Did you have a bumper?

Last week’s stock market fluctuations aside, the economy seems to be on the upswing.  Economists point to statistics like orders for durable goods and slowly easing unemployment rates as their proof.

I knew it was better in late December by the mail we didn’t receive.

At the Foundation we have investments from about 160 local churches and other ministries.  These are typically endowments, but can also be reserve funds, building funds and others.

In December of 2010 we saw significantly fewer withdrawals at year-end as churches tried to catch up with their bills.

This tells me two things.  First, that giving was probably up and more churches were able to meet their financial obligations through the offering plate and didn’t need to tap other financial assets.

It also tells me that churches probably scaled back their spending to better match their members’ giving.  This is easier said than done and we know that it can take a few budget cycles for all of the cuts to happen that need to.

So now that your budget is in line and your giving has recovered, take a step back and examine what happened in the last three years.

  1. If you had to make cuts did they significantly impact your ability to make and mature disciples?
  2. Were you in a place where you could weather a tough economy fairly well or did it lay bare your existing financial weakness?
  3. How did your members respond to the need?  Were those who were able to step up their giving willing to do so?  Were they even asked?
  4. If the budget shrank, where did the money come from?  Did the cuts come from those areas that serve your members’ needs or did the church cut back on outreach, missions and evangelism?
  5. During one of your meetings, was the consensus, “I sure wish that 10 years ago we would have ….. and we would be in far better shape right now.”
  6. What long-term difference in your church and your church finances would have helped in the last three years?  An endowment?  A bigger endowment?  Getting rid of debt?  Having a stronger culture of generosity?

You can’t change what they did ten years ago.  But this is the time to make those changes moving forward.  Tough times will, unfortunately, come again.  What should you be doing to improve things for the next round?

Giving as a faith process

I was blessed to be able to preach yesterday at Orchard Path UMC, one of our new church starts.  Reverend David Rittgers is leading a great group in suburban Cleveland and asked if I would talk stewardship with his people.

Having been part of a new church start years ago, I have great empathy for Dave and his wife Beth.  It is a ridiculously difficult job and one that you do without much of the church infrastructure (good and bad) that we all rely on in our churches.

And talking stewardship with this congregation was a challenge for me.  Many of them were unchurched, some had become dechurched after a negative experience.   Others were generous givers and many are tithers.  Not exactly a homogenous congregation to plan a message around.

I encouraged them to think about giving to the church the same as they do with everything else in their church relationship:  prayer, attendance, volunteer service, advocacy, participation in small groups and dozens of others.

Few of our new professions of faith walk in on a Sunday and by the next week are teaching Sunday School, in the Disciple Study and washing dishes after events.  Why do we think they should immediately start giving at the same levels as more established members?

We encourage new members to grow in all areas.  Some will jump into some areas with both feet while other areas barely get a toe in.   This does not mean that new members should get a free pass, but it does speak to the trend away from once a year stewardship programs.  If you’re only talking stewardship in November, what happens to the new member who joins in December?  Or the member who is growing spiritually decides to make a commitment in the spring?

Just as you continue to invite your members to deepen their faith through prayer and study, make sure you are inviting to give to the church in a way that is meaningful not ony financially but reflects their growing relationship with the church and with God.

By the way, if you want to hear the whole sermon, it’s on Orchard Path’s website here.

Getting the puzzle to move

When my daughter was younger we bought her a traffic jam game.  It was a puzzle that had a red car that you needed to get out of a parking lot by moving other cars forward and back so the red car could get to the exit.  (I know that was the worst description in the history of civilization but you can go here to play it online, maybe it will make sense).

As we coached her on how to play the game we would remind her to start moving the cars that she was able to move and just see what shook loose.  Eventually the solution would become obvious but it might take dozens of moves for that to happen.

That game came back to me this week when I was talking with a pastor about the Five Star Stewardship Program.  He liked the idea but thought the whole program was more than his congregation was ready for.

