The Most Important Quality in a Great Support Letter

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Do not let your adorning be external—the braiding of hair and the putting on of gold jewelry, or the clothing you wear— but let your adorning be the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God’s sight is very precious. ~ I Peter 3:3-4

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

I have a friend whose family once attended a large, thriving evangelical megachurch in the area. Several years back they left that church out of frustration because the leadership launched a capital campaign, and all the communications coming from the church seemed overly soaked in the patented marketing language of fundraising. They hated feeling like they were being squeezed for money every week rather than being engaged with the radical implications of the gospel.

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.

Ouch.

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

More than any other single quality, what makes any communication strong – but especially requests for giving – is the characteristic of authenticity. When people give to your organization, they are expressing their trust. Trust in God, yes. But also, trust in your church, and, most tangibly and immediately, trust in you.

There are three qualities common in giving-related communications that tend to erode trust:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

There are specific practices that every pastor can and should learn about to help you communicate in ways that inspire people to give. But authenticity is the first practice to commit to. Otherwise, it’s too easy to write a paint-by-numbers letter full of thinly-veiled psychological tricks and triggers for inducing people to write checks. That is the last thing people need in an ad-saturated consumer culture. More to the point, that is is the last thing the gospel promises.

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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Jason Coker
Jason Coker serves as the Senior Pastor at First Christian Church, a 140-year-old congregation in the heart of downtown Oceanside, California. He also teaches nonprofit leadership and human development at California State University at San Marcos and trains other pastors how to improve their fundraising, communications, and leadership practices. You can find him on Twitter @jasonacoker or on the beach with his wife and daughters in Oceanside.
Jason Coker

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