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Relationships: The Key to Giving and Living Generously

Resource from Ecumenical Stewardship Center Archives
Resource Library

Relationships: The Key to Giving and Living Generously

By David P. KingDavid P. King

This article was originally published in Giving Magazine Vol. 21, No. 2 in 2019. You can access the full issue here

In all our research and teaching on faith-based fund-raising at Lake Institute on Faith and Giving, much of it can be boiled down to a single lesson: fund-raising is primarily about relationships. We think the same lesson is true for congregational stewardship; yet too often we present stewardship as a solitary endeavor, a private issue between an individual and God. Stewardship is corporate and community work, and it is time we treat and teach it as such.

Headlines may continue to highlight the fragmentation of our civil society and erosion of civic  discourse in an increasingly polarized world, but that should not lead us from seeking common language and deeper relationships on issues like stewardship. In fact, I believe it necessitates a redoubling of efforts on that front. What we know from researching multiple generations of donors is that generous giving to religious causes aligns with donors’ engagement in social networks: the number of close friends one has at their religious congregation, participation in a small group, and taking part in religious rituals and spiritual practices. These are all aspects of life that cannot happen as solitary experiences. Robert Putnam and David Campbell note that the more we are deeply formed through relationships in our religious communities, the more we are formed in generosity.1

This focus on relationships is also true within families. In research on next-generation donors, it was at first surprising to me that despite our focus on peers and friends, it is parents and then grandparents who are the most influential shapers of the giving patterns of the next generation. This is an exceptional challenge to those of us in faith communities, which remain one of the few venues for intergenerational engagement that many Western Christians may still experience.2

For those of us tasked with leadership in congregations, what are we doing to foster stewardship in families and in  communities?  This is tremendously important, because in our research asking donors what they care about, 76 percent of them point to being motivated to give out of their own passions and values. Yet at the same time, the majority of those same donors (67 percent) struggle to identify what they care about and how they should donate. Over 70 percent of donors do not involve their family in their giving at all. Our research demonstrates that while interpersonal relationships are central to forming us as givers, we are reluctant to make the connection. Perhaps this is something that we as religious leaders are especially well equipped to address with those entrusted to our care.3

We seem to know inherently that our giving is not a solitary affair, but too often we treat it as one. We struggle to engage in any conversations of significant depth as to what we value and why we are motivated to give. Surely our hesitancy is partly due to how we have made money- talk a taboo subject in our lives, especially our spiritual lives. On one hand, this displays the shortcomings of our stewardship ministries. Too often stewardship has become shorthand for raising the budget, fund-raising, and managing church finances— important work, but not always the work that deepens our relationships around giving. On the other hand, we also have a stewardship theology that is expansive: looking at topics like creation care, global development, and economic systems. While this too is vital, sometimes it allows us to live in the realm of abstractions and avoid the gritty nature of relationships. It is easier for us to wax eloquently in a stewardship sermon on God’s abundance or on the necessity of caring for creation than to ask what these same notions of generosity and stewardship mean for people in our pews when they go to work, choose where to buy a house, or consider how to pay for college.

Like my mentor, Bill Enright, has  said,  stewardship  and generosity are better discussed around the kitchen table than the boardroom table.4 And kitchen tables are defined by relationships: families over midweek meals, friends celebrating special occasions, fellow spiritual travelers breaking bread. These are the spaces where our stewardship theologies take shape, and yet they are too often overlooked in our stewardship theologies and practice. How can we as congregational leaders expand our stewardship language and programs to equip those in our communities to start meaningful conversations with their families, coworkers, and neighbors? We cannot afford to overlook the power of relationships in shaping our views and practices of generosity any longer. They serve as a primary factor in the motivations of our donors as well as the next step in deepening not only our giving but also our living generously.


1 Robert D. Putnam and David E. Campbell, American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us (Simon & Shuster, 2012).

2 Johnson Center for Philanthropy and 21/64, Next Gen Donors: Respecting Legacy, Revolutionizing Philanthropy (2013).

3 Osili, Una, et al., The 2016 U.S. Trust® Study of High Net Worth Philanthropy.

4 William G. Enright, Kitchen Table Giving: Reimagining How Congregations Connect with Their Donors (, 2017).

David P. King is the Karen Lake Buttrey Director of the Lake Institute on Faith and Giving as well as Assistant Professor of Philanthropic Studies within the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy. He is a graduate of Samford University and Duke Divinity School. His Ph.D. in Religion is from Emory University. Having served local churches and national faith-based organizations, he is also fueled by facilitating conversations with faith leaders, donors, and fundraisers (of all generations) around the intersections  of  faith and giving. Trained as an American religious historian, his research interests include investigating how the religious identity of faith- based nonprofits shapes their motivations, rhetoric, and practice.

Giving Magazine was a premier stewardship resource published by the Ecumenical Stewardship Center (ESC) from 1999 until 2020. The magazine served Christian faith communities throughout North America, providing thoughtful, practical, and inspirational content on faith and giving from thought leaders and practitioners alike. Giving was published annually from 1999 until 2018 (volumes 1-20), and then quarterly in 2019 and 2020 (volumes 21-28) in digital form only. In 2021 ESC closed its doors and committed its archives to the care of Lake Institute on Faith & Giving. For further information on ESC or its archives, please contact us at

DATE: April 30, 2019
TOPIC: Research and Scholarship
TYPE: Article
SOURCE: Ecumenical Stewardship Center Archives
KEYWORDS: Donor Engagement
AUTHOR: David P. King