nonnegotiable.”

At 40-something, Grace Bible Church, Gettysburg, SD, is significantly “younger” than Fairview, but denominational giving habits were similarly established early on. Long-time member Phil Hamburger cites the influence of early pastor Wilfred Fadenrecht: “He instilled that in us.”

But loyalty isn’t always enough. Two pastors of well-established congregations told me that rocky relationships with denominational ministries have impacted their giving, in spite of tradition. One closed the church pocketbook for a number of years before resuming; the other has become more selective in giving.

So what takes a congregation beyond “good habits” and loyalty to motivate giving? Time and again, pastors cite the importance of being part of something larger than themselves. In the end, it’s the vision that inspires giving.

“There are things we can do together that we can’t do by ourselves,” says David Froese, pastor of Heritage Bible Church, Bakersfield, Calif. He points to church planting and evangelism as examples: “We can expand beyond our borders in a way we couldn’t if we didn’t link arms.” Others point to Christian education, publishing and missions as things we just couldn’t do as individual congregations.

The local church benefits from the support of that larger family as well. Daniel Clubb, pastor of Shorelife Community Church, Capitola, Calif., appreciates the counsel of district leaders, the budget advice from MB Foundation and the prayer support from conference leaders, to name a few. “There’s something positive about being part of a bigger family,” Clubb says.

Personal connections help bring the vision home. For example, at Enid (Okla.) MB Church, the church invites conference leaders to come as often as is practical, both to preach and to help equip the congregation, which gives a face to denominational ministry. Dinuba (Calif.) MB Church had a part in the founding of Fresno Pacific University and MB Biblical Seminary, both in nearby Fresno, and continues to be actively involved at the schools. That feeling of personal investment makes giving easier, according to pastor Jim Aiken.

So if loyalty isn’t enough and if vision is the bigger motivator, communicating the vision will become increasingly important in the days ahead. Some of that responsibility to communicate lies with denominational leaders, and you can be sure the CL will continue to do what we can.

But congregations have a responsibility, too. I like what Pat Coyle, pastor of Shafter (Calif.) MB Church, says: “Take some time to look into what the district and the conference and the denomination do. If you’re currently not supporting any of those, look at their vision and decide as a congregation what part you want to have in that.” Because it really is true that 200 pocketbooks are better than one.

Myra Holmes is the Christian Leader assistant editor. She and her family worship at Trailhead Church, a Mennonite Brethren church plant in the greater-Denver area.

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