This post is part of an ongoing conversation about generosity and stewardship in conjunction with The Evergreen Project’s fall campaign, “The Joy of Giving Up.”
As the Evergreen Project continues to create, collect, and curate the best resources for a thriving church, the issue of pledge cards comes quickly to the front of the line.
Should a congregation of faithful members of the Christian faith be asked to sign a pledge card to indicate the amount of money they would like to give for the support of the mission of the church?
In this blog post, I want to address the various ways of approaching this question and then give my own answer to the question.
What is a pledge card?
At first, the idea of a pledge card seems logical. It is a statement of intent by a donor to give a certain amount of money to the local church.
Charities and churches use this system all the time. Pledge cards are usually used in capital campaigns and many churches utilize pledge cards for annual, operational giving. So, they can be used for people to commit to one-time gifts or ongoing regular support. They ask people to consider the need and prayerfully make a pledge to respond.
Missionaries often do this very effectively. My wife and I were recently asked to give to a missionary leader in China. What kind of support was needed? To respond properly, we needed clarity regarding the need and a clear pathway to respond. Does the missionary need a one-time gift, ongoing support, or both? They needed both and we responded in kind.
We went online to the mission agency and gave our debit card information and asked the agency to withdraw a one-time gift now and continue to withdraw a set monthly amount. By doing so, we made a pledge.
Henri Nouwen once reminded us that, “Fund-raising is proclaiming what we believe in such a way that we offer other people an opportunity to participate with us in our vision and mission.” This missionary leader gave us an incredible opportunity to collaborate and participate in their mission in China!
So, let’s think about how this works in the context of a local congregation. As we seek to elevate stewardship and generosity, how helpful is the pledge card in creating a clear pathway for giving?
My experience is that most churches will use it across the board for capital campaigns. The main question, in terms of best practices for the Evergreen Project, is whether to use it as an annual tool at the parish level.
Of course, for many of our churches, the real question is should we continue using the pledge card, while others will need to think through the potential benefits of beginning to use a pledge card.
In thinking this through, here are five reasons why churches should use pledge cards.
5 reasons why churches should use pledge cards
Making a pledge is biblical
It is hard to see this through the layers of history and culture, but it does appear that the early church in Corinth and Macedonia made some sort of pledge. Maybe they used a pledge papyrus, rather than our sharply printed pledge cards!
We don’t know if individual members of the congregation made pledges, but part of the “backstory” of 2 Corinthians 8 and 9 is that Paul is encouraging the Corinthians to fulfill their pledge. They had made it in good faith and Paul is sending Titus to encourage them to fulfill it.
Making a pledge fosters commitment
When a person or a household signs a pledge card for support, they are making a statement. A signed pledge card is a sign of commitment to the Church and before the Lord. It also helps the church leadership as they craft the budget, because it helps them forecast giving.
One word of caution here—churches who utilize pledge cards to forecast giving need to be tracking the history of pledge fulfillment, instead of immediately assuming that 100% of the pledged funds will be received.
Making a pledge builds ownership
Jesus said that wherever we put our treasure, we can find our hearts. And by extension, we might say that wherever we decide to put our treasure, our hearts will follow.
Asking attenders of your church to step forward and sign a pledge card really will engage them with a serious question: Are their hearts in it?
They are invited to consider drawing nearer—from attender to member, or from member to leader. The commitment of signing a pledge card helps people truly feel like this is “their” church.
Making a pledge empowers leadership
As the rector and vestry wisely steward the financial matters of a parish, what basis do they have for long-term commitments? When should a building project be undertaken? Can we afford to bring on an additional staff person for a critical area of ministry?
Without a clear picture of the funds that are committed, how can the church know what is possible and/or responsible? A pledge system empowers the leadership by letting them know (within reason) what kind of financial base they can count on going forward.
Making a pledge flags pastoral issues
The process of making a pledge and tracking its fulfillment creates a helpful feedback loop. If someone is falling behind on their pledge, this creates a flag that can lead to a helpful pastoral conversation.
Perhaps the household has experienced a job loss and needs help. Maybe the person’s faith has waned. Maybe someone needs to be encouraged to follow through on their commitment. It is often said that a person’s priorities can be seen in their calendar and checkbook. The pledge system gives us a window into someone’s checkbook and financial life in a unique way that can flag needs.
