Methodist Foundation of Ohio

More than the status quo

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In his book Linear Giving Rev. Neil Orchard goes directly against some of the most widely-read stewardship experts of our time.

And I think he’s dead right.

The common wisdom is that the budget process and stewardship program should be completely disconnected.  Don’t provide a budget and ask the congregation to fund it.  Make stewardship about responding to what God had provided. 

Reverend Orchard points out that the way this usually works is the finance committee operates out of a scarcity model.  Budget requests come in, they pare them back to show an annual increase of 3% or so, members increase their giving by an equally modest amount, payroll is met, checks clear and everyone is happy.

But how many of us have a 3% mentality anywhere else in our lives?  I look at what I was paid in my first job out of graduate school 20 years ago.  If I had a 3% increase every year I would be paid just about half what I am now.  I imagine many of you have had the same experience.  We tend to dream smaller for our church than we do for ourselves.

Rev. Orchard proposes that we present the same ol same ol, the 3% budget we have conditioned our members to expect.  But then have a step.  What would happen to our ministry if giving increased 10%?  We would hire that full time youth director we have always wanted, upgrade the lighting in the sanctuary and send a dozen volunteers to Haiti for a mission trip.  If it went up 20% we would do all of the above plus replace the carpet in the narthex, add a contemporary worship service and expand our after school program to include dinner for the student’s family.

Do you dare dream what you could do if it increased 50%?  Or more?

Go ahead, live a little, have that dream.  I’ll wait.

Here’s the dirty little secret.  The average United Methodist in the U.S. gives about 1.5% of the family income to the church.  That’s one-seventh of a tithe.  Do the math.  What is the number if your church budget increased seven fold?  What would your ministry look like if you had those kinds of resources?

Bishop Hopkins calls us to be mission outposts in our communities.  What kind of mission outpost would you be with that kind of money?

I love finance committees. In many churches it is the hardest working group.  But they tend to be lousy dreamers.  Give your entire congregation the job of deciding how big of a dream your church can afford.  Then assign the finance committee to figure out how to spend that boat load of cash.

You can learn more about Rev. Orchard and Linear Giving at

Things to do before Memorial Day

I offer a mid-week blog entry, a nuts and bolts edition to make sure your campaign isn’t caught flat-footed at the last minute.

With school vacations starting in just more than a month we know that many church committees will soon be shutting down for the summer.  Before you let your stewardship committee start applying sunscreen make sure you have done some groundwork for this fall’s campaign.

Decide to have a campaign.  While this may be automatic for many subscribers to this blog, the reality is that fewer than half of the churches have a stewardship campaign every year.   Churches that ask for a commitment receive significantly more income than those who pass the plate and hope.

Set a date for the Sunday for people to make their commitments.  For some churches this may be a week with little else on the calendar.  Others find that attendance is boosted by having the children’s choir sing or another special event. 

Schedule any guest speakers.  If you are using Herb Miller’s Consecration Sunday a visiting preacher is mandatory.  Others may find it helpful to have a speaker from a mission or outreach project several weeks before Commitment Sunday.  The Conference Treasurer’s Office does a great job supplying speakers to discuss Shared Ministry Funds (formerly known as apportionments).   If you have not booked your SMF speaker by Annual Conference it will probably not happen during the traditional stewardship season.

Consider a challenging church-wide study for earlier in the fall. Rick Warren’s Purpose Driven Church is the gold standard.  Many United Methodist churches are reading Bishop Schnase’s Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations.  Stewardship in a context of vision and growth is always more effective (both financially and spiritually) than simply asking for money.

There will be plenty of time to work out the details in September, but at least have  a direction before the weather gets warm.

The fact that churches shut down their choirs and administrative meetings for the summer then wonder why no one comes to worship has always amused me.  I won’t fight that battle (at least not this week); I’ll simply acknowledge it and encourage you to realize its implications in planning for the fall.

Should the differences be this big?

