Methodist Foundation of Ohio

So whose money is it?

It was a meeting unlike any other in my years in the Foundation. The topic was money, a long-held fund at the church that had always been used for X but the committee was discussing using it for Y. But it wasn’t really about the money; it was about control of the money. It was the legacy of the church vs. the future of the church. It was about change vs. comfort.

It was ugly.

At one point a layperson pointed accusingly at another church leader and shouted, “All you want to do is spend OUR money.”

And there it sat. In a church where there is discord, who is really in charge of the important things, like money?

In a church where everyone is pulling on the same oar, it’s easy. The folks put the money in the plate (and hopefully the electronic giving system), the Finance Committee makes it available to the ministries of the church and this committee gets some and that committee does too and if the budget is aligned with the mission money becomes what it should be in the church, a tool for ministry.

The mess at this meeting didn’t come out of nowhere. It represented, I’m sure, some long-simmering dynamics in all areas of the church. If I could go back 20 years in the life of that church there are some clear changes I’d make to keep us from ending up where we were on that Thursday night.

The first is leadership. The senior pastor chairs just one committee in The United Methodist Church, lay leadership (also known as nominating). For any pastor to be successful there must be leaders who share the vision for the church. A pastor padding committees only with those who think he walks on water is poorly served (see The Emperor’s New Clothes) but there is a difference between opposing viewpoints and opposition. Church leaders must share the vision. In theory, this is great. But it can get sticky when a volunteer has served that position for many years and yields tremendous power as a result.

The second is that vision I just mentioned. It can’t be the pastor’s vision or the Ad Board vision, the vision must be owned by the congregation. That doesn’t mean it has to be unanimous but leaders must have taken the time to cast a vision, share it with the congregation, listen and amend it as necessary and appropriate.

The third is a good policy for a fund. An effective policy will do a couple of things.

  • First it clearly delineates the purpose of the money. Too often I hear that “well everyone knows what that money is for.” But more often I hear, “Bob always was in charge of that but now that he’s gone, we don’t really know.” In theory the policy should be developed BEFORE any money is in the fund, so donors or those considering transferring money know the proposed use before they make a decision.
  • The second is it makes it clear who is in charge of the money. Is an endowed fund to benefit the music program the responsibility of the trustees, the worship committee or the choir director? I believe the fund administration should be done by the Endowment Committee (or in its absence the Trustees) but that committee should turn the proceeds over to the Worship Committee in this example to allow them to make the music decisions. It does no one any good for the Endowment Committee to tell the choir what piece they will sing because they control the money that buys the music.
  • A policy should also indicate how it can be changed. Some of that will be based on how the money was raised, with donor intent always in the forefront. But what if you have a fund to maintain the parsonage but that home was sold? Or a scholarship fund for youth from the church but there are no longer teenagers? Good ministry should be dynamic, and your policies need to change along with it. I generally like the Ad Board to be involved in any changes to the policy, recognizing that this should be done if full view of the congregation and not just a few folks acting alone.
  • And finally we should have reporting expectations. All assets of the church should be transparent and reported on the monthly balance sheet report. Deposits and expenditures should be run through the central checking account and be part of the annual audit. At the very least a secret fund will garner no new donations. At the worst it is open to fraud and theft.

Finally, any church must be built on a culture of respect. The pastor must be respected and so must the laity. One of the tensions of our itinerant system is that clergy can be seen as “temporary employees” while long-time committee chairs see themselves as the sustainable foundation in leadership.

This is not to say that the church in question didn’t do some of things, but we need to recognize the potential for friction in the church around both mission and money and be prepared to proactively diffuse it.

About those reserve funds

Last week I had a chance to be part of a conversation with a local church leader who was feeling some tension about reserve funds. One on side is the argument for strong financial reserves. I have heard discussion advocating as much as three months’ worth of expenses in a rainy day fund. On the other side is the approach that the best investment a church can make is in its people and programs, using funds to grow the church that in turn will make the church stronger financially, but at least be kingdom-oriented.

I’ll tell you right now that I completely agree with both sides. And therein lies the tension that this leader was feeling.