So I gave him the advice from the Traffic Jam game.  Move what you can and see what shakes loose.

More than almost anything in the church, money is wrapped up in culture.  When you look at churches with strong endowment programs you see that planned giving is part of the culture and has been for decades.  The same is true with churches that contribute heavily to missions or those who are careless with their budget (if they even have one) or just pay the bills as money comes in.

No leader, no matter how dynamic, can unwind a century or more of money culture with a single sermon or one decidedly above average year-round stewardship program.

But they can move what they can and see what shakes loose.

If you don’t see any way that your church can earn those 150 points, don’t worry about it.  But you can preach about money every quarter.  You can do some analysis on giving trends and share it with your leaders.  You can even invite an outside speaker to come in and say thank you.  (Afterall, someone has to preach while you’re on vacation).

It is difficult for a seven year old girl to stick to a puzzle that takes dozens of moves to solve, just as it is frustrating for church leaders to beat their collective heads against an unyielding church culture of money.  But move what you can, see what shakes loose and keep moving toward the solution.

Worship more contemporary than contemporary?

I really like Mike Slaughter.  He’s the first United Methodist pastor I was ever aware of with “rock star” status.  He’s the pastor at Ginghamsburg Church in Tipp City.  That’s just north of the Dayton airport and half an hour from downtown.  In spite of its remote location, it is the largest United Methodist Church in Ohio and in the top 10 in the U.S.

In his blog he writes that he’s becoming increasing unsatisfied with contemporary worship.

Now remember that contemporary worship was a key part in Rev. Slaughter’s efforts to move Ginghamsburg from the sleepy congregation of less than 100 to the more than 4,000 who attend worship every weekend.

And I know what some of you are thinking.  After a decade or more you are finally getting your church to think about contemporary worship and now they’re moving the target.  But that really isn’t what he’s saying.  He says that contemporary worked because it was fresh, new and energized.  But after all of these years the contemporary approach is becoming just as stale as the traditional was.

So what’s the take away?

I say that we should always be looking at what your church is doing with a critical eye.  Just because we have always done it doesn’t mean it can’t change.

If Mike Slaughter is willing to examine changing the thing in his church that attracts 4,000 people every week, should there be anything in your church that shouldn’t be the focus of some holy conferencing

Rev. Slaughter went to Tipp City straight out of seminary.  He tells the story that his District Superintendent promised him that he would get him out of Ginghamsburg and into a better church just as quickly as he could.  By being open to change, he got to a better church but not by moving, by improving where he already was.  Wouldn’t that be a great way for all of us to get to a better church?

P.S.  I really can’t talk about Ginghamsburg without sharing this link with you.  It’s a great video about what amazing things can happen when a church buys into an absurdly ambitious mission project.  By the way, they succeeded.  Click here for the video.

How are you doing? CGP can help you figure that out

If you started the year with a new financial secretary he or she is probably pretty depressed seven Sundays into the new year.  He or she may have taken the total amount pledged, divided it by 52 and figured that was what you would receive each Sunday.

Or you may a pastor who, while, new to your church, has served several others and is concerned that he’s not seeing the same giving patterns he is used to.

Folks with church finance experience know that both of these are really pretty common.  Some churches have strong December giving.   Others start the year with a big surplus as tax-wise givers may give a good chunk of their 2011 pledge in December of 2010. 

But it does beg the question:  “How do we know how we’re doing?”

The good folks at the Lewis Center for Church Leadership have invented a handy tool.  It’s the Congregational Giving Profile, or CGP.

I know, right now you’re at the edge of your seat saying “gosh, Brian what is this handy tool and how can it help me in my church?”  Of course some of the guys reading this blog got as far as “tool” and have already left for Aisle 7 at Home Depot, but they’ll come back.

CGP allows you to enter each week’s offering (as well as Christmas Eve and other special giving) into the program for the last three years.  From that information it will plot your giving trends.  So as you enter your 2011 data it will tell you how you’re doing, not based on the 1/52 formula, but compared to your individual church’s giving patterns over time.

