The outsized personalities and budgets of megachurch pastors and TV evangelists draw a lot of criticism, some deserved and some not. Whether or not that spotlight is fair, it does give the average church on the corner the opportunity to learn best practices and avoid mistakes. The budgets and the headlines aren’t as big, but the impact on your congregation can be. Churches have a sordid history with money, so anything we can do to communicate better about finances is a big plus.
With that in mind we take a look at a recent fundraising letter from a prominent megachurch pastor and TV evangelist.
On August 23 Rod Parsley, pastor of World Harvest Church in Columbus, Ohio, and host of the TBN show “Breakthrough,” sent a letter to select group of Breakthrough donors asking for something big: $1 million to buy an airplane. He needed the money by Sept. 10 and built his argument around two main points:
- His ministry requires a plane to maximize Parsley’s time so he can continue to oversee 13 different ministries and spend time with his family. He notes that the ministry’s current plane has logged nearly half a million miles.
- The $1 million will allow the ministry to buy a used plane that’s smaller and more efficient, thus saving the ministry $5 million over two years.
First and foremost, let’s get past the issue of whether or not a private airplane is appropriate for a ministry. Parsley maintains that it’s “Not a luxury. It’s a tool that keeps our ministry going.” Lots of folks will take issue with that, but that’s not our concern.
We want to focus on how this is communicated.
Secondly, let’s get past the issue of confronting someone privately. That’s a great ideal, but this isn’t about personally confronting Rod Parsley. It’s unlikely he’s going to listen to the opinion of some random bloggers he’s never heard of.
We’re more interested in the lessons his experience offers for local churches.
1. Secrecy Doesn’t Work.
Parsley knows that people don’t like the idea of a minister jetting around in a private airplane. So he kept this fundraising letter on the down low:
“The truth is, I can’t talk about this on television, or even in a letter to most of our Breakthrough partners.”
Uh, why not? Parsley’s gut told him this was a touchy issue and he should have listened. Either it’s a bad idea or you need to be careful about how you communicate it. Being secretive isn’t the solution. Because someone is bound to get a hold of that letter and post it online or find your online plea.
There are no secrets in the Internet age.
If your church needs money, you can’t just ask the sympathetic or the deep-pocketed in your congregation. If you need something people will disagree with or challenge, you don’t go behind their back. You make your case publicly and openly. If you have a strong case, people will listen.
2. Be Consistent
On one page Parsley tells his readers he can’t make this pitch on TV or to all of his supporters because “some folks misunderstand.” But then on the next page he says he can’t ignore this opportunity “simply because it might be uncomfortable to ask for your help or because someone might misunderstand why we need an aircraft in the first place.”
Which is it? Are you appealing to the trusted insider or are you a risk taker with a bold pitch? Because it can’t be both. Otherwise you’re doing some manipulative flip-flopping.
When a church lays out its financial need there has to be consistency. Your rationale needs to make sense and it certainly can’t contradict itself. Don’t claim to be boldly stepping out in faith when you’ve quietly secured half the funding already. Don’t claim that God will provide in one breath and then ask your congregation to provide in the next. Don’t claim a project is for the youth and then brush off their contribution.
3. Full Disclosure
Parsley tells us that he needs $1 million, but he doesn’t tell us how much the plane actually costs (is it $1 million or is his ministry putting up part of the cost already?). He also mentions $5 million in savings over two years. Savings on what? Decreased fuel costs? Profits from selling the old plane?
Parsley also makes time with his family an integral part of his pitch. He goes so far as to include a picture of his children that hangs in his plane. It’s a powerful pitch, but it’s not quite true. He admits that his kids aren’t as young as the decade-old picture, but he never says how old they are. The fact that they’re nearly adults changes things and not mentioning that detail is misleading.
Don’t leave people scratching their heads about the details. Give the full information so that nothing is misleading. Lay out your church’s entire budget, show the full bid from the construction company, show the terms of your loan from the bank. Don’t leave room for even the appearance of deception.
Tell your congregation everything they need to know.
4. Maybe There’s a Better Solution?
One thing that’s important when you’re asking for money is clearly explaining the need. Parsley does a good job of that, explaining that his ministry couldn’t continue without a plane:
“Without a plane, we would simply have to shut down some of our 13 ministry outreaches. There is literally not enough time on the clock to do everything.”
Threatening to shut down ministries may be a bit extreme, but if it’s true that’s a fair thing to put out there.
Unfortunately, this raises a bigger issue. Continuing the work of 13 ministries is important, but why can these ministries not continue without Parsley? Why can’t he delegate?
Maybe there’s a cheaper solution here—hire some help.
If you’re going to make a big ask—like $1 million—you have to be sure it’s a solid need. If people read your pitch and scratch their heads saying, “Well why don’t you do this instead?”, then you haven’t explained things fully. Your solution should clearly be the best idea out there.
People will come up with all kinds of excuses to avoid giving money, but you need to address the major ones. If you need to add more seating, you better explain why you’re not adding more services instead. If you’re hiring a new staff member, you better explain why volunteers don’t cut it. If you froze staff salaries, you better explain how you justify new flat screens for the lobby. Anticipate questions and show that you’ve thought this through.
What Have We Learned?
The church on the corner likely isn’t asking for $1 million to buy a plane, but the same lessons apply to any financial ask they have:
- Be open. Make your fundraising fully public. No secrets.
- Be consistent. Your rationale for your pitch better make sense.
- Be clear. Explain exactly what you need and why you need it. Don’t leave out facts in a way that can be misleading.
- Answer obvious questions. If there’s another solution to your problem you need to explain why your solution is better.
Churches don’t have a stellar reputation when it comes to money, so you need to be open, honest and direct. Your pitch needs to assure people, not raise more questions.