Why Are Churches Failing at Stewardship?

11/6/18 3:58 PM / by Denis Greene

This may seem harsh, but as a society and as a Church, we have failed to help people embrace stewardship. It obviously does not work to just tell people they need to give. Pastors have been beating that drum for centuries.

I think we need to take an honest look at what this approach has produced. If you are using tithing as the barometer (those who give 10% of their income back to God), then the age-old approach to preach about giving has produced a 95% failure rate.

According to top Christian researcher George Barna, (Barna 2008) 95% of Christians don’t tithe. Why don’t more people understand stewardship? I think it is because we are living in a Dead Sea culture.

My favorite illustration of the concept of stewardship comes from the waters of the Hula Valley in the Holy Land. Rain falls on Mt. Hermon and trickles down the Golan Heights seeking a tributary that directs this cool, clear water into the Jordan River. The Jordan flows into the Sea of Galilee where the water is drawn out to nourish the fertile fields that sustain the people that live in the villages that adjoin the sea. The area around the Sea of Galilee is teaming with life, and the sea produces fish that nourish the people and animals nearby.

Next, the Jordan River flows out of the Sea of Galilee south to the Dead Sea. In the Dead Sea, the same water becomes stagnant and sustains no life for one simple reason. Water flows in, but it does not flow out. The Dead Sea takes in all that it can, and it keeps it; it does not share. Like a Christian that receives God’s blessings of time, talent, and treasure but does not give back, the Dead Sea holds tightly to the water that once gave life when it flowed through the Sea of Galilee.



As I explained this reality to my children, I asked the question, “What do you want your life to be like? Do you want to be like the Sea of Galilee where God’s blessings flow through you? Or, do you want to be like the Dead Sea where God’s blessings flow to you and then stop as you clench tightly to that little bit with which you’ve been blessed?” My three year old son, John, said: “I like sharing. It feels good.” We each must decide if we will let God’s blessings flow through us. Our Dead Sea culture is thirsty for Galilee giving.

I have found that a great sermon may help a person gain insight, and a good joke causes the mind to leap ahead. The church needs to combine these two cognitive phenomena so that our people will both gain insight and the ability to look ahead and see how stewardship affects the big picture of ministry work. The key to increasing giving is to enable people’s ability to see a greater stewardship vision, fostering their discovery of the transformative properties of stewardship. For a person to give at a high level (which we will define as 5% to 10%), it really does require someone to nurture their understanding of stewardship with methods that go far deeper than a 30-45 minute sermon can accomplish.

Look at the behavioral spectrum below which depicts a range of responses from complete self-centeredness to complete altruistic generosity. Based on giving levels, it would appear that many in our country live more on the left-hand side of the chart. Where along that scale do you see yourself and members of your congregation?

Percentage of giving spectrum

With The Stewardship System, we’ve created a tool which will help churches teach their people so that stewardship discovery and transformation will be natural and seamless. As churches implement the Stewardship System, people will begin to progress from the left side of the behavioral spectrum to the right, and they will grow in the grace of giving.

Why is this happening?

In conducting research and working with churches across the nation over the last 30 years, my stewardship consulting firm, Church Development, has discovered some common factors that tend to limit generosity. Research from Empty Tomb, Inc., (Empty Tomb, Inc. 2009) verified Barna’s basic findings that only 5% of the population gives 10% of their income to charity. My question then is this: What is causing that 5% of people to give at a level so much higher than the national average (2%)? Further, how did the 5% learn to give so generously? What were the influences or factors that contributed to their generosity? If we can identify why certain people give at much higher levels than normal, it may help stem the tide of stewardship failure I observe in many churches.


  1. Churches fail to effectively provide stewardship education to their members. As a result, members do not truly understand stewardship.
  2. Churches fail to tap into the power of prayer to release the flow of generosity.
  3. Churches fail to involve members in decision making to gain their buy-in and support.
  4. Churches fail to bring members together as a connected, supportive community.
  5. Churches fail to develop volunteers into ministry partners.
  6. Churches fail to ask for support in a compelling way.
  7. Churches fail to adequately express thanks to those who do give.
  8. Churches fail to establish a dedicated stewardship committee to oversee stewardship ministry.

My basic position as to why we struggle with stewardship is bound up in these eight factors. I suggest that if a church starts to implement strategies to address these eight areas, people will begin to “get it” and overall giving as a percentage of income will begin to increase.

Why churches are failing at stewardship

Total System Failure

Do you remember the terrible tragedy in 1985 when the space shuttle Challenger exploded on lift off? I’ll never forget the irony of the first comment from mission control after the explosion: “Obviously a major malfunction.” That was the understatement of the century. It was a tragic loss beyond measure for our country and the families of those on board the spacecraft. My observation is that like this infamous NASA breakdown, the church is often dealing with a major malfunction in terms of stewardship.

