Best book I’ve read so far this year–Improvisation: The Drama of Christian Ethics, a gem from 2004 by Church of England priest and Christian ethicist Samuel Wells.
(As usual, the best books on giving, discipleship, and fundraising are never the books on giving, discipleship, and fundraising.)
Virtue ethics has become a shorthand term for all the writers in the field who have grown tired of the conventional emphasis on decision and the neglect of the character of the person or “agent” making the decision. The emphasis on virtue in Christian ethics has shifted attention from the deed to the doer. It is the agent who matters, more than the action: ethics is about forming the life of the agent more than it is about judging the appropriateness of the action.
As I noted in Monday’s post, this is the shortcoming of fundraising–even Transformational Giving. The focus is on getting individuals to give rather than on helping individuals grow into more habitually giving people.
Wells isn’t writing about fundraising, but his take on moral formation has everything to do with giving. As you read Wells, you recognize that the decision of whether or not an individual will give in response to your request has already been made long before you ask:
In every moral “situation,” the real decisions are ones that have been taken some time before. To live well requires both effort and habit. There is a place for both. But no amount of effort at the moment of decision will make up for effort neglected in the time of formation.
Question: When do fundraisers engage in pre-ask moral formation of their champions?
Answer: Mostly never. Which is why they mine churches for givers. Churches do less pre-ask formation than they should, of course, but odds on there is a weekly ask of some sort, and the topic of giving comes up now and again to buttress it.
Re-read that last sentence from the Wells excerpt above: No amount of effort at the moment of decision will make up for effort neglected in the time of formation.
Prescription: Don’t settle for getting people to give. Instead, help them become more habitual givers. As Wells notes, for Christians the place that happens is worship:
For Christians, the principal practice by which the moral imagination is formed, the principal form of discipleship training, is worship. Worship is the time when the conventional rules of the fallen world are suspended, when God is at last addressed as Lord, when time and heart and voice and posture are directed toward knowing God and making him known, toward experiencing the glorious liberty of being his child, when need and expectation are focused on their true source…
If you haven’t been trained through worship to be generous, then no amount of effort at the moment of decision (of whether or not to give, for example) will make up for effort neglected in the time of formation.
That ought to be equally sobering news for our trinity of churches, Christian nonprofits, and individual Christians. If in our worship all we’re doing is not talking about giving but hoping people give, or raising particular needs to meet but not teaching generosity as a general virtue–and if a growing percentage of Christians are forsaking the assembling together of themselves for worship altogether–then is it any wonder that getting (habitually less generous) people to give is getting harder and harder these days?