When determining a reasonable amount for a financial reserve, I suggest a two-step approach. The first is to determine what the immediate need is. Churches tend to need cash in one of two times in the year. The first is the end of the summer when donations may have lagged during vacation months and expenses pick up as curriculum and materials are purchased for the fall. The second is at the end of the year as a final accounting takes place and expenses that have been allowed to slide for a while are due, things like apportionment payments.

Take a look back over the last decade or so and see what the highest need has been. If by the end of the summer the most you have ever been behind is three weeks’ worth of expenses, then having a reserve of twice that, or a month and a half’s worth should be adequate.

If your end of the year deficits are sporadic and are generally made up for in the following year, the same approach can be used for those. But if you run a perennial deficit at the end of each year you really need to align your expenses with your income.

The second step is to determine your trajectory on the income side.

Take a look at the top 20 percent of your giving units. If you have 100 families in your church, do this with 20 of them, not the families that give the top 20% of your income. Rank these families from the largest amount to the smallest. Now give your best estimate on the age of those making the gift. Maybe you have exact ages in your database for them, but if you don’t, round your guess to the nearest five and don’t get mired in the details. Now rank their involvement in the church like a school teacher would, going from A to F. Someone who is in worship most Sundays and is otherwise quite active would get an A, a member who is spending more and more time as a snowbird would get a lower grade. Remember, these aren’t values judgment, just a way to organize something that is conceptual.

So what did you come up with? If all of these are over age 85 and no better than a C in involvement currently with the church, you have a problem. If they are all 50 or so and get an A for involvement the need for reserves is lower. The reality is that it will be in between these somewhere, but this will give you some idea about where your giving among current members is headed. This isn’t to say that a young giver can’t get a job transfer or get hit by a bus or that the elderly member can’t have another decade or more with you, but it gives an idea.

As an aside, if you’re wondering if you should be teaching people who are new to the church about tithing and other sacrificial giving, I imagine this analysis will give you a pretty strong nudge.

So now combine steps 1 and 2. You know historically what your reserve requirements have been, and you have some idea of where your giving is going. Are you likely to need more in the bank than you have in the past?

If you started reading this expecting to come up with a formula to tell you exactly how many dollars you need to have in your reserve account, it just isn’t that easy. But like anything else we do in the church, going into it with clean intentions and always with an eye to kingdom work should move you in the right direction.

As always, let me know how we can help with this.


The power of dreaming about Powerball

On Sunday morning I woke up but then began dreaming again.  No, I didn’t go back to sleep.  Instead I checked the news.

No one had won the Powerball jackpot.  I had four more days to dream.

So from now until Wednesday night I can dream and the scale of the dream is amazing.  An advertised jackpot of $1.4 billion means a lump sum payment of $868 million or about $478 million after taxes.

I’m certainly not the only one dreaming.  I imagine that the “build and price” section of websites like Porsche and Lamborghini have been getting more hits than usual, as have real estate listings for areas like the Bahamas and Manhattan.  A jackpot that big has brought dreams of travel, buying homes for loved ones or just sitting on a boat with a line in the water not going to work.

It’s a chance to stop worrying about paying for college, the roof that doesn’t leak yet but is a decade past its warranty, or what would happen if a huge medical bill came down the pike.  But instead think about the big picture and what is truly most important to you.

We had four hours in the car Saturday after dropping our daughter off at college and we talked about what we would do with that much money.  A big house where the extended family could gather, supporting causes and institutions we are passionate about, helping a few people who could use a hand at this point.

I will point out that we as United Methodists do not approve of gambling so I can’t endorse buying your ticket.  But I whole-heartedly endorse dreaming.

When is the last time your church did a little dreaming?  Do you spend time dreaming or are you mired in the soon-to-fail roof and the end of year finances you’re just now calculating?

Imagination is such a powerful force in organizations like churches.

If your church received a letter from a lawyer telling you a deceased member had left $1 million in her will, how would that change your ministry?  If a tornado leveled your church in the middle of the night, what and where would you rebuild to better meet the needs of your community?  If Bill Gates or Warren Buffett mailed you a big ol’ check and said to go be the hands and feet of God, what would that look like?