(If you have not ordered or received your Generosity Box, you are going to love it! Place your order quickly so that you can lead your church well through the fall, strengthen the teaching and preaching about generosity, and bring your people to a deeper understanding of God’s goodness and our response!)
But there is another side
Every church needs to be intentional in elevating generosity, clearly communicating the mission and need, while creating pathways to commit and respond. Most churches will use a pledge card (or equivalent) for big ticket capital items. But, what about an annual pledge card system?
Here are five reasons why a church might elect to NOT do that.
5 reasons why churches might not want to use pledge cards
Pledge card systems are fading away
There is a sense in which pledge card systems are “old-school.” That doesn’t discount them out of hand. After all, as Anglicans, there are lots of things we do that are rightly rooted in tradition.
But the pledge card system seems to be a unique relic of various liturgical and mainline church practices. Across the board, churches are using different methods and tools to create pathways for people to commit and respond. Churches need to be aware that the pledge card system is no longer normative. So, we cannot assume familiarity with it, especially with new people. It may create an odd (and unnecessary) stumbling block.
Pledge card systems may limit giving
The pledge card system has an interesting tipping point. A lot of effort may go into helping and encouraging people to fulfill their pledge. But, then what?
For most people, if they have fulfilled their pledge, they will rightly assume their giving for the year is done. Even if there is a greater and more urgent need, a pledger that has fulfilled their pledge might feel that they have done what has been asked of them.
This can be similar to teaching a 10% tithe as our duty instead of as a representative starting point. The pledge card system can put an artificial ceiling on giving from those who feel like they have held up their end of the giving bargain.
Pledge card systems are incomplete
Often, annual pledge card systems only represent about 60% of the membership base of the church. In other words, they don’t represent the whole church.
So when churches rely solely on the pledge card system through an annual appeal rather than ongoing attention to generosity, then the pledges become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
The vestry is often inclined to NOT budget anything over the pledged amount. Plus, there is an implicit signal that the church is settled, rather than growing. The church is relying on member giving year to year, rather than focusing on generosity to a membership base that is growing year by year with new people.
The pledge card system may communicate a settled status quo rather than the growing momentum of a congregation participating in the mission of God and seeing people added to their number regularly.
Pledges card systems may be counter-productive
We want our churches to be gospel-centered. Our posture should be one of grace and care. Pledge card systems can be counterproductive in this regard.
If someone is unable to fulfill their pledge, this can create a sense of guilt and obligation in a church that preaches grace and forgiveness. We want people to give generously, cheerfully, and sacrificially. The pledge card system can turn giving into just another bill.
Even if the person eventually fulfills their pledge, it may be counterproductive to their overall discipleship.
Pledge card systems may not be organizationally appropriate
Churches of different sizes operate differently. Leaving aside the value often attached to large churches or small churches, we must acknowledge that size affects operation.
The annual pledge card system may be wise and helpful in a family-sized congregation. Larger churches are less likely to use the annual pledge card system. Rather than an annual stewardship season for the annual pledge drive, larger churches will create multiple pathways to elevate generosity and encourage commitment.
Clergy and vestries need to be attuned to the organizational dynamics in their parish as they consider an annual pledge card system.
So, what is the answer?
In my view, the entire purpose of an annual pledge card system is to create a moment of decision in the hearts and homes of the membership base of the church. Filling out a pledge card requires some action and/or commitment from members of the church. There is great value in that, and the annual pledge card is one tool for this purpose.
Honestly, those churches that do not have a pledge system have a different and, in my view, more difficult assignment. They have to create what I call a “kitchen table” moment that asks people to consider or reconsider the level of support that they intend. We still must take time to clearly communicate the mission and need and ask people to commit and respond.
Another aspect of this question is whether your congregation can make this a matter of excitement and engagement, instead of dull routine.
In other words, are they sick of it? Is it time to re-imagine the look of your old pledge card?
At the Evergreen Project, we are thinking about these things all the time. If you have a plan to address this question in a creative way, please let me know! Share your own insights and ideas! We will share them with others.
Whether it is through an annual pledge card system or something else, we need to have a generosity plan.
Whatever system you and your church decide to use, pledges or non-pledges, intentionality truly matters. Remember, this isn’t just about money, it is about discipleship.
We are inviting people to participate with us in the mission of God AND we are asking them to relate to money in a radically different and counter-cultural way. We must be intentional, prayerful, and wise to discern whether the annual pledge card system is the best way to do this in our own ministry context.