Preaching about money is one of the most spiritual things I do.
—Wayne Pohl

I was sitting with a young couple interested in church membership. As I had planned, part of the conversation hinged on money. I explained our church's understanding of generosity and tithing, highlighting several Scriptures and sharing what a difference these principles had made in our church's life. I finished with, "I want you to know we're a tithing congregation. We welcome you to become a part of our church, but if tithing bothers you, you may be more comfortable elsewhere."

The husband replied, "Pastor, we attend church weekly, and we've always donated five dollars a week. My parents always gave five dollars a week. I really don't know how we could do what you're describing." He was in shock.

Nevertheless, they eventually joined our church, and by the time they moved away, they were contributing 13 percent of their income.

Preaching what Scripture says about money is volatile, revolutionary, risky business. "Money makes the world go round." It keeps dinner on the table and the wolf from the door. Money means comfort, power, security, status, opportunity, freedom, pleasure, choice. That is why Christ makes radical claims on our checkbooks. No other issue so clearly, objectively addresses the clash between this world's values and Christian values: "You cannot serve God and Mammon."

Preaching about money is thus one of the most spiritual things I do. It is one of the most practical ways I can help people grow in their faith. It is also a subject full of danger if not presented well. Here are some things I keep in mind as I touch on this vital topic.

Avoiding Misunderstandings

I enjoy preaching about money, though I admit, it is the tense joy a lion tamer feels in a cage full of growling man-eaters. Money makes people tense and talking about it can create a lot of misunderstandings, some of which can be hazardous for the health of a congregation.

To avoid such misperceptions, I follow these guidelines.

Warn visitors. A young couple attended a friend's church one Sunday. They liked the service so much they came back the next week. That week, my friend, a pastor, happened to be giving his annual sermon on tithing. When he visited them the next day, one of the first things they brought up was their concern about the church's emphasis on money.

If regular attenders are skittish about the subject of money, how much more are newcomers. I don't want them to think. All they want is my money.

So I warn visitors before I begin talking about money. In fact, they are the only people I ever apologize to when talking about money. I tell them, "You didn't come here today to hear about our budget. We hope that you'll understand that it needs to be talked about sometimes, and this is our time. I can assure you, we don't talk about it for the rest of the year."

Base the sermon in Scripture. I do this because I don't want to give anyone the impression that I'm self-serving when I preach about money. At all costs, I want to avoid the appearance that I'm seeking my own glory or the church's glory. I not only preach from Scripture, I periodically mention that I am preaching on the topic because Scripture calls me to. I have no choice.

Preach tithing seldom. Even generous givers may feel I'm coming on too strong or that we talk about it too much, making money too high a priority. Many people gladly receive preaching on finances but rightfully resist being nagged about it. Overdoing it is counterproductive: it turns people off and makes it more difficult in the future to talk about finances.

Consequently, we limit preaching on finances to two weeks out of the year. I believe that if we do our job well during this emphasis, people will respond positively and will generously fulfill their financial responsibilities to God for the rest of the year.

Our stewardship month—highlighting God's ownership of our time, talents, and treasures—is held every November, a month when few are traveling or otherwise distracted. I talk about our finances for two of the four stewardship Sundays (by the way, outside of Christmas and Easter, these two Sundays have occasionally been our best attended Sundays in the year).

I promise the congregation, "If you do your part this week, and if you follow through, you won't hear a sermon specifically about money for another year." In other messages during the year, I will, from time to time, refer to finances if the text touches on it. But I won't preach a full sermon on it except in November.

Don't promise anything God doesn't. One woman in our church was in poverty. We helped her with food, clothing, and housing for quite some time. Eventually she left our church for another. A year later she phoned me and asked, "Can I borrow $1,000 from you personally?"

"That's an interesting request," I replied.

"Reverend Pohl, this will help me so much. My pastor said last week that if we bring $1,000 to the church, within a month $2,000 would be returned to us. I'll pay you back when that money comes."

I had a problem with that. I do believe what Malachi says, that God will return to tithers even more than they gave, that we can't outgive God. But I don't teach what this other church did, and I'm careful not to even suggest it. In fact, during stewardship month, during which our members tell stories about how the Lord has worked through their giving, I screen stories beforehand for such ideas. I don't want anyone disillusioned with God, who returns to us in times and ways we can't predict, because I have overstated his promises.

Don't whine. Under financial pressure, we can fall into a negative attitude. In the you're-a-dirty-rat approach, we complain that people aren't doing enough. We tell how we are suffering because of the church's financial straits, trying to motivate giving from sympathy or guilt, directly or indirectly fixing blame.

Whining is counterproductive. Newer members don't feel enough ownership of the church or affection for the pastor to sacrifice. Often whining scares them away.

