When Gratitude Gets Complicated

Thoughts on Saying Thank You at Bethlehem and Desiring God

Article by

Founder & Teacher, desiringGod.org

When you are in a position of receiving great blessing from many people, expressing gratitude can get complicated. This is our position both at Bethlehem and at Desiring God.

These ministries are sustained by the grace of God through the gifts of people. At Bethlehem this is entirely the case: we depend on God to cause his people to give $6,000,000 this year. We have no other source of income. At Desiring God, we are a not-for-profit ministry that does sell things and use the income to sustain the ministry. But our low prices, and our “whatever you can afford” policy, and our making web, audio, and radio available without cost, means that we depend on God to cause people to give hundreds of thousands of dollars without which the ministry could not do what it does.

God is merciful to do this. He keeps his promises: “My God will supply every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:19). Thousands of people give to support Bethlehem and Desiring God. Those of us who lead are deeply thankful. We believe it is fitting to say so. The heart that does not feel thankful and does not feel like saying thank you is hardened by pride. The humble heart is amazed at God’s grace and people’s generosity. The humble heart loves to say thank you.

Bethlehem: How We Thank Covenant Community Members

So we who lead are in a position of loving to say thank you to thousands of people. The situation at Bethlehem and Desiring God are significantly different in this regard. At Bethlehem we are a covenant community and becoming a member of this church involves making a covenant to give. “We engage to contribute cheerfully and regularly to the support of the ministry, the expenses of the church, the relief of the poor and the spread of the Gospel through all nations.” Therefore we do not ask for money from anyone outside, but only appeal to the members to support the work of Bethlehem.

Not only that, the leaders of the church do not know how much any member gives. One person, Paul Johnson, the financial secretary, knows that. If a member does not give, Paul should share that with the elders and it would move the elders, in love and patience, to ask why. But the elders do not know what people give. Therefore our expressions of gratitude are broad and general rather than personal and specific. We say repeatedly from the pulpit and other ways, Thank you, Thank you, to God and to our people. I say it again here: Thank you for cheerfully yielding to God’s leading in sustaining this ministry.

Desiring God: How We Thank Donors in a Wider Ministry

At Desiring God things are different. This ministry is not a church and has no covenant membership to support the work. It is governed by a board that is appointed by and accountable to the elders of Bethlehem. So it is under the authority of the church. But it has a measure of ministry independence that sets it apart from the way the church itself functions. Therefore Desiring God depends on gifts from people all over the world.

We do not ask for money on the radio. The reason for this is that we do not view the radio audience as a community of Christian supporters (though some of it is). We view it as the world in general. Our bent therefore is to give not get—to offer not ask. The radio is emphatically not a fund raising device. It is a means of spreading a passion for the supremacy of God in all things for the joy of all peoples through Jesus Christ. Once we have a personal contact from someone, and there is some evidence of interest and common cause, we feel free to ask them privately (usually by mail) for their help.

Then comes the unique challenge of how to thank them. We can say thank you on the radio, and we do in careful terms. But that is delicate because oh, how easy it is to slide into using words of thanks as a subtle way of asking for money. But thousands of our donors at Desiring God do not hear the radio program. If we are going to thank them, we must do so through the mail.

No Schmoozing: The Challenge of Thanking Donors of Large and Small Amounts

Here is where it gets more complicated. Should we send the same thank you letter to the person who gives $5 as the person who gives $5,000? That is, should larger donors get special attention? Should they get, perhaps, a note from Jon Bloom the Executive Director? A note from me? A phone call?

Here is where we presently stand. When Jesus saw the rich putting money in the temple box and then saw a poor widow put in her two coins, he said, “Truly, I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all of them” (Luke 21:3). Does that mean that the $5 gift from the poor person should get greater attention from us than the $5,000 gift from the wealthy person, because the sacrifice was greater? Yes, if we know that is the case. But we are not Jesus. We do not know the circumstances of our givers, except in unusual cases.

There are three crucial factors that would create more thanks and more attention if we knew them: 1) the level of sacrifice that a gift represents; 2) the measure of good will in the heart; 3) the degree of trust that a person has in the ministry. None of these can be measured by the amount of the gift. A very large gift may not represent as much sacrifice, good will, or trust as a small gift. We simply cannot know the hearts of our donors.

Does this mean that there should be no special response to very large gifts? There is one factor that we can measure that differentiates a small from a large gift: the ministry expansion potential made possible by the gift. To put it more simply, larger gifts enable us to do more things. This is true no matter what the heart condition of the donor is. We believe that humble leaders should feel a special overflow of joyful gratitude in response to these larger ministry possibilities. And we believe that this special overflow should be expressed in special ways. It would seem strange to us if our hearts leaped up to God because we could now preach the gospel on five new radio stations, but we did not speak a special word to the donor who made it possible with a $50,000 gift.

Please pray for us. You can see the challenges to be biblical and humble and grateful. God sees the sacrifices behind the $5 gifts. Pray that our letters of thanks for them be full of heartfelt love and gratitude. And pray that we never, never schmooze with the rich.

In need of your prayers,

Pastor John