Last week I was chatting with the pastor of a growing church. Not surprisingly the conversation turned to stewardship and he asked me an interesting question: Why are churches so far behind other nonprofit organizations when it comes to raising money.

I took an extra drink of my iced tea. It gave me a chance to think.

The first thing I came up with was that nonprofits have full-time staff dedicated to doing that work. Baldwin-Wallace College has about a dozen professionals on its fund raising staff. This does not include clerical and support staff, public relations people or alumni staff. I know of just a single church in our conference with a staff member for stewardship and he is part time.

The second difference is expectations. This same pastor told me that when he came to his current church he was told that he should not do a stewardship campaign. Keep it low key. Don’t ruffle feathers. People will give. He did, and they give. When a CEO walks into any other nonprofit he or she has a burden of fund raising expectations on the shoulders. Buildings must be erected or remodeled. Endowments must grow. The vision must be funded. Our expectations for the pastor are to not ruffle feathers.

The third, and I think the most important, is that churches do not talk about money. Go to a major theatrical or musical performance and there in the program is the list of donors, sorted by level of giving. We look at the biggest donors and wonder if we recognize any names. Big contributors get to meet backstage, have access to the best seats and have their pictures taken wearing tuxedos.

In the church we have a culture that no one, not even the minister, should ever know what someone gives. I believe that culture is the result of people ashamed of what they give.

Large nonprofits will put a major donor’s name on the front of the building. Churches let small donors teach us to be ashamed of that we give.

OK, enough of my grumbling.  What should we be doing differently? 

First, stewardship cannot be something we only do three weeks every fall.  Ministers should preach about it at least quarterly and have it in front of them all year.  Good fund raising really is about connecting a need with people who can fill that need.  These opportunities happen throughout the year.

Second, we as a church should not breath a sigh of relief when our new minister announces he doesn’t really “do stewardship.”   We need to insist that the financial resources of the church are not an afterthought.  Every church should have an annual goal-setting process.  The staff-parish and stewardship committees should work together to set reasonable but clear goals for the pastor and the church.  Quarterly stewardship sermons, ongong training for key leaders, reading and discussions and, of course, the expectation that the fall stewardship campaign needs to not only happen but be done well and creatively.

Third, we need to talk about money.  If we didn’t have a big enough parking lot, we would talk about it.  If the roof leaked, we would talk about it.  Money is a tool for ministry, just as the physical plant of the church is a tool.  Let’s talk about our needs, our dreams, our vision for ministry and how stronger giving in our congregations can make those visions come to reality.

Those are my thoughts about the differences between churches and other organizations. What are yours?

A different kind of pastoral visit

Last week I attended a fund raising conference.  In the vendors’ area were more than a dozen services that provide donor profile information.  A nonprofit would submit its donors’ names and addresses and these services would compare them to public information databases.  By matching your donors with the property they own, the cars, boats and airplanes they register, the political contributions they make, age and if they have licenses to practice medicine or law, they develop a profile and a likely gift amount, assuming the nonprofit has properly built the relationship.  I had them run my profile.  The results are profoundly (and a bit disturbingly) accurate.

Amazing stuff.  And, for many organizations, a gold mine of information.  The implication is that the leaders can be spending time with those that can best make a difference in the life of those served.  After all, fund raising is not a democracy.  Not everyone has the same ability and inclination to make a significant gift.

Most nonprofits would love to know as much about their donors as we know about ours.  Think about it.  The museum you support probably does not know how many children you have, but a minister gets a call often within a few hours or a day after the child is born.  The church baptizes, educates, marries, counsels, and helps bury the families of its members, its donors.

But what do we do with that information?  Many pastors tell me that they don’t want to know what their members give to the church; they need to be able to treat all of their flock well, no matter how much they give.  I think a minister who says this is selling himself short. Does he (or she) really not trust himself?  Will he visit only those who are the largest contributors?

Why do we take an egalitarian approach to our stewardship efforts?  Your local university would never think about soliciting its largest Presidents Inner Circle donor the same way it solicits a $5 donor.  But that is how it has been done in Methodism since John Wesley slept on kitchen tables.