It’s pretty affordable, just $39 plus shipping and tax.  For under fifty bucks you can get a handle on how you’re doing.

It can also help you time expected major purchases, as you see when in the year giving is the strongest and, presumably, the digits in your checking account are darker black and not red.

It won’t break the bank and I think that any new affordably-priced tool to give you a better handle on your finances is worth the investment.  To learn more or to order, just follow this link.

A successful U-turn

A couple of years a young, brand-new pastor starting attending our stewardship training.  Not some of them, all of them.  It looked like she was a stewardship junkie.  I like stewardship junkies.

Hers was a church all too typical in our conference.  Located in a blue-collar Cleveland suburb the congregation was aging and declining.  The goal, it seemed, was for the church to be open long enough for the funerals of the current members then it could close.  And it probably would.

The pastor was appointed there in mid-year and was surprised to find that the budget showed a deficit of $40,000, about a fourth of the total budget.  And they only planned to pay about half of their apportionments.

I started to understand why she was a stewardship junkie.

She called me last week and was pleased to report that her church ended 2010 with a balanced the budget, apportionments were fully paid and they were even giving an extra $750 per year to support missionaries.

I asked her what the key was.  She gave me two words:

Hope and purpose.

Hope that the church wasn’t about to close and that the church had a purpose beyond worship and the post-worship coffee hour.

It seemed the church had once again decided to be a church.

I have written before about hope for the future of the church and the need for a concrete vision that your members can support.  Last weekend I did some stewardship training for the folks in the Three Rivers District and one of my basic tenets was that giving follows vision.  When this church was in hospice there was no need for anyone to give significantly.  Afterall, the church wasn’t going to be around much longer.

But when the members started to see some hope, they responded financially.

But I think purpose is every bit as important.  In the church’s renaissance they shifted their focus from internal to external, looking to see how God is using their church.  She told me that building is now so busy that they have to put in a process for reserving space because the rooms are filled so often.

I will admit that when I first walked into that church a couple of years ago, just a few weeks after this pastor started there, I had no reason to believe it would make it.  It was one of those places where the rundown appearance and negative vibe from everyone I saw told me that its days were numbered.

But it has come back, and done so not because someone in the congregation won the lottery, but with hope and vision.

Does your church have hopes?  What is its vision?  What lessons can you learn from this phoenix-like church?

Go Tell Your Story!

Last fall Christianity took a kick to the teeth when Florida pastor Terry Jones decided he was going to burn the Koran.

It must have been a slow news day.  I don’t think it’s newsworthy when a pastor of a small church decides to do something stupid, but the national and international media picked up the story and before you knew it this guy was the picture of Christianity in action.

Looking back over the last decade Christianity has had some lousy representatives:  poorly-behaved Catholic priests, conservatives who shoot abortion doctors, and protestors at the funerals of soldiers, claiming that God is getting even with our country for our loose morals.  Dennis Kucinich would be a better spokesman for the olive industry than these people are for the work of the church.

Between now and Easter I have a challenge for you and your congregation.  Become the face of Christianity in your town.  But please don’t do it by burning the Koran.

There are nearly 800 local churches in our Conference and darn near all of them are doing great things.  While the unchurched see us as places where people are judged, members are hounded for money and our clergy are equated with Jim Bakker, the reality is that we are truly the hands and feet of God.  We are feeding and clothing the poor, supporting the sick, volunteering to build houses and tutor children.

We are, I believe, the church that people want us to be.  The problem is they don’t know that we are.

Between now and Easter spend some time telling your story.  Work with your local newspaper and TV station.  Have a display at the mall.  Get a buzz going at Kiwanis and Lions Club meetings.

The good news is that you’re not alone on this journey.  Rick Wolcott, our Conference Communications Director, is a great resource.  Before joining the Conference staff in the fall he was the Assignment Editor for Fox 8 in Cleveland.  The Assignment Editor is the guy who decides what stories are going to be covered.  Trust me, if what you’re doing can make the news Rick can tell you how to make that happen.  And he’s also a pretty good guy to work with.

