By Meredith McNabb for the Lake Institute on Faith and Giving
If your goal is to ‘get a gift’ from a donor…the transformational stories will stay under lock and key. If, however, you view yourself as a guest who is privileged to be welcomed in the life of another person, the seeds will be planted for a very rich and fertile relationship…
It is in this ‘safe place’ that transformational stories are most often lifted up and shared.
– Henry Freeman, Unlacing the Heart: Connecting With What Really Matters
In my personal life, I have just finished a two-year spiritual director formation program through the Benedictine monastery near my home. I have been training to serve as a particular kind of “guest,” as Henry Freeman puts it from the context of religious fundraising—one who comes alongside the life and stories of another person and listens for transformational moments that may be emerging in that person’s spiritual life. Along the way of the spiritual directors’ program, I’ve found meaningful points of overlap between the process of spiritual accompaniment and the work of integrity-filled religious fundraising. One key area of overlap has been the question of discernment. How do donors discern their giving? How do congregations and religious organizations discern their mission and vision in which those donors might participate? Those questions of fundraising discernment have resonance with spiritual traditions of discernment.
Discernment is More than Decision Making
In either case, “discernment” isn’t just a dressed-up word for “decision making.” Discernment is the process by which people clarify their choices and values in order to see which next step best aligns with what they believe to be the right thing, so that then they can make a decision. In some sense, it is a process of clarifying one’s choices and comparing them with one’s “yardstick” that holds meaning, with an expectation that God is in some way present and active in the process.
In a purely financial decision for a giver or an organization, one might set the yardstick at the line of “tax advantage” or “revenue maximization,” and then compare one’s options to those goals in order to make a decision about a donation or an organizational course of action. For a number of religious organizations, a move toward business practices in their administrative work can creep beyond matters like accounting and financial controls and start to shape the yardstick of meaning by which they do their work. I know in my own past congregational leadership I sometimes used to invite people to make gifts and set goals based on this kind of decision-making, and I hear it sometimes in the organizations with whom I work now.
Discernment Offers a Different Way
But spiritual discernment invites a different yardstick and a different process, one in which the hope and goal is to align one’s personal or organizational decisions with what one holds sacred. In the tradition of spiritual direction in which I’ve been formed, a director is not aiming toward any particular outcome with a directee—only that both director and directee would be able to pay full attention to God’s stirring. In spiritual discernment work, that would mean that the directee is able to clarify what that sacred yardstick is for them in their tradition and understanding, and then reflect deeply and prayerfully on the choices they see before them. In the course of that process, they wrestle with which possible next step is best aligned with God in order to make an important decision.
One clergy leader who had come to regard his work from a spiritual direction perspective was starting in a new position when he was asked, “What’s your vision for this congregation?” His somewhat unexpected response was, “I hope you won’t be disappointed, but I don’t have a vision for this congregation.” (This is generally not what clergy leaders say to their congregations!) He went on to clarify, saying, “I’m trying to understand what God is doing for this community and move that forward.”1 Most religious leaders would likely agree that this is ultimately what they hope to be doing in setting organizational goals—but the process sometimes looks more like the work of a CEO than that of someone facilitating spiritual discernment.
Discernment Creates Deeper Connections
From a fundraising perspective, the work of discernment and engaging the sacred stories of both the giver and the organization is also what many fundraisers and leaders would hope to be doing, but it’s not always the case. Sr. Gloria Marie Jones, OP observed this in Ask for the World: Catholic Sisters and the Spirituality of Fundraising:
A Catholic donor shared his frustrations with me—For years, church officials had asked him for major gifts. Each time, they prepared carefully and made a strong case for support. But no matter how well thought out, the conversations were always transactional and never included a spiritual dimension. It seemed strange to him that people of faith would leave this out. “They always asked for my money—but they never asked about my spiritual life or how I felt in my soul.”2
Certainly, not every leader and not every fundraiser in religious organizations will engage in spiritual direction formation in order to foster spiritually-grounded discernment! But religious organizations are well-positioned to include this spiritual dimension in their invitations to discernment among their donors and in their own mission and vision work for the organization itself. There are transformational stories and sacred moments to be unlocked with individuals and with congregations and organizations that can draw each of us into deeper and richer relationship.
1Reed, Angela, “A Revitalizing Journey: Spiritual Direction in Protestant Congregations” Presence: An International Journal of Spiritual Direction Vol. 20, No. 4 (December 2014).
2Ask for the World, Sisters of Charity of Nazareth (2016).
Questions for Reflection
- Have you considered how discernment might be part of your work in fundraising?
- Reflect on this quote from a donor and consider how you might approach your donors in a new way: “They always asked for my money — but they never asking about my spiritual life or how I felt in my soul.”