Keep Some Oil in Your Lamps
By Lori Guenther Reesor
This article was originally published in Giving Magazine Vol. 22, No. 1 in 2020. You can access the full issue here.
Once there were ten bridesmaids waiting for the bridegroom. They each had an oil lamp. Five of the young women had brought extra olive oil along, five did not. The bridegroom was delayed, they all fell asleep and at midnight, they woke up to shouts of “he’s coming, he’s coming!”
The five bridesmaids who had run out of oil asked the others for some of theirs, but those bridesmaids said there isn’t enough oil for us all: go to the shops and get more for yourselves. The five foolish bridesmaids ran to get more oil but by the time they got back, the banquet hall doors were locked, and they had missed the party.
Oil as fuel for ministry makes sense. The Good Samaritan uses oil to tend to the wounded man. The apostles and disciples anoint the sick with oil for healing. Even the unrighteous steward about to be fired manages the oil bill well. In fact, Luke 16:8 tells us that “the sons of this age are more shrewd in relation to their own kind than the sons of light.”
The church can learn from both the bridesmaids and from the “sons of this age”: charities with annual giving programs.
What is an annual giving program?
Many charities have annual funds: funds necessary to run the organization each year. Your church has an annual fund if you have
- an annual budget that supports the work of the church;
- people who make undesignated gifts that go towards the budget.
Let’s look at the four steps to annual fund giving:
- Know what you need
- Ask for regular contributions
- Say thank you
- Tell stories
Know what you need
How much oil will your church use this year? What ministries of healing and hope do you intend to pursue? What resources will that require? A prudent plan allows space for contingencies, compared to the minimalist plan that hopes for the best. The bridegroom might be late.
Ask for regular contributions
Keep some oil in your lamps. Giving is a spiritual discipline like prayer: both regular and spontaneous, personal and communal. If the church only asks members to pray at Christmas, it is missing lots of opportunities for the Spirit to work. Similarly, if the church waits until the year-end budget shortfall to ask for contributions, it’s failing to encourage the discipline of regular giving. Waiting until the oil runs out is not a good strategy.
I’m a huge fan of Paul’s advice to the church in Corinth in 1 Corinthians 16:1-2:
“Now concerning the collection for the saints, as I directed the churches of Galatia, so do you also. On the first day of every week each one of you is to put aside and save, as he may prosper, so that no collections be made when I come.”
On a week when paying the rent is a struggle, there might not be anything to put aside. Another week there might be more. It’s like the widow sharing oil and flour: when believers share what they have, there is enough.
Regular giving—such as pre-authorized giving through bank accounts—eliminates the need for a desperate appeal later. Some members might worry about the offering plate going by empty and I encourage people to give cash/envelope gifts as well. Tom Yoder Neufeld reminds us that the Greek word for cheerful in 2 Corinthians 9:7 is hilarós: God loves a hilarious giver. Giving twice is hilarious. There is no upper limit on generosity.
Say thank you
Charities and non-profits typically have a thank-you letter in the mail 24-48 hours after receiving a donation. I think of the parable of the ten lepers healed in Luke 11 where only one came back to thank Jesus and wonder if this parable is about the church.
Thank God for the generosity of people in your church: time, talent, and treasure. (I’m grateful to Robert Hay Jr. for pointing out that third word in “time, talent, and treasure” is the word “and”, not “or”!) The weekly offering is a wonderful opportunity to praise God for God’s gifts of grace and the ministry of giving and sharing. We give in grateful response to a generous God. Write thank-you cards, put a note in the bulletin, and on the website too.
The offering also provides a built-in vehicle for telling stories. What is the bridesmaid waiting for? What are we waiting for? How is the church letting its light shine? Be specific. Hosting the AA meeting in the basement on Wednesdays is a story of shining God’s light. The pastor helping a distraught community member on the phone on Tuesday morning is a story of shining God’s light. The pastor could say:
I’m so grateful this church supports ministry throughout the week. On Tuesday morning, I took a phone call from a distraught community member. It took a while but I was able to direct that person to resources that will help. It made a difference that this church was here. Thanks for your generosity. It’s not the phone bill or the heating bill, it’s creating a space where we’re available to help. Thanks be to God.
I look forward to the banquet and to the bridegroom’s return. I pray that on both a personal and a congregational level, we have the foresight to keep some oil in our lamps.
Lori Guenther Reesor is a Christian fundraising consultant who previously served as a marketing analyst for World Vision and as a pastor.
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 email@example.com.
Insights, a bi-weekly e-newsletter, is a resource for the religious community and fundraisers of faith-based organizations that provides:
- Reflections on important developments in the field of faith and giving
- Recommended books, studies and articles
- Upcoming Lake Institute events