Understanding the Relationship Between Giving and Volunteering

One of the challenges in leading a church is talking about giving; it’s a pastor’s task to both encourage the congregation to take up the biblical mandate of generosity, while also meeting the very real practical needs of that ministry. So how do pastors talk about and inspire generosity with sincerity and effectiveness—especially when, as Barna’s data shows, pastors and parishioners don’t always have the same ideas about what it should look like or where it starts? For example, according to The Generosity Gap, a recent Barna report produced in partnership with Thrivent Financial, volunteering is considered one of the most generous acts possible. But how does it compare to congregations’ other forms of generosity, like financial giving, for instance? Is there any correlation between the two?

Volunteering and Service Among the Most Generous Acts

In what ways are Christians most often generous to others? Barna asked participants in the quantitative study to select, from a list of possibilities, the three acts they consider to be most generous. Almost six in 10 (57 percent) believe taking care of a sick person is one of the most generous things one can do. A majority in each generation agrees. But second on the list among all Christians is volunteering for an organization (52 percent). This is considered highly generous by a large share of each age cohort—yet a significantly smaller percentage views volunteering for a person (for example, driving them to the airport or babysitting for free) to be exceptionally generous.

Analysis suggests this disparity may have something to do with people’s perceptions of personal cost—that actions requiring more effort tend to be perceived as more generous. For example, volunteering for an organization often requires specialized training, adherence to a set of rules and expectations and a specific time commitment, compared to helping a friend or family member. A similar finding supports this insight: Many people consider giving $40 to a homeless person more generous than giving $40 to an organization or church. The dollar amount is the same in each case, but the cost of a personal encounter with a homeless teen or adult tends to be higher than tucking a check in the offering basket when it passes by.

Barna found that engaging in the act of volunteering correlates with a perception that doing so is generous; that is, if a person has volunteered their time on behalf of an organization within the past six months, he or she is more likely to associate volunteering with generosity. And the reverse is also true: People who have not volunteered are less likely than those who have to think of volunteering as particularly generous.

The spectrum of actions people consider to be generous is wide—especially when they are thinking about their own actions. Some participants mentioned taking care of people inside or outside of their household, “picking up slack at work,” singing at funerals, doing housework for extended family members and assisting with meal preparation.

Volunteering Is Not Equated with Giving—But Often Accompanies It

Christians don’t just have a high opinion of volunteering as a form of generosity—they also see it as interchangeable with financial offerings. Only one in five Christians disagrees (10 percent strongly, 11 percent somewhat) that it would be acceptable to give of one’s time instead of one’s money to their church. Pastors, for the most part, don’t see these two activities in the same light. More than eight out of 10 disagree strongly (67 percent) or somewhat (18 percent) that “it is okay for a member who volunteers extensively not to give financially.”

The gap between pastors and parishioners on this point is interesting, given that volunteering appears to be a focus of sermons more often than financial giving. For instance, only 39 percent of pastors say they or other leaders speak from the pulpit about tithing or giving to the church at least once a month (17 percent once per month, 22 percent multiple times per month). But more than six in 10 say they or other leaders speak from the pulpit at least once a month on the topic of volunteering (35 percent once, 27 percent multiple times). If pastors’ own messages seem to prioritize acts of service over financial giving, it’s not too surprising that people in their pews highly value volunteer hours, even as an appropriate substitute for a monetary gift.

Whether or not pastors think the two are interchangeable, they would do well to focus on both forms of generosity, as Barna’s data highlights a strong link between serving and financial giving. As the chart shows, Christians who give most are also most likely to say they have volunteered within the past week or month. The pattern also holds true for those who consider generosity extremely important. In other words, Christians prone to participate in one type of giving aren’t looking to get a pass on the other. Whether giving of money or of time, generous Christians are simply generous.

Learn more at Barna.com.