It doesn't motivate long-time members either, at least for the long term. It merely prods the old faithfuls to do more because they dislike seeing the pastor cry in public. It can also breed resentment, so that even if people's giving meets the need, the new wine of church life turns sour.

The only way to undercut whining is to preach a positive stewardship: God has given us much; we grow in our relationship to him as we give to him; giving does great things for the kingdom and for us.

Raise people first. I lead our church by the philosophy that you don't grow dollars, you grow people. When you cultivate people, dollars will come. Because discipling Christians is our real objective, I never preach about money alone—what giving will do for this project or that—but always in terms of our relationship to God, in terms of our stewardship of time, talents, and treasures. The more I preach about how giving relates to a person's love relationship with God, the more their lifestyle and perspective will change.

Growing people is not an ulterior motive for extracting money. One of the kindest things I can do for people is to teach them God's financial principles. Their spiritual growth depends on it.

Helping People Become Generous

One pastor in Illinois was speaking with a parishioner about tithing. The parishioner, who said he believed in tithing and in the need to be generous beyond the tenth, said, "Pastor, instead of tithing to our church I contribute to the needy. In fact, I am giving very generously."

"Do me a favor," his pastor said. "Pull out your check registers this week and total your charitable giving for the year. I believe your motives, but I know human nature. I would be willing to bet you're not giving as much as you think. Compare your giving with your gross income and see if you are truly 'tithing' to the needy."

The parishioner became angry. He stayed up late into the night poring over his records, determined to prove his pastor wrong. Several days later, he phoned his pastor: "I can't believe it. You're right. I haven't been close to giving a tenth of my income."

Many who suppose they are generous really aren't because they haven't retooled their budget. Stellar ideals have to make their way into the checkbook. Here are some of the ways I encourage that.

Discuss giving only in the context of stewardship. The theme of stewardship keeps the subject of giving in the proper perspective. People see giving as it relates to God rather than merely to the church or me, as Paul says in 2 Corinthians 8:5, "They gave themselves first to the Lord and then to us." When people know why God gave them their money and possessions, what God has called our church to do, and why God has placed them in our congregation, they are highly motivated givers rather than reluctant payers of dues.

During our Loyalty Month (stewardship month), we emphasize God's ownership, his rightful claim on our time, talents, and treasure. Money is only part of the picture. We talk specifically about how members can employ their spiritual gifts. We encourage people to carve time in their schedules for Christian growth and ministry. I have found that once Christians wholeheartedly dedicate their lives to God, financial giving becomes a natural response to his love.

During the rest of the year, even when I'm preaching on texts that address the subject of money directly, I still make stewardship of all we have the backdrop of the message. When I preach on the story of Jesus watching the widow give her last mite, for example, I approach that passage in terms of what it means to live a life where you give everything to God. Secondarily I would apply that to finances. My goal is to develop a congregation with a lifestyle of sacrifice, dedication, and stewardship.

Show the benefits. I present giving as a privilege, as an opportunity. I show how it benefits others, glorifies God, and benefits ourselves. Even when talking about stewardship as a responsibility, I highlight the beautiful righteousness of that duty, that stewardship isn't a burden but rather a high calling from a God who actually trusts his people. It is more blessed to give than to receive. When people give, they aren't losing, they're gaining in multiplied ways.

More specifically, by presenting next year's budget during Loyalty Month, I show the exciting things that their donations will enable in our church. We tell them about goals for additional staff, building plans, new programs and ministries, and people being helped. Members enjoy seeing the difference giving makes. I tell people, "Your giving makes the angels sing. Your giving is bringing others to Christ, and heaven is rejoicing."

Emphasize percentages. People need concrete giving goals and objective ways of determining whether they've reached them. So I challenge people to donate specific amounts, and I word my challenge so that it makes an impact: I emphasize percentage giving.

We don't emphasize dollar giving because I don't want to discourage low-wage earners who are nevertheless generous. The teenager who earns $4.50 an hour mowing the funeral home lawn and contributes 15 percent to the church should take as much pride in his sacrifice as the millionaire who donates 15 percent. If I mention the man who donates $30,000 to the building fund but ignore the woman on social security who gives 13 percent (maybe $33 a week) of her income, I have discouraged sacrificial giving among the majority in my congregation.

For example, when one of our middle-class families pledged $50,000 to the three-year building, we lauded not the amount but that this would be 23 1/2 percent of their income.

When discussing percentage giving, I highlight two principles for people.

1. Tithing is a guideline. I preach tithing through Scripture first. I turn to 2 Corinthians to show how the New Testament encourages percentage giving and regular giving; then we observe in the Old Testament how the tenth was a significant percentage.

But I'm not legalistic. People aren't going to go to hell because they donate 8 percent instead of 10. Teaching on tithing draws flak, but I'm not willing to settle for the lowest common denominator. In fact, I say generosity really begins after the tithe.

