Storytelling, leadership build culture of generosity

September 5, 2023 by Nancy Crowe

The stories we tell about stewardship should reflect what Robert Hay Jr. calls “joyous discipline.” Church leaders need to model this as well, he said.

Hay recalled how his parents taught him early to tithe first. That was a challenge when he and his wife were raising their own young family, but he came to enjoy it. “There’s nothing better than giving,” Hay said.

He was one of two presenters for the Presbyterian Foundation’s Day of Learning, an online webinar provided for free on the topic of stewardship. The webinar took place on Thursday, August 24. Hay is a Senior Ministry Relations Officer for the Foundation.

People give because they believe in the church’s mission, trust that the church is being fiscally responsible and have a relationship with the leadership, he said. Therefore, it’s vital for church leaders to not only tell those stories but coordinate them, and strengthen those relationships through authenticity and even difficult pastoral conversations.

Teamwork and timing

Instead of a stewardship committee, Hay said, how about a session-chartered generosity team? This should include members from each committee or program area of the church.

Coordinating is as important as gathering and telling the stories. One congregation was asked to give to three different efforts on three successive Sundays in September. Then came the annual campaign in October. Not only were the three efforts not well served, but at least one parishioner remarked that he felt like an ATM, Hay said.

Moral of the story: Build a year-round calendar to coordinate storytelling, asks and thanks.

Elders should be givers

Hay said members of the session need to lead by giving.

“Nonprofits know you cannot expect others to give if you don’t yourself,” he said. “And unless you understand stewardship, I don’t think you can be an effective leader of the congregation.”

Therefore, he suggested members not be nominated to serve as elders unless they are givers.

Nominating committees wouldn’t have access to members’ pledge or other giving information, but could submit a list of potential nominees to someone who does, such as the treasurer or pastor. The treasurer or pastor could then advise which names to cross off the list, Hay said.

An exception might be if someone did not grow up attending church and is not familiar with the discipline of giving. “Suppose there is a talented person who is really stepping into leadership roles and you as pastor want them on session, but you know they’re not giving,” Hay said. “I see this as an opportunity for you to put your arm around them and have a conversation about stewardship. Help educate them about what it is to give and why it’s important, and that might be an opportunity as well to invite them to lead on session.”

Participants in the virtual presentation asked: What if you have currently serving elders who refuse to give financially? And should those without resources be excluded from leadership?

Both of those fall into the “pastoral exception” category, Hay said. Again, they’re opportunities for pastoral conversation. The non-giving elder might be helped to understand that time, talent and treasure are required: “God wants all of us, not just the piece we want to give,” Hay said.

For the potential elder without the means to give, the conversation might be about how the person is otherwise serving and how the church is supporting him or her in this phase of life, Hay said.

It shouldn’t be about the church needing something or trying to get more money out of its members, he added.

Should your pastor know what you give?

Hay’s wife, the Rev. Morgan Hay, included the couple’s pledge amount in the annual campaign letter in her first pastorate, he recalled.

But should the pastor know what members are giving — or not giving? Hay says yes. On a practical level, the pastor functions as executive director and chief development officer and therefore should know who to thank, who to ask and who to challenge, he said.

The way we give is also an indicator — though not the only one, Hay said — of where we are on our spiritual journey. Part of the pastor’s role is to help members navigate this journey. A decrease or increase in giving can also signal a pastoral care need such as a health issue, unemployment or inheritance accompanying the loss of a family member.

The issue of the pastor knowing about members’ financial contributions generated many questions and comments from participants. Some believe what church members give is private. Some said pastors who want that information are denied it by the finance team. And how do you even begin with these questions and logistics?

Hay said the easiest time for pastors to gain access to member giving information is at the beginning of their tenure. Trying to do so later may not be a battle worth having. An intermediate step would be to have the treasurer note any change in a member’s giving and tell the pastor only that there might be a pastoral care need.

However, he added: “If you don’t trust your pastor with this information, I would say you don’t trust your pastor.” That bears further consideration, whether the mistrust is actually about that pastor or perhaps a pastor who served previously, he said.

Hay acknowledged this topic could be a workshop in itself and encouraged church leaders to talk these issues over with their Ministry Relations Officer.

Make use of storytelling tools

Stories of how congregations are the hands and feet of Christ in their communities and in the world  “don’t have to be billboard-worthy ads. They just have to be real,” he said.

They can be told through sermons, newsletters, minutes for mission, brochures, dessert and dialogue gatherings, videos and more. Narrative budgets are another good tool: “Use lots of pictures. People read it to find out what the pictures are about,” Hay advised.

He also advised making use of resources such as Stewardship Navigator and Church Financial Leadership Academy.

“The key to stewardship is successful storytelling,” Hay said. “If you remember nothing else, remember that.”

Nancy Crowe is a writer, editor, and animal wellness practitioner based in Fort Wayne, Indiana. She is a graduate of Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary. Send comments on this article to Robyn Davis Sekula, Vice President of Communications and Marketing at the Presbyterian Foundation, at