You’re at your first Board meeting at a new client church. You’ve been retained as the intentional interim pastor to help them prepare for the future.

The first words from the Chair are, “Pastor, if something doesn’t change, we won’t be able to pay the mortgage next month.”

Now what?

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Interim pastors often find client churches facing significant financial challenges. Each of my last four client churches faced these issues; three faced potential foreclosure.

This naturally leads to the question, “Pastor, how will you motivate people to give generously to what appears to be a lost cause?”

For that matter, how do we motivate people to biblical charity and sacrificial giving even in the “healthy” churches?

I want to suggest that science – specifically neuroscience – sheds interesting light on these questions. The well documented psychological phenomenon known as loss aversion offers a surprising insight into the Pauline texts on grace giving.

Loss aversion is, as the neurosciences have demonstrated, hardwired into the human brain. Loss aversion is an emotional reaction rooted in the fact that fear of loss is more powerful than the anticipation of gain.It is well documented in scientific literature and is so effective that it is a regular feature in marketing (“Only 5 more at this price!”). It is well known that novice day traders will sell a winning position too soon (they’re afraid some of the gains may be retraced) and hold a losing position too long (they’re afraid to make the “paper loss” a “real loss”)

The science behind “loss aversion”

In his fascinating book How We Decide Jonah Lehrer describes some of the lab work that proves the reality of loss aversion.

Imagine that you are playing a simple gambling game. You are given fifty dollars of real money and asked to decide between two options. The first option is an all-or-nothing gamble. The odds of the gamble are clear: there is a 40 percent chance that you will keep the entire fifty dollars, and a 60 percent chance that you will lose everything. The second option, however, is a sure thing. If you choose this alternative, you get to keep twenty dollars.

What option did you choose? If you’re like most people, you took the guaranteed cash. It’s always better to get something rather than nothing, and twenty dollars is not a trivial amount of money.

But now let’s play the game again. The risky gamble hasn’t changed: you still have a 40 percent chance of keeping the entire fifty dollars. This time, however, the sure thing is a loss of thirty dollars instead of a gain of twenty.

The outcome, of course, remains the same. The two gambles are identical. In both cases, you walk away with twenty of the original fifty. But the different descriptions strongly affect how people play the game. When the choice is framed in terms of gaining twenty dollars, only 42 percent of people choose the risky gamble. But when the same choice is framed in terms of losing thirty dollars, 62 percent of people opt to roll the dice. This human foible is known as the framing effect, and it’s a byproduct of loss aversion, which we discussed earlier. The effect helps explain why people are much more likely to buy meat when it’s labeled 85 percent lean instead of 15 percent fat. And why twice as many patients opt for surgery when told there’s an 80 percent chance of their surviving instead of a 20 percent chance of their dying(Lehrer 2009, 105–106).

You can see where this is headed.

Dealing with loss aversion

There are two ways to deal with loss aversion in the matter of charity.

Focus on what they stand to lose if they are uncharitable.

When in the midst of a capital campaign, or when teaching the biblical passages on stewardship don’t let their minds focus on the cost of sacrifice. The subconscious mind will perceive that as loss, causing the loss aversion response to kick in.

Instead, reframe the issue for them: focus their minds on what they lose if they don’t give according to the biblical patterns. I can’t say that Paul was consciously using loss aversion in his second letter to the Corinthian church, but he clearly shows what they stood to lose if they were ungenerous in behalf of the poor saints in Jerusalem.

  • The loss of honor (2 Corinthians 8:1–12, 24; a significant loss in a shame based culture)
  • The loss of reciprocity (2 Corinthians 8:13–15)
  • Paul’s loss of honor for empty boasting (2 Corinthians 9:1–5)
  • The loss of “reaping bountifully”(2 Corinthians 9:6)
  • The loss of God’s pleasure (2 Corinthians 9:7)
  • The loss of grace to abound in additional good works (2 Corinthians 9:8–10)
  • The loss of the joy of generosity (2 Corinthians 9:11)
  • The loss of opportunity to produce thanksgiving to God in others (2 Corinthians 9:12–13)

**Teach them to think about their fear of loss

Loss aversion is an emotional reaction that can be overcome. Although none of us are Spock it is true that we can regulate our emotions by simiply thinking about them (Lehrer 2009, p 107).

Through gracious and pastoral exposition of scriptural texts that promise God’s protection, care and provision people can learn to gently quell the fear of loss.


Whether you are leading a capital campaign or simply teaching on scriptural giving, you will be an effective pastor who guides people to biblical stewardship and Christian maturity by understanding the dynamics of loss aversion. You will help people act as responsible stewards of the resources God has entrusted to them by

  1. Focusing attention on what they lose if they don’t give generously
  2. Teaching them how to think biblically about the fear of loss


What effective tools have you found that help people in the matter of being generous with the Lord’s resources?

Source: Jonah Lehrer, How We Decide (Boston, MA.: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009).