I supplement my preaching about tithing by inviting people to tell in worship about their own experiences with tithing. I'm not looking for rags-to-riches miracle stories. I want them instead to emphasize the spiritual effects of their giving.

An engineer, a long-time tither, lost his job when his employer went out of business. He stood before the congregation and described how their income and "standard of living" had fallen two-thirds.

Although they were living on his wife's income alone, they were determined to continue tithing. "God has done great things in our lives during this time. We have seen his provision in ways we didn't when we had all we needed and wanted. If you put God to the test, he will bless you. He keeps his promises."

2. Experiment and keep growing. I encourage people to start where their faith is and grow from there. Some new converts enter the church drowning in debt and obligations. For them, tithing is either impossible or unthinkable. So I challenge them to stretch to give whatever percentage they can. And as their lives get ordered by God and their faith in him increases, I encourage them to stretch their giving.

The Trust Factor

The hidden ingredient in my preaching is the most important in helping people give generously: trust. If people trust me, if they trust our leaders and policies and process, if they trust our Lord, they will give year after year. Suggestions for giving and programs to raise money have their place, but they are meaningless without trust.

My most important concern, then, is building trust. Two elements lay the foundation of trust in my preaching.

1. A long-term ministry. It's unrealistic to expect to gain complete trust in one year of ministry. We know our hearts, but others don't. It takes time for people to know us. It takes time for a pastor to prove himself.

Someone has said, "A pastor must serve a congregation for three years before the people know him, another two years before they love him, and another two before they trust him." After serving seventeen years at this church, people know my every wart. They know my positives and my negatives. Even if they don't agree with me, they know my motives; they know I would sacrifice anything for this church. And they know my pattern of financial giving.

A good track record speaks volumes. People need not only to know a pastor's heart but also to know he can deliver sound, skilled, and responsible leadership. A pastor has to prove himself equal to challenges. Again, that takes time.

2. Total disclosure. When a pastor or church curtains information, people logically wonder why. Secrecy breeds curiosity, suspicion, and gossip faster than darkness brings out cockroaches. Total disclosure opens the windows to the sunlight of trust.

We have no hidden agendas. At our annual meeting, we distribute financial reports as complete as any corporation provides its shareholders. Our board of directors meets every month, and the meeting is open for anyone in the congregation to observe.

If things go wrong, we never stonewall. In our recent building program we raised funds by selling properties. One buyer offered $525,000 for 14.6 acres, a sum of money we were planning on heavily. Then the Environmental Protection Agency spotted a red-shouldered hawk on the property. They declared it a wetland, and the buyer flew away.

Whenever something goes wrong, even if they have done everything right, leaders take some heat. Nevertheless we immediately called a meeting of the church and briefed the people. "In the long run we will be all right," I told them. "We'll eventually get the money out of this property, but in the short run we are going to have to scramble." Because of this difficulty, we did lose momentum, but we didn't lose trust or donations.

In addition to these two elements, one practice builds trust as I preach: Letting people see me as a giver who is still growing.

People trust a leader whose lifestyle is true to his words. But my example must be given with great care; it cannot be a sanctimonious display. I attended a meeting once when the pastor at the pulpit pulled out his checkbook and wrote out his check from the pulpit. Nothing wrong with that necessarily, but his manner did not motivate me to give. I felt manipulated.

Nevertheless I do divulge my giving, but in a way that shows I'm still in process, even struggling. For example, in our recent building-fund drive, I told the people that I had initially committed a significant percentage above our tithe, to be given over several years.

Then I said, "Giving this much scared me. But when I told my wife what I thought we should pledge, she looked at me across the table and said, 'That's not enough.'

"I was ready to strangle her. We've got two kids at Michigan State University as well as the bills everyone else has. But in the end, she convinced me to pledge another $1,400 in all. She has the gift of giving. I certainly don't."

In this case, I was also able to show the congregation how God had dealt with my anxiety, within a month no less. Groaning under sky-high auto insurance rates and owning two cars driven also by a 23-year-old and a 17-year-old, I called around to price various insurance agencies. I discovered a company that only insures teachers and their families. Since my wife is a teacher I investigated: because teachers are conservative and cautious people, legendary for safe driving, that company quoted us an annual fee $1,400 less than we were paying.

"This doesn't always happen," I reminded the people. "We don't know how God will work when we give in faith and what will happen to our 'standard of living,' but we do know that somehow God will meet our needs. Somehow we will see the hand of God in our finances."

Many people regard their wallets as no one else's business. When a pastor preaches on stewardship, they feel he's meddling. But I'm not intimidated. I march boldly and unapologetically into the lion's cage, knowing that I'm helping people be all that God wants: generous, unselfish, fully committed disciples of Jesus Christ.