Of course there is a downside of dreaming.  The odds of winning the Powerball is 1 in 292,000,000.  To be honest, the chances of Gates or Buffett writing out that check to you are probably comparable.

So let’s not count on the lottery or a benefactor thousands of miles away doing this for us.

Let’s count on your congregation.  Hundreds of churches have used a Miracle Sunday to raise an amount equal to their annual budget for a visionary project like debt retirement, purchasing real estate or a huge mission project.  A capital campaign in your church can raise up to three times your annual giving to make the building more welcoming and accessible to visitors.  I have no doubt that in every single one of our churches there is a member with the ability to make 5, 6, or even 7-figure gift to your church but hasn’t been asked to do so or given a good enough dream to make them step forward.  In the U.S. more money is donated to charity through people’s wills than from corporate donations, so maybe you should talk to your members about planned giving.

I get it.  It’s easy to get mired in the bills, the building repairs and apportionments.  You’ve squeaked through another year.  But aren’t you tired of squeaking through?

For the most part people don’t join churches that are squeaking through.  And they certainly don’t join churches that are trying stay alive for another year or two.  More and more, people, especially young people, want vibrant worship, hands-on mission, a chance to connect and relate and find a group to help them grow and be held accountable.

So whether or not you win the Powerball, spend some time dreaming as a church.  There is a better than one in 292 million chance that the resources to strengthen your church are sitting in your pews on Sunday.

Give them a chance to dream, and a chance to make that dream come true.

In case you missed it

We had some technical difficulties with our online presence for the last couple of weeks.  So many of you may have tried to click through to a blog post only to have it come up with an error.

The problem has been fixed.  Below are the last few blog posts in case you missed one.

A reflection on the Starbucks red cup mess from November and what it should mean for your church.

It’s easy to predict what the biggest story to come out of General Conference will be, but is it what is most important?

My prayer for you and your church in the New Year.


My prayer for you and your church in the New Year

As you begin a new year with resolutions of better health, stronger finances and healthier relationships, I’d like to share the following benediction with you. I can’t prove it, but it seems to be one used by missionaries in India.

May the Lord disturb you and trouble you,

May the Lord set an impossible task before you,

And dare you to meet it.

May the Lord give you the strength to do your best,

And then, but only then,

May you be granted the Lord’s peace.

I love the first two lines. As we ask to be disturbed and troubled, we’re asking for some injustice to be put on our heart. These can be straightforward, like feeding the hungry, or more complicated like Syrian refugees. And in the second line say we’re willing for it not to be easy.   Feed the hungry? Giving a grocery gift card to someone who stops by the church is easy.   How do you go out and feed 100 hungry people? Or invite them in to be nourished in body AND soul? Even if they don’t look like us, talk like us, smell like us and pray like us?

Think about a year from now. Think if you spent the next 52 weeks working in earnest to do your best on an impossible task. Think of the blessings you would count during advent next year. Think of the new folks (even the smelly ones) who may be in your pews next Christmas Eve.

Spend a few days thinking of the impossible tasks in your community and what it would look like if you did, indeed, I mean really did do your best.

That would be an amazing peace, wouldn’t it?

Are you in?

Is this our biggest concern?

In less than five months I and others from East Ohio will be at General Conference in Portland, Oregon. During those ten days we will be asked to vote on literally hundreds and hundreds of issues. My committee assignment is the committee dealing with local church property, including endowments.

But as you would expect there is one issue that has dominated the discussion so far. I have received emails, telephone calls and had personal meetings all on a single issue: homosexuality. This is a hot button issue, one that will make the national media no matter how the vote turns out. Few United Methodists don’t have an opinion on the issue and they all want us to vote their way.

This isn’t the biggest issue we face as a denomination. We have been in constant decline since the merger in 1968. We close churches every year. We lament sanctuaries without young adults. Our membership is about to hit a death tsunami, as Lovett Weems calls it. Our budgets are balanced because a decreasing membership continues to give an increasing amount to keep us in the black or endowments funded decades ago are being depleted to meet operating costs. The average pastor in East Ohio is 57 years old. That means that more than half of our pastors are likely to retire in 10 years or so.

