Our ingathering was a wonderful celebration, but now we find ourselves chasing down pledge-stragglers. I didn’t realize the annual commitment season would have such a long tail.
First-Year Pledge Chair
The most common question that I hear in the month of November is, “What can we do about the pledge stragglers? We have a number of people who give faithfully—and generously—but getting a pledge card out of them is like pulling teeth! We know some just aren’t going to give us a pledge card. What can we do?”
The short answer, of course, is “not much.” The more discerned answer, however, is “more than we think.” In my years of sitting with vestries, bishop’s committees, stewardship committees, and congregations, I have seen patterns emerge among the non-pledgers. In my experience, these faithful and generous members fall generally into three categories:
Matthew 6: 1-6
The first group is the one from whom I have learned the most, and through whom I have grown the most as a steward myself. These faithful members look to Matthew 6:1-6 in discerning their response:
1 “Beware of practicing your piety before men in order to be seen by them; for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven. 2 “Thus, when you give alms, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by men. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. 3 But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4 so that your alms may be in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. 5 “And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by men. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. 6 But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
I have tremendous respect for these members of our congregations and I in no way seek to persuade them to alter their faithful response. You may find that some give in cash, so as to fully preserve the prayer-integrity of their giving. Others will write checks, sometimes even noting “pledge” in the memo line. This gives you some indication for your records and does allow you to do some “soft” planning around income, even without a formal pledge.
None of Your Business
The next group are those whom I lovingly refer to as the “none of your business” folks. And I do mean “lovingly.” Early in my ministry, I found this group to be incredibly frustrating. But as I have grown to know them better, I have grown also to appreciate the pastoral opportunities that they bring to our communities. We all have our own histories when it comes to money; for some, it is simply more comfortable to by-pass on the pledge, knowing in their hearts that they will give along the way.
Sometimes the roots lie in family politics or differing views on giving within a household. Those who perceive themselves as having less than others may feel uncomfortable, or even ashamed, in making a modest pledge. More affluent members might fear that their pledge will be judged as too high or too low. All of these represent opportunities for pastoral engagement. It might be as simple as getting to know people and understanding their lives—a bonus for the community on many fronts—or you may want to do something more structured, such as the Talking About God and Money discussion series.*
With pastoral care and encouragement, some of these members may move toward a pledge. Others will remain faithful and beloved curmudgeons. That’s OK.
The third group are those who do not pledge simply because they honestly cannot predict their income. Those with a variable income (farmers, lobstermen, fishermen, guides, small business owners, hotel and guesthouse owners, artists and artisans, the independently employed, retirees with market-based income, and hourly wage-earners) offer us some wonderful opportunities to bring a creative approach to the annual commitment.
One congregation experimented with moving the annual commitment into the Lenten season. This not only shifted the spiritual appeal from gratitude and “should” to a more contemplative discernment, it moved the practical aspect of pledging into a season when people have a more concrete sense of their income—put simply, April is when we know what we’ve made for the year. This practice of “giving in arrears,” if you will, actually has a Biblical foundation—the tithe was brought at the harvest, when the farmers and herdsmen celebrated their yield by bringing crops and livestock to the temple. If your community is predominantly one of variable income, why not take this as your model, why not make April 15 a time when due is rendered not just unto Caesar, but unto the Lord as well?
Another approach is to invite members to pledge a percent of their income rather than a dollar figure. In this way, the church lives into the message that it is part of the community; it rides the tides of fortune in communion with its members. It also brings people into a more intimate relationship with their income and their giving habits. By asking people to commit to bringing forth a certain percentage whenever they receive income, giving takes on an immediacy and abundance becomes tangible. This is equally true for variable-income households as well as for retirees and salary-earners who have a fixed income.
None of these insights solve the Finance Committee’s need for concrete information, but they do offer some various ways of thinking about those who choose not to complete and return the pledge card. Ambiguity is hard, especially when budgets need to be passed, contracts need to be renewed, and bills need to be paid. But, Thanks Be to God, we are a community of faithful souls, with all the quirks and habits that make congregational life all that it is. To all of you who read this, I wish you a harvest season of abundance, in whatever form that season takes.
*I tried to attach Talking About God and Money, but the upload repeatedly failed. If you are interested in this resource, please write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.