Between now and commitment Sunday (generally in the fall) I challenge you to make a personal call on each of the top 10% of your “giving units” (I really need to invent a better term for that).  If you have 100 commitment cards turned in, make ten visits.  During that time, do not ask them for a cent.  Instead, thank them for holding the church as a financial priority in their lives.  Let them know how their gifts support our mission to Make Disciples of Jesus Christ for the Transformation of the World.  What does this support mean for your local church, the Conference and our work around the world?

I have a feeling that your largest contributors are generous to other organizations as well.  Just because they get 50 yard line football tickets from their alma mater does not mean that they should get preferential seating during worship (which in most churches would be in the back row rather than up front).  But I think they do need to be reminded that their support of the church is every bit as important as their gifts to other places.

As a church we have a relationship that other organizations envy.  Let’s not take it for granted.

P.S.  If you take me up on this challenge I would be happy to talk you through how that visit might go.  And I would love to hear how it is received.

I’ll have the evangelism, hold the gravy

In this forum, the topic is often money.  Without money there is no mission.  But what happens when money gets in the way of mission?

My friend David Scavuzzo seems to hate Swiss steak dinners.  Maybe he doesn’t hate the dinners (anything covered in that much gravy has to be good, doesn’t it?) but he wants churches to stop spending so much time on them.

I asked Reverend Scavuzzo if he really does hate these dinners.  His response:  “I would be open to churches “serving” meals, if they were for free or a part of a real gift (grace) giving ministry. Meals and rummage sales can really be ministry but when they become a means for the church to make money or survive rather than us offering a wild, untamed life-changing relationship with a living and loving God through Jesus … then I do hate them.” 

Now how in the world do you argue with that?

You can almost imagine the sign in front of the church:  “Wesley United Methodist Church, all are welcome.  Admission $8, kids under 12 $5, under 2 free.”  Not exactly the centerpiece of the Rethink Church movement is it?

He believes that if churches took the volunteer hours and energy they invest in dinners, rummage sales, flower sales and all the other things they do and invest that time in evangelism the church would be better off.

I happen to agree with him.

While nothing is guaranteed (other than death and taxes which happen to be favorite topics of the Foundation’s planned giving program) it’s tough to believe that so much energy pointed toward the community wouldn’t pay off in new members, a stronger sense of mission and a return to Christian and Wesleyan values.

Did I mention that Reverend Scavuzzo is the Superintendent of the Western Reserve District?  He has told his churches that if they take him up on the offer he would help them make up the money lost on these events.  Care to guess how many churches have taken him up on his effort?   If you guessed two churches you’re too high.  He did have one take him up on it.

We would rather spend 50 hours in a hot kitchen clogging our arteries than a single hour knocking on doors in our neighborhood.  We would rather tie up Fellowship Hall with a dinner than a classroom with a parenting support group.  We are very comfortable selling dinner tickets around town, but inviting others to worship is a different story, isn’t it?

I firmly believe in the value of fellowship.  I think peeling potatoes and doing dishes develops a strong sense of community within the church; it gives members a place to plug in and get to know each other.  And never ever discount the value of opening your church to the community for events like a dinner.

But wouldn’t we get the same sense of community knocking on doors?  Wouldn’t the community rather come to our church to be fed spiritually than literally?

There are lots of restaurants in our communities where people can pay to be fed.  Let’s leave the restaurant business to them and decide the Church will be about something else.

An update for the old Pony Express

Nothing strikes fear in the heart of a stewardship chair quite like the phrase “Pony Express.” 

The once popular stewardship program is now distinctly out of style.  It worked kind of like several concurrent chain letters that would be delivered in person.  A chain had a list of members; the one at the top of the list would read the information, complete his pledge, and then pass the information on to the next person on the list.  By the end each member had been personally contacted and each had completed a pledge card.

Not that it ever went that smoothly.

