Nearly every pastor writes a support letter.
Aside from preaching and teaching about giving from the pulpit on Sunday morning, writing a congregational letter is the most common practice pastors turn to in order to generate giving. So, if you’re a church-planter, that missionary support letter you’re writing is good practice.
There is more you should be doing, but writing a good support letter is one of the most important ways you can inspire people to engage their gifts and resources to make a lasting impact for the gospel through your ministry.
Does anybody actually read your support letters?
If you’re like most pastors, you work hard on your letter, making sure there are as few potential misunderstandings as possible. You carefully construct your words to accurately reflect your theological convictions.
Given this effort, it’s disheartening when you send the letter and people complain that it was “too long” or “too focused on money.” Others report that they didn’t even notice the support letter when it came or still haven’t bothered to open it. You wait and pray for an increase in giving, but other than a small surge immediately following the letter, giving often bottoms out again within a few weeks.
A typical giving letter through the eyes of (former) church members
So they left. They didn’t just stop attending, they actually cancelled their membership.
Still, every January they continued to receive the senior pastor’s annual giving letter. At first they were annoyed. But by the second year a new ritual had developed. On the day the letter came, they had dinner, put the kids to bed, cracked open a bottle of wine, and read the letter together – laughing over its painfully impersonal and formulaic tone.
Every year the letter was the same: thanks for your support (they hadn’t given to the church for years!), we’re doing great things (like what, exactly?), we need your giving more than ever (for what, exactly?), tithing is an obedient expression of biblical commitment (oh boy, here we go). Impersonal. Vague. Authoritarian. For this couple, each year, the letter became an affirmation of why their decision to leave that church was the right one.
Granted, my friends are a tough audience. They’d already left that church over these very issues. But in my experience they are representative of the attitudes and expectations of an increasingly large number of Christians: passionate, committed to their faith, willing to give their lives for the Kingdom, but searching for authenticity from the church and its leaders.
Writing a support letter that reveals genuine authenticity
There are three qualities common in giving-related communications that tend to erode trust:
- Impersonal communication: When the contents of a support letter are so generic that it becomes painfully obvious that author didn’t have us in mind, we tend to withdraw.
- Formulaic communication: Form letters, stock-photography, repetitive stock phrases, marketing-speak, etc., tend to be off-puttng in a society well acquainted with being sold.
- Exaggerated communication: support letters that contain vague, fantastic, or unverifiable claims tend to produce suspicion. All of this is like hiding our insecurities and anxieties behind the “external adorning” Peter refers to above.
The remedy should be obvious. Here are three approaches that help build trust.
- Write in a personal way: Support letters are supposed to be personal correspondence. Whoever feasible, write to individuals. When that’s not feasible, at least make sure all your support letters are personally addressed. Go the extra mile by adding brief, hand-written personal notes in the margins.
- Write in an honest way: Ditch the marketing language. Drop the business formality. Write in your own honest voice. Write in such a way that the reader will recognize that voice and connect with the person they know.
- Write in a humble way: Yes, tell them your vision, your hopes, your dreams. But also acknowledge your fears and your limitations. People already know about them. Listen to Peter. Lean into the beauty of the hidden person in your heart. Hype is a poor substitute for the inherent Kingdom power in weakness and vulnerability.
Rather, use your support letter to set the tone for leading people into a genuine spirituality of giving, whereby people become more faithfully rooted in a body of believers whose own local and peculiar economic expression provides for the needs of the community out of the radically counter-cultural generosity of the Kingdom of God.
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