During lent folks in your community are going to decide if Easter is only going to be about chocolate and eggs or if they are actually going to include God in the celebration.  As part of that decision let’s have them think of your church as the place where good things happen, where people are helped more than they are judged.   If they’re willing to darken the door of a church, give them a reason to make that door one of yours.

Let’s put a good face on Christianity this spring and see if it helps us make new disciples.  I have a real feeling it will.

Stewardship Lessons from the Orthodontist

When I was growing up you didn’t get braces until your teeth had all come in.  But today the approach is to do braces much younger, often at age 8 or so.  That way they come in straight rather than trying to correct them later. 

Many churches equate stewardship with dentistry (getting our members to give is like pulling teeth) but maybe that’s because we don’t take our lead from the orthodontist. 

But View from the Pew research shows that Christian adults who tithe a full ten percent of their income learned that lesson early.  More than one in four (27%) started as a child or teen and and a third (33%) started in their 20s.   By age 30, 60% of those who are now tithing had already started to do so.  They give generously and sacrificially as adults because they were taught to do so early in life.

But in my stewardship work I have seen that these groups are often given a “free pass” when it comes to stewardship.  We don’t want to turn them off.  We don’t want to make church all about money.  We want them to come to church and feel comfortable, they’ll give when they are ready.

But, according to this study, we have already missed that window with 60% of those who may tithe. 

Folks, we’re shooting ourselves in the foot.

At age 5 your young charges may not be ready to hear about sacrificial giving.  But they will understand that a collection is taken every week during Sunday School.  Or they may understand that during the children’s sermon money put in the jar is used to buy nets so kids in Africa don’t die from being bitten by a mosquito.

How about your confirmation process?  As you talk about church membership is there the expectation that these youngest members of your church will support it financially?

If you look at middle class suburbs you would probably find that the group with the greatest discretionary income is empty nesters.  But I bet teenagers aren’t all that far behind. 

Do you know who the youngest self-made millionaires are in the history of America?  It’s not a teen-aged computer prodigy with a dot com fortune.  It’s Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen, who starred in Full House as infants and went on to rule the elementary school book and video industry.

OK, so you don’t have the Olsens attending your church but the depth of the pockets in your youth room are deeper than you give them credit for.

In 2004 Magazine Publishers of America’s research showed that by age 16 and 17 teens have nearly $4,500 in discretionary income a year.   If they were to tithe, their $450 annual support of the church would exceed many adults in your congregation.

In my stewardship work I talk with many adults who say they truly want to tithe but the combination of family expenses, consumer debt, unsure job situations and other “grown up” issues make it, in their eyes, impossible to do so.  But most teens don’t have these kinds of financial issues, so I believe that now really is the time to get them started on tithing.

If we wait until they’re 30, the window has closed for nearly two-thirds of future tithers.

So how do we make this happen?

  1. Set the expectation.  The United Methodist church doesn’t have classes or categories of members, teenagers aren’t student members or associate members.  They’re real, live members.  As such they should be part of the fall stewardship campaign and should certainly receive envelopes and other appeals as other members of the church do.
  2. Set a goal for them.  Have your youth group or youth Sunday School class set a financial goal for the year.  You’ve heard me talk about how people don’t get excited about supporting the copier contract or the pastor’s health care expenses, but what if you challenged them to cover a chunk of the district apportionments that go to missions or enough to cover all of the expenses of the children’s education program.
  3. Give them a leadership role.  While you may not want to turn the finance committee over to a bunch of teenagers (or maybe you do), give them a job to do.  If you’re participating in the Five Star Stewardship Program, put them in charge of item 2G, the mission project for children and youth.
  4. Invite them to give in bites they can connect with.   Some kids may buy into the tithe but for others ask them to give the equivalent of a movie ticket and popcorn every month or the cost of a Starbucks every week.  At Christmas ask them to take the ten gift cards they receive and donate one of them to a shelter.
  5. Don’t let them be self-centered, but I know this is tough for teenagers.  Many youth groups raise more money than they give.  (By the way I have no problem with that.  If the whole congregation did as much mission work as the youth, our United Methodist movement would be a whole lot stronger, but that’s a sermon for another day.)  They often have needs for the youth mission trip or the retreat at Wanake.  Make sure they’re raising money for the church and not just for their own purposes.  Sacrificial giving really isn’t sacrificial if it all comes back to you, is it?