But have you seen mailboxes lately?  When I grew up we had a black metal mailbox on our front porch.  The mail man (yes they were mail men back then) would walk to each house and deliver the mail.  But now a neighborhood will have a single location with perhaps hundreds of mailboxes.  The letter carrier makes one stop, drops off all the mail and moves on.

There are implications for a modern-day pony express stewardship program.

The Pony Express had some great features.  Each member was personally reached out to by another member.  Sometimes this was a drive by visit, but other times they might have shared a cup of coffee and visited. In church we call that fellowship, don’t we?

This year consider a Mail Stop campaign.  Find the cohort groups in your church, small groups that members fit into.  These may be obvious, like Sunday School classes or the bell choir.  How about the ladies who work together in the kitchen or the men who do fix-it chores around the church (the gender stereotypes are hereby acknowledged and apologized for).  Stay at home moms, the softball team or kids’ Sunday School teachers may click together as well.

Downtown churches that serve a large geographic area may be inclined to group people by zip codes or neighborhoods.  I encourage you to resist this urge, if all they have in common is an address, they are not likely to feel comfortable together.

Get each of these groups together for an hour or so to discuss the vision of the church and what their financial gifts support (no, I did not say review the budget).  Give them time to ask questions and provide their feedback.  For some, especially younger or newer members, it may be the first time they even meet the financial leaders of the church or have the opportunity to voice their questions or concerns.

Make the meetings comfortable for the group.  Sunday school classes can meet during class time.  Others may do an evening dessert.  Young families may opt for a play date at a home with a backyard swing set.  Make sure there is plenty of time for fellowship.  A group that feels comfortable will be more likely to ask questions.

Many church members will tell you they want more small-group time in general.  This may be a great format for church leaders to reach out to all of their constituents and talk money is an open, nonthreatening way. 

Give this a try this fall and let me know how it goes.

P.S., I’d love to take credit for this as a “new” idea, but it was actually the first stewardship campaign I was ever involved with, nearly 20 years ago at a church in Rochester, NY where my wife and I were members.  Bob Remington chaired the effort and I was pleased to run into Bob this past spring.  He and his wife are now members of Westlake UMC near Cleveland.

Your Easter Message (not the one in the sermon)

Most ministers would tell you that there are three high holy days on the calendar when they expect their sanctuaries to be more full than usual: Christmas Eve, Easter and Mother’s Day.

What message do you send to visitors on those days? I have always sat in the congregation hoping just once that the pastor will mention that we’re here all of the other Sundays of the year and we’d love to have them come back again. But that rarely happens. Evangelism opportunity missed.

But are we missing another opportunity? How do you use the unusually large offerings from these special worship services? And more importantly, what message does that convey to the visitors or CEO Christians (Christmas and Easter Only) who are in your pews that day?

I challenge you to use your special offerings in a way that makes it very clear that yours is a church that is outwardly-focused. Think about what we are celebrating on Easter. Is that really an appropriate time for you to be worried about self? I think it is a better time to lift up selflessness as reflected in Holy Week and the miracle of the empty tomb. Using your holiday offering to pay your copier contract doesn’t really seem to follow that does it?

It may be too late for Easter this year, but find a mission project that makes sense for Mother’s Day. Is there a women’s shelter in your community? How about an organization that is going to provide free lunches for school-aged kids during summer vacation? Is there a nursing home or retirement community full of moms that could use a helping hand?

I realize that many of our churches do count on these offerings to help balance the books. If you are in this situation I urge you to make it part of your shared missions or apportionment income. If you can do so with integrity, tell those in attendance that every penny of this offering will support the United Methodist presence around the world, in areas like Chile, Haiti, Liberia, and right here at home.

As you prepare to take the offering refer to the special holiday and the fact that we are called as a church to serve those outside our walls (if your congregation would argue with that statement you may have more work to do) and invite all of those present to support this project. If possible, tell a short (one minute) story about how that organization changes lives and why you believe it is worthy of financial support.

The money you will collect for this organization is a wonderful thing. You might even want to have a representative come to worship in the following weeks and give a two-minute thank you from the pulpit.