But I haven’t had a single conversation about these issues. Answering these challenges will strengthen us and help us indeed make and mature disciples for the transformation of the world. These are the issues that today’s young people care about as they face an uncertain future of the denomination.

To believe that we will ever be a truly united denomination around the homosexuality issue is unlikely. Urban churches, rural churches, small-town churches all view this issue differently. In fact to think that everyone sitting in the same sanctuary having the same opinion on this is unrealistic, I believe.

This is the flagship issue because we choose to make it so. Much of this energy is us wanting to make sure that “our side wins” this vote.

What if the same energy that goes into this discussion were to go into becoming a church that young people are attracted to? Or making sure 11 a.m. on Sunday was no longer the most segregated hour of the week?  What if we marched in protest of churches that can’t be bothered with mission? What if our District Superintendents and Bishops focused on churches that are inwardly focused instead of serving our communities?

Come May we’ll debate and we’ll discuss and eventually we’ll vote. It will make the New York Times again and probably the national TV news. Some will feel victory some, defeat.

But none of it will matter if we don’t get a handle on the things that truly factor into the future of our denomination.




So… About that Red Cup

A month ago or so this country tried to lose its mind when Starbucks unveiled its annual Holiday Cup that was plain red. In a startling victory of common sense, “It’s just a cup” overwhelmed social media and quickly quashed the notion that this disposable vessel of overpriced caffeine was the end of Christianity as we know it.

Much of that pushback came with observations like Christmas “Want to Keep Christ in Christmas? Then feed the hungry, clothe the naked, shelter the homeless forgive the offender, visit the sick and comfort the grieving.”

That seemed to calm things down and we all felt good about being Christians again.

But are you really doing those things?

Sure, we are all doing something in the next few weeks where we can put a couple of bucks in the special envelope at church and say we did one or two of these things. But sending a check is easy. Building relationships is tougher. And oh, by the way, far more effective.

Does your church know Ashley Steele at the Urban Mission in Steubenville? How about Jim Szakacs at the Nehemiah Mission in Cleveland, Dawn Livingston at Epworth Center? Is there a place nearby where instead of a cross and flame there is a symbol of another denomination but strong ministry is still provided?

When January comes and the Treasurer cuts that check to a mission, don’t mail it. Fill up a minivan and go deliver it. Make an appointment. Take the tour. Learn more. And be sure to ask “How can a church like mine help?” Then on the way home develop a plan to do that.

Sending a few bucks to a mission project can help us feel good and I’ll testify that this financial assistance is welcome, vital and well-used. But what if your church provided money AND volunteers, or money AND advocacy, or money AND love and connection to the clients?

The war on Christmas isn’t from a red cup, as we have learned, but the war against compassion is from apathy and separation. Let’s object to that as loudly as many objected to a red cup.Severa

So Now What?

Now that your stewardship campaign has passed, it’s time to put stewardship away for the next 9 months or so, right?

Hopefully not. Between now and next fall this is what I suggest you get busy with:

What did you learn from your campaign? How did this year compare to last year? Are there any trends developing over the last 3-5 years? If they’re good trends, how can you continue them? If the trends aren’t so good, are they reversible?

What’s your future? Ask your Financial Secretary to pull out this year’s top 10% of pledgers. These are a tenth of your givers, not dollars, so if you have 100 giving units get the top ten of them. How old are these people? Are they still involved in the church? How many are snow birds? As the Financial Secretary and the Pastor review this list are there are any concerns about the church’s financial future?

How are you reaching other pockets? Stewardship campaigns typically reach the income pocket, but rarely touch parishoners’ “treasure.”   I don’t condone doing a capital campaign just because you haven’t done one in a while but if you have a pile of needs in the church, seek gifts to help with these. It can be a traditional capital campaign, talking to a handful of major gifts prospects or a one-day “Miracle Sunday” where people commit things they don’t need any longer. Wayne Barrett, my retired colleague from the Michigan Foundation would often raise an amount equal to a year’s giving this way.

Are you planning for a final gift? Of all the money given to charity, one dollar in three goes to a religious organization. But of all the money left to charity in people’s wills, this number drops to about one in 12. Why? Because we don’t ask for it. What will you do this year to encourage those gifts? The amount of gray hair on a Sunday morning suggests we should take this seriously.