And just as a major system failed on the space shuttle, I would contend that the main cause of stewardship failure in the American church is also systematic. Our short comings in the area of stewardship are an organizational failure. It is truly systemic in the sense that most churches I encounter do not employ an organized, systematic approach to building a culture of generosity. There is a vague hope that people will decide to give or maybe hear a great sermon that will move them. More often, there is a lurking sense of guilt around money and the fear that at any minute, someone might utter the dreaded “F” word, fundraising.

It is vitally important to not confuse your church’s stewardship efforts with a fundraising plan. As noted above, fundraising and stewardship are two very different things. Many churches offer a myriad of fundraisers – often too many of them. However, few churches have a year round stewardship plan. A good stewardship ministry will result in raising funds for ministry, but stewardship is far from fundraising as clouds are from ground fog. Both involve money and asking for support, but the nature of each pursuit is fundamentally different. The main evidence of organizational failure in stewardship cultivation is:

  • No Stewardship Committee: Most churches do not have leadership that is exclusively dedicated to stewardship. Only 12% of Catholic churches and 17% of mainlines Protestant churches have a stewardship committee. (Church Development 2009). Most churches have no budgeted funds for stewardship ministry. A typical stewardship budget for a church is 1% of total income compared to 15% for secular nonprofit organizations.
  • Lack of Stewardship Communication: Many churches see securing resources for ministry as fundraising, and they do not adhere to our definition of stewardship: "God’s blessings flow through me.”
  • No Stewardship Campaign: Half of all churches do not run an annual stewardship campaign. (Barna 1999) Of those that do offer a yearly pledge drive,
    this is all they do in terms of stewardship for the year. These churches are certainly ahead of many of their brothers and sisters; however, three sermons and a pledge card hardly constitute a culture of generosity.
  • Missing a Culture of Generosity: No year- round activities exist to build stewardship.

Churches often lack human resources for stewardship efforts along with lack of funding. They do not have the training, support, or professional quality materials to effectively build and communicate a culture of generosity.

Money Mechanics

It’s time to send in the money mechanics. If you had the opportunity to make changes that would overcome the church’s general failures at promoting stewardship, what changes would you make? Who would you ask to make them?

My first suggestion is to take some pressure off your pastor in this area. The reality is that most pastors receive little or no training in the area of financial management, stewardship, or fundraising (for lack of a better term). If your board is thinking: “If Pastor Bob would just preach better sermons about giving, we’d not have any financial problems,” you are on a very slippery slope.

If the transmission goes out on your car, who do you want to do the repairs, a novice or a trained professional? Just as you would take your car to an expert trained in the special systems that govern transmissions, would it not follow that to fix any stewardship problems, it would behoove a church to consult with experts in stewardship systems?

Stewardship Is Not Fundraising

Another key reason why we’ve failed at stewardship cultivation is that many God followers have equated stewardship with fundraising. In Christian stewardship, God entrusts His resources and
creation to people. Those people then must manage well what He has provided. Stewardship is not peripheral; it is central. But it is clearly not fundraising tactics. God creates us and calls us to
give ourselves to the world for His glory. We are His servants (stewards). In summary, Stewardship is managing God’s resources for His purposes (Laribee 2003).

However, if we simply use fundraising models and tactics on God’s people, the result will obviously be people who feel churches have ulterior motives and only care about getting into their wallets. When those who share the goal of seeing everyone embrace stewardship see the evidence that only 5% of the population behaves like stewards, we can definitively declare we have failed. The definition of neurosis is to do the same thing over and over again and expect a different outcome. If we continue to approach stewardship as we have been, we’ve become neurotic.

To get past the neurosis, we must do something differently and we must begin doing it now. It’s
obvious that the Sunday sermon alone does not work. One of the reasons it does not work is because so few pastors will present a Sunday sermon explaining stewardship. Other things that are not working are: lecturing, admonition, scolding.” Those things have brought our national giving level to about 2%.

The only thing we have found that does consistently work is to facilitate revelation. Individuals must discover stewardship on their own and make an internally directed decision. Stewardship must come from within. The obvious question is, “How on earth does that happen?” Our most exciting research has been to survey those who are very generous with their time, talents and treasure. We asked them:

  • Why did you begin to give (tithe)?
  • Why do you continue to give (tithe)?
  • How is your life different because of giving (tithing)?
That information is absolutely gold for those of us who want to increase stewardship among the rest of the population. A quote from one survey respondent summarizes the heart of the matter, “When I tithe, I have a greater sense that God’s blessings flow through me.” The joy that our  survey respondents articulated is so substantially different from the attitude of the overwhelming majority of people, that it merits a devoted attempt by church leaders to facilitate the discovery of stewardship in all members.

Get started now with The Stewardship System to start moving toward success.

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Topics: Research & Statistics, Stewardship Ministry

Denis Greene

Written by Denis Greene

Greene began working in the nonprofit development field in 1981. He founded Church Development in 1992 after a near-death experience motivated him to integrate his faith, education and skills in work that served the church and the virtue of stewardship. He has helped over 200 churches across the USA raise more than $200,000,000. He is the author of The Stewardship System, Stewardship-Based Capital Campaigns, and How To Ask For Donations as well as numerous articles on stewardship.

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