One statistic stands out for me more than any other when assessing the health of stewardship in a parish: the total number of donors who use a “first fruits” method to give to the mission and ministry of the parish. By first fruits, I mean pre-authorized giving, post-dated cheques or some form of regularized electronic giving through a third party like CanadaHelps or a local bank.
I believe that giving of one’s first fruits is not only financially prudent but theologically sound. First Fruits Giving (FFG) is often presented to members of a congregation solely as a financial benefit to the church: it guarantees a stream of reliable revenue, supports ministry in our absence, helps the stewardship team plan for future expenses and provides peace of mind to the churchwardens and clergy. Rarely do our conversations about FFG focus on the theology of giving, but they should. Giving a planned and prayed-for gift is good theology.
In ancient Israel, the practice of consecrating first fruits to the Lord sprang up naturally among agricultural people from the belief that the first, and hence, best of the harvest should be offered to God in thanksgiving for all the gifts received during the growing season. Today, the fruit of our labour most often comes in the form of money (though it can come in terms of time and talent as well) which we use to purchase those things that nurture and sustain us.
The concept of giving our first fruits illustrates giving to God from a grateful heart, and it sets a pattern of giving back to God the first – and best – of what God has given us. FFG inclines us to think about the needs of the church and its ministry before other priorities begin to compete for our time and resources. This might seem like a radical departure from the act of making a weekly offering on the collection plate, but it helps us realize that if we are to be truly intentional about giving it must become a priority in our life. FFG ensures consistency, reliability and commitment.
In our diocese, there is a striking contrast between parishes where FFG is a priority and those where it is only marginally encouraged or avoided altogether. With few exceptions, parishes that boast an FFG rate of more than 40 per cent of participants experience a higher level of average annual giving per donor, enjoy above-average overall giving, avoid falling into deficit-budget scenarios and benefit from a degree of fiscal certainty. Of the 54 parishes that are growing in our diocese, more than 80 per cent have exceptional levels of participation in FFG.
Without doubt, FFG is the fastest and most effective way for any parish to increase its level of giving and overall financial health. The arithmetic is simple. Let’s assume that your typical adherent attends church three times a month and each time donates $20 via an offertory envelope. This results in an annual gift of $720. Employing the same assumptions, that same donor would give $1,040 if they use an FFG method – giving $20, 52 times a year. The result is a nearly 45 per cent increase in giving without any heavy-handed message about proportionate giving or the need to give more.
More and more, I am inclined to encourage clergy and parish leaders to look at their level of FFG as an indicator of parish health. First Fruits Giving isn’t just about money: it’s about commitment to the ministry of the parish. It tells me that congregants “get it,” that they understand that discipleship means walking with and supporting the ministry of the church day in and day out – even when they are not present at worship.
I believe it is within our grasp to secure exceptional FFG participation across our diocese and beyond. Currently, only a handful of parishes (12, to be exact) have FFG greater than 60 per cent. All parishes should strive for this level of participation. Though it is a vehicle for giving that has been around for at least 20 years, FFG has only been promoted sporadically, such that even today less than 30 per cent of the total givers in our diocese use it.
Let us imagine how the benefits of FFG might impact our parishes and make a commitment to invite members to enter a giving relationship that strengthens our churches and helps us build up our important mission and ministry.