If you’re stuck on any of these, let us know. We’re here to help.

Why I’m OK with “Happy Holidays”

I posted this December 2013 and 2014 and I’ve received so many positive comments about it, I thought I’d bring it out again.  Keep this in mind as you begin your festivities.

A friend was telling me about the annual Christmas parade in a small town in Amish country.  He said it was in no way a Holiday Parade.  This was Christmas.  With a manger, camels, and church choirs singing carols that didn’t include Frosty or Santa.

This is a time when many (reasonably) good Christians work hard to put Christmas back in December.  And this often comes out in our response to being wished “Happy Holidays.”

First, let me say that I love working in a place that lets me say “Merry Christmas.”  We are, in fact, a Christian organization and have Christian and Wesleyan values (although I don’t think they’re mutually exclusive).  We are closed for Christmas, not winter holidays and our party actually has the word “Christmas” associated with it.

But I would never correct a cashier, waitress or even a neighbor who wishes me “Happy Holidays.”  Here’s why:

December isn’t just about Christmas.  We’re in the midst of Hannukah.  Kwanzaa and Boxing Day are in a few weeks.  Then we get to the New Year and Epiphany.  When we insist that it’s only the Christmas season, we negate these other holidays.

It’s all about the nones.  According to the Pew Study there are more “nones” out there than there are Christians.  While many of these folks will celebrate Christmas with a tree and presents, it has become a secular holiday for them.  To have in-your-face Christians making a scene only reinforces what many of them feel about church folks, that we are self-righteous, judgemental and out of touch with the rest of society.  By the way, I have no idea why they think this.  I have never once met a United Methodist who exhibited any of these traits.

It’s about tolerance.  Many in our churches would not have been open to being wished “Happy Hannukah” the day after Thanksgiving and I can only imagine the response to being wished a meaningful Ramadan.  I can only ask others to be tolerant of my beliefs if I am tolerant of theirs.

It’s not about conversion.  The cashier at Kohl’s isn’t trying to convert me to “none-ism” by wishing me Happy Holidays.  She’s trying to be cheerful, stay out of trouble with her boss and move me along so she can get to the next customer in her never-ending line.  It really isn’t the place for me to cause a scene.  It’s the place for me to be cheerful back, wish her the same and offer a quick, silent prayer that she gets through her shift before her feet and patience give out.

I wish you a very Merry Christmas season, and I wish you the patience and tolerance to work with all of those around you, regardless of their focus between now and the New Year.

Why Have A Campaign?

I often get a comment like “We haven’t done a stewardship campaign in decades. We don’t need to, we always pay the bills.” Or sometimes it’s “We don’t really talk stewardship in our church, it makes people uncomfortable.” Or my favorite is “We don’t want to be the church that always talks about money.”

All of these show a lack of stewardship leadership in the church, a shortcoming on the part of both the pastor and the laity.

Unfortunately it is easy to connect a campaign with the need for the church to get more money. That’s like saying we don’t need to do evangelism if the number of worshippers on our year-end report is enough to satisfy the District Superintendent or we don’t need to do any mission work because poor people aren’t beating down your door.

A good stewardship campaign can help pay the bills, but there are other great things that can happen:

  • You teach people to give. Young families in your congregation probably weren’t raised in the church. Do they know how to give? Do they understand what a tithe is?
  • You encourage people to grow. Ask your Financial Secretary how many members have given the same amount for the last five years, ten years, even back to the Eisenhower Administration. If the message they get is that what they’re giving is doing the job, why give more? They can keep their church giving flat and spend that money somewhere else. By the way, the salesmen at Best Buy appreciate this approach.
  • You can dream. You don’t need a campaign because you’re paying the bills, but are you funding the dream? Churches with flat giving have flat programming. When was the last time you thought about how you can reach the community or make more mature disciples? If every new idea for years is met with “We can’t afford it,” creativity dries up.
  • It ties money to the life of the church. Churches that “talk about money too often” are probably demanding more money too often and not coming from a missional perspective. A campaign can connect growing stewardship to growing programs, vital outreach and a church in mission.
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