I’ve been in professional fundraising now at a seminary for approximately three years. I came into the role believing I didn’t have much experience, yet as I went to trainings I discovered, in fact, that all those stewardship emphases for sixteen years of parish ministry, all the bequests, the stewardship of two congregations’ foundations, two capital campaigns, and countless fundraisers as a kid or as a parent – all of these had taught me something about fundraising. For me, it’s all about stewardship, which is all about discipleship.
When I was first discerning this call, a mentor, the Rev. Dr. Molly T. Marshall, encouraged me, “Fundraising is good pastoral care of your donors,” which translates into inviting and encouraging people in their own generosity, which is part of their discipleship and mine. I’m called as a disciple to invite and encourage others. They’re called to give. And of course, the relationship is mutual. They’re called to invite and encourage me, and I’m called to give.
If I’m not willing to ask, I’m denying the donor the opportunity to grow in generosity. I’m denying the donor the opportunity to grow in discipleship, and I’m denying them the opportunity to grow in faith. I don’t want to be the one who stunts someone else’s opportunity to see God at work in their life. Once I saw stewardship as a mark of discipleship and a calling, participating in stewardship as a fundraiser for a mission I believed in became life-giving.
When I ask, I believe that God has already planted the seed and prepared the hearts and minds of those who are able to give. It’s not unlike my own experience of being a mission redeveloper in my first call as a parish pastor, where I did a lot of knocking on doors in the neighborhood. Bishops, pastors, and friends were awed at my ability to go door to door. I shared that it was because I believed that God was already at work preparing the harvest, and that I was sent to collect the harvest – this is why I could do this. Who doesn’t enjoy inviting people to a party? Who doesn’t like being invited to a party, even if one can’t attend?
In the activities of inviting, encouraging, and sharing, I believe God is at work in our lives. The Rev. Dr. Albert “Pete” Pero, Jr. in my seminary class, stressed the importance of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, so that we can have abundant life here and now, not just eternal life. To me, John 10:10b-11 is as important as John 3:16
“I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly. I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.”
The other day, a pastor asked me how I ask for money, as she couldn’t imagine doing it. I assured her that she could. And then we had a conversation about stewardship in general. All the time in the church we are asking people to give us their time and talent without hesitation. When individuals have availability and talent, we ask them to serve on committees, teach Sunday school, lead worship, or whatever they’re interested in doing. And we often aren’t good stewards of their time. We also expect them to say no once in awhile, and we don’t take it personally. So the question remains: why is asking someone to contribute money to the ministry verboten? Why is it harder? Is money perhaps a sacred cow?
Personally, I’m at a point in my life where my time is often much more precious than money. I’m monitoring how I use my time in life-giving activities. Not that I always make wise choices, but I’m striving for balance and an abundant life. The same can be done with my money. We have limited income, and a variety of choices about how we spend it. I want to use my money to provide abundant life, not just for myself, and my family, but for my neighbors and the wider community. And frankly, I believe that what my church does is so important. I don’t want to experience FOMO (the feeling of missing out). I want to be part of that party. Even more, I want to host the party. The small contribution I make to my church provides abundant life. The small contribution I make to the seminary provides abundant life. The small contributions I make to other ministries and organizations provides abundant life. But I give all these contributions understanding that all I am and all that I have comes from God. I am a sheep in God’s hand, a person in God’s pastures. To God alone be the glory!
The Reverend Jennifer J. Thomas (1998, MDiv) joined the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago (LSTC) Advancement Office as a Gift Officer in 2014. She leads the seminary’s alumni strategy and work with donors at all gift levels. Prior to her current call, Pastor Thomas served as a parish pastor for fifteen years, leading congregations in Kansas City, Mo., and Milwaukee, Wis. She is active in faith-based community organizing, something she learned about as a student at LSTC. Thomas has also served as a conference dean in both the Central States Synod and the Greater Milwaukee Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). She has served the ELCA as a Church Council, a conference planner, and churchwide assembly volunteer and voting member. Thomas recently served on LSTC’s Alumni Board.
Thomas is based in Shawnee, Kan., and commutes often to campus and around the country. She is married to Vance Thomas (1997, MA, LSTC), director of the library at Central Baptist Theological Seminary. They have two children, Peder, 14, and Solveig, 11.