Look this offering from the point of view of one of your visitors that day. How many of them have been turned off by churches that are cold, unwelcoming and only concerned about themselves? What message will they receive from this selfless and unexpected display of mission and generosity?

And please, before the benediction, invite them to come back again. You never know, they just might surprise you.

Don’t Keep Your Eyes on Your Own Paper

At the Learning to Turn our Cups Over seminar on Saturday Reverend David Bell offered many wonderful challenges and insights.  One of them in particular really resonated with me.  He pointed out that if people make donations to help people, we as churches should emphasize that in all of our stewardship communications.

The next time you get a quarterly newsletter from a nonprofit you support financially read it cover to cover.  Think about how that organization, based solely on the information in that newsletter, changes people’s lives.  Now take the newsletter from your church and do the same analysis.  Is there any evidence at all that your church does this work?

Start a file of all of the correspondence you receive from nonprofits.  Throw in newsletters, solicitation letters, thank you letters, response envelopes, annual reports, any printed material that seems to come out of the public relations office or fund raising office. 

As you begin to plan your stewardship campaign dump the file out on the table and invite your committee to read through the collection.
· What seemed particularly effective?
· Did anything rub you the wrong way?
· What did you read that would make you want to make a donation?
· What is being done to make it easier or more convenient for you to make a gift to that organization?

Then consider what lessons your church can learn from this analysis.
I would never say that church stewardship and other fund raising are or should be the same.  But there are certainly lessons that we can learn from what others are doing.  And the reality is that many of your members will equate the two.

Nonprofits spend thousands of dollars to research what is working.  What should we be learning from them?

Thinking about legacies

I got to go to two funerals last week. Not many say they “get to go” to these things, but these were very nice. Both gentlemen had lived long, full lives. One was a much-loved pastor. The other was an accountant who loaned his professional expertise to many organizations, both United Methodist and secular. There were few tears at either; each was truly a celebration of a wonderful life, a life that left a clear legacy.
It got me thinking about legacies. We all leave legacies, don’t we?
Some in our churches will leave a legacy of service, the Sunday School teacher who served faithfully for decades or the usher who manned his post as long as anyone can remember. You may have a Mr. Fix-It who never receives public commendation for his work. Or someone may leave the legacy of never having had anything nice to say and stood in the way of anything that resembled change.
Are you inviting your members to leave a financial legacy? Do you have an endowment fund established to receive a gift someone leaves in his or her will? When is the last time you hosted a seminar to discuss a financial legacy with your retired members? If you have an endowment do you lift up how this money is used to support ministry?
As church leaders perhaps part of our legacy is making it possible for others to leave their own legacies, financial and otherwise.


The push or pull of change

I heard someone talk about change last week. He asserted that change happens for one of two reasons. It is either pushed by fear or pulled by vision.

In terms of church finances there has been very little “business as usual” in recent years. Attendance and membership in mainline denominations is already dropping. And the economic situation has decreased many of our members to give less. So we have fewer people making smaller financial gifts.

Would you be surprised to find that many churches have seen their offering income decrease? Probably not. But you may be surprised to find that others have seen their income increase.

Consider the church whose pastor made a plea in the fall of 2007. The stock market had already begun to slide. Unemployment was rising, both locally and across the region. He made it clear that in these times the church would need to be more missional. This was a time when local hunger centers would need more financial support, not less. When mission giving through apportionments would need to go up, not down. And while some in the church would lose their ability to give at their current rates, those in better financial circumstances would need to increase their giving.

This was a courageous request. It would have been easier for this pastor to offer excuses and invite members to retreat back into themselves, to play it safe and focus on the church’s inward survival. But he didn’t. His members responded and that church has offered not only financial resources to local agencies but also volunteer time and expertise.

Giving in that church wasn’t changed based on fear. It changed because of vision. And more importantly the congregation grew stronger during this time, not weaker.

As the economy improves, is the change in your church being pushed or pulled? Are you operating out of vision or fear?

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