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If there is one recurring theme to the conversations I have regularly with clergy, lay leaders and denominational employees, it is viability.
In a myriad of ways, people are asking viability questions about ministry, congregational life, finances, staff models, facilities, organizational structures, mission and just about every aspect of religious life today.

These viability issues are conversations that healthy churches and church leaders must have. I hope 2012 becomes a turning point for you and your faith community to deal realistically and hopefully with your present and your future.

At the outset of this new year, let me suggest three critical questions regarding congregational finances that you need to ask and have answers to.

  1. How much of your 2011 budget receipts came from those more than 70 years of age? 75? 80?
  2. How much of your 2011 budget receipts came from those younger than 35 years of age?
  3. What percentage of your budget receipts came from your top five donors?

Most established congregations will find the answers to these questions sobering.

Reading that we are at the end of the era of congregational life being defined by rising budgets and attendance is one thing; actually coming to grips with that being true for you is another.

However, until we are honest about our own situation, there will never be the deep resolve to rethink congregational life that is necessary for us to be successful going forward.

Most congregations will find that their budget is heavily funded by a pocket of loyal givers who are primarily senior adults. It doesn’t take a social science degree to understand the danger here.

Within 10 years, many congregations will face enormous financial challenges as their primary supporters move off the scene. Many congregations are only one or two funerals away from a real crisis.

What is a concerned congregation to make of this reality?

First, we must learn the difference between loyalty giving and passion giving. Ask any fundraiser for a hospital, university or nonprofit, and they will confirm this truth.

The era of people giving out of a sense of loyalty, duty and love for an institution is waning. As the Builder generation passes off the scene, they take with them a deep commitment to institutions and giving out of a sense of duty or obligation.

In their place come the Boomers and their offspring, who give primarily out of their sense of passion and desire to make a difference in the world.

Most congregations still design their giving campaigns for the group that defined them in the past, rather than their future.

We must learn to talk about stewardship in terms broader than obligation and duty.

Thankfully, Jesus was the one who linked giving to meaning and purpose in life. Now, we must learn to speak his language on this subject.

Second, we will learn to live and talk about creating a congregational culture of generosity in the midst of a societal culture that promotes self-absorption.

While Jesus teaches a life of internal abundance, 21st-century American cultural leaders preach a message of fear and scarcity.

Many congregational leaders allow their thoughts on the economy to dwarf their faith. Far too many finance committees walk by sight rather than by faith.

We face significant headwind on this. Everything around us says, “Grab hold of as much as you can and don’t worry about those around you.”

How can we create an oasis of people who actually believe “It is more blessed to give than to receive” and “To find your life, you must lose your life”?

Healthy congregations will find themselves teaching an increasingly alien message about possessions and money that will evoke reactions and push-back from those overly invested in American consumer culture.

Third, we need to broaden our understanding of stewardship to match that of Jesus.

Reading the gospels leaves one with the distinct impression that Jesus rejected the notion of obligatory giving and instead taught that all of life is a gift to be managed as though it were on loan from our creator.

He teaches a life lived in gratitude for the privilege of being his son or daughter for a season here on earth.

The ways we handle our money, possessions, influence, career and education are all part of living out a unique mission as steward of a treasure we have been given.

When was the last time you taught your high school juniors and seniors that their choice of vocation or college is essentially a question of stewardship?

Despite the fact that we are talking about donations and dollars, the truth is that the primary issue is not money.

Financial metrics provide specific evidence that something foundational is amiss. While they are helpful for sounding the alarm that what we are doing is not viable or sustainable long-term, they are more symptomatic than the actual problem.

Over time, we must ask harder questions regarding why we are here and what we are doing. Buckle up! It is going to be an interesting ride.

BillWilson is president of the Center for Congregational Health in Winston-Salem, N.C.

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