Let’s get children and youth started on the right foot rather than waiting until they’re in the their 30s and try to shift their giving after their philanthropic teeth are already set.

Year Round Stewardship Made Easy

There is no doubt that church committee work is cyclical and this is absolutely true for Stewardship Committees.  After Labor Day they start to get organized, are busy in October and November, are done by Thanksgiving or so and are back to sleep before the Christmas decorations are put away.

Afterall, there is really nothing to be done stewardship-wise the rest of the year, right?.

Of course there is.

To help guide you the rest of the year the Foundation has developed the Five Star Stewardship Award.  The program has 17 activities, ranging from having a stewardship campaign to developing a narrative budget to having the children and youth take on a fund raising project for missions.

Some activities are required, having a campaign and a budget, for instance while others are optional. 

Each activity has a point value, and any church earning 150 points earns Five Star recognition.  For you over achievers out there (and you know who you are) the church with the most points in each district will be recognized as a Gold Star church.  And Five Diamond status will go to the church in the Conference with the most points.  The Foundation will make a matching gift to a mission project supported by it.  There are almost 800 churches in the Conference, so earning this recognition will require a significant commitment.

But the point here really isn’t to earn points.  It is designed to lift up 17 possible things your stewardship committee can be doing  to strengthen the church.

Regular readers of this blog will not be surprised to know that many of the activities are based in three areas that I think are important:  missions, financial transparency, and talking about money.

Each church in the Conference will receive a complete packet in the mail this week, but if you just can’t wait, you can download the Program Description, the Tally Sheet and even a Spreadsheet to help you evaluate your past success.

As of two weeks ago I am once again chairing my church’s Stewardship Committee and I know that this program will be a centerpiece of our activities for the year.  I hope it is for you as well.

The role of your members reversed

Last summer I had the chance to hear some of the most insightful leaders who are thinking about United Methodism.  One of them was Reverend Gil Rendle.

Rev. Rendle worked his career as a pastor and is now on the staff at the Texas Methodist Foundation.  I hung on every word he said for his entire hour presentation but I was really shaken by one simple observation.

He pointed out that the mission of the United Methodist Church is to make and mature disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.  The mission, he says, is not to make happy congregations. 

In manufacturing parlance, too often our congregations believe that they are the end product, the widget rolling off of the assembly line at the end of the factory.  Does anyone you know think the purpose of the church is to meet their needs, to make them happy?

Rev. Rendle says the congregation is not the end product, they are a tool in the process.  The end product is the new visitor, the people who join by profession of faith, the unchurched who become rechurched, the poor who are fed, the lonely and sick who are comforted. 

This does not mean your members should be ignored.  It is a foolish factory owner who doesn’t take the time and resources to maintain his equipment, oiling joints and sharpening blades.  But the purpose of Ford is not to have cool robots.  The purpose of Ford is to make cars.

Imagine if Ford reported to its shareholders how much time it spent on equipment maintenance but never got around to making cars. 

But we in the church spend time talking about how we care for and inspire our own, but a third of our churches haven’t had a single profession of faith in years.

Imagine if Ford hadn’t made a single car in years.

I encourage you to pick up Rendle’s book,  Journey in the Wilderness:  New Life for Mainline Churches.  It isn’t a particularly easy read and the graphic layout (or lack thereof) doesn’t help.  But it is a very direct, left-brained look at how we can make our churches relevant and strong again.

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