Get your vision checked in 2011

Most of us are thinking about our plans for 2011.  I suggest that your resolution for this year is to develop a plan for next year.  By next year I mean 2012.

Yep, I’m giving you an entire year to procrastinate on a resolution. 

I encourage you to have a vision and a set of goals in place by the end of 2011.  So the good news is that you have a year.  The bad news is that if you do it right it could easily take a year.

Reverend Dirk Elliott from the Conference Staff recommends Making Vision Stick by Reverend Andy Stanley.  Rev. Stanley has several books out on church vision and I recommend them all, but in this book he really talks about getting your vision to push down from the church leaders to all the folks in the pew.  He says there are three ways to make vision stick, to make you a leader worth following: 1. Cast vision strategically. 2. Celebrate vision systematically. 3. Live your vision continuously.

A good vision should percolate up from the bottom, develop from the congregation with some guidance from church leaders.  The leaders should have a process of formalizing and prioritizing what has been offered then the vision should flow back down so that everyone is on board with it.

A good vision can do many things for your church.  It can create excitement, it can invite folks on the fringe to participate in the planning and dreaming for the church, it can create a sense of purpose for a very comfortable but ineffective congregation, and most importantly it is a blueprint for how your church will be about the business of making and maturing disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.

Along the way those warm fuzzies are likely to translate into real things, like increased attendance and financial support.  And it might give those busy bodies in your brood a more positive way to expend their church energies.

Get your key church leaders together and begin your dreams for the church.  But don’t wait too long, you only have 52 more weeks to get it done.

A New Year’s Wish

A New Year’s Prayer

May God make your year a happy one!

Not by shielding you from all sorrows and pain, But by strengthening you to bear it, as it comes;

Not by making your path easy, But by making you sturdy to travel any path;

Not by taking hardships from you, But by taking fear from your heart;

Not by granting you unbroken sunshine, But by keeping your face bright, even in the shadows;

Not by making your life always pleasant, But by showing you when people and their causes need you most, and by making you anxious to be there to help.

Tax law update

I had planned to take most of Advent off from writing this blog, but since I have all of my shopping done I thought I’d update you on the recent tax changes signed by the President.

I think the biggest Christmas gift we were given was an extension of the IRA Rollover.

For most people their IRAs are their single largest pockets of cash they have.  As a quick review I will remind you that while you are working you are not taxed on the money you put into your IRA, but when you withdraw it, you are taxed.  And just to make sure Uncle Sam gets paid, people over age 70 1/2 are required to take some of it out every year, the required minimum annual distribution.

The IRA rollover allows your members to make a gift out of their IRA to give it to the church (or other qualified charity) and not pay tax on it.  And this transfer counts toward the required minimum annual distribution.

But wait it gets better.  If they do a charitable distribution before January 31 of 2011 the IRS will pretend that it happened in 2010.

The IRA rollover first came into being after Hurricane Katrina and Congress has turned it on and off every two years ever since.  The current incarnation is in effect only until the end of 2011.

There is, of course, small print but it’s not too bad.  The check must be written directly from your plan administrator to the charity and while those with Roth IRAs will be able to participate there will not be the same tax advantages.  Each individual can give up to $100,000 per year to charity pe year.

So what does this mean?

  • It means that even people who don’t itemize on their taxes (and the vast majority of your retired members do not) still get tax benefits for making a gift;
  • The dreaded annual distribution that people have to take even if they don’t want or need to withdraw the money can be accomplished in a way that does not make them have to pay taxes;
  • For the next 54 weeks your older members have a great way to pay their annual pledge, capital campaign gift or even make a gift to your endowment fund;
  • This opens the door to have a conversation even with people whose last names are not Gates or Rockefeller about tax-wise giving to support the mission of the church.

Right after the first of the year the Foundation will have bulletin inserts and other information you can use to share this news with your members.

This is a great opportunity for your members and I hope you will help them take advantage of it.

A little twist on Advent

Advent, of course, is the time before Christmas.  It is the process of building toward Christmas Eve and, of course, Christmas morning.  The problem is that once December 26 has come, it’s over.

Adam Hamilton, who regular readers to this blog know I respect greatly, uses Christmas as a lead-in to January.  In his book Unleashing the Word: Preaching With Relevance, Purpose, and Passion, Hamilton explains his strategy for the Advent Season.  Each January he presents a sermon series designed specifically to attract those who are “unchurched.”  That series is heavily promoted in the weeks before Christmas and especially at Christmas Eve. 

He figures that if they get themselves to church on Christmas Eve, they may have a need that the church can fill in January.

As you probably know, Hamilton’s Church of the Resurrection is just 20 years old, but is the largest United Methodist Church anywhere in the world other than Korea.

There’s a chance he knows what he’s talking about.

How are you going to use the larger-than average crowd on Christmas Eve and other times this season to reach the unchurched?  

Give them an excuse to come back after the first of the year.  It may be a sermon series that attracts them, or it may be an outreach, such as a Good $ense personal finance program or the launch of a single parent program.

Pay attention to all of the messages visitors get from you.  Make sure they don’t see “No Kids Sunday School This Week” signs when they come in the door.  Have your warmest greeters on duty.  Make sure the restrooms are clean and well-stocked.

Is there room for visitors at Christmas Eve?  One of the great benefits of being in the choir is they arrive in time to grab all of the good parking places, while visitors may be left parking in the back 40, leaving them a slightly longer trek than the Magi endured.  Encourage your healthy members to practice the Ministry of the Parking Place by leaving the best spaces available for visitors.  And a couple of volunteers in reflective vests can help people feel welcome as soon as they enter the parking lot.

Church growth experts will tell you that if a visitor pulls into a parking lot or walks into a sanctuary that is 80 percent full, he may feel there is no room for him, so do what you can to make him feel welcome.

How seriously does the Church of the Resurrection take this approach?  They actually ask their members to not attend church on Christmas Eve, encouraging them to come to a “Christmas Eve” service on the 23rd, and leaving parking places and seats for visitors the following night.  Unfortunately few of our churches face such a crisis of elbow room, but it is worth the mention.

And since this is supposed to be a stewardship blog, I’ll refer you to a piece  I wrote about the Easter Offering and the message that it sends.  Go back and give this another read.  The message works just as well for Christmas Eve.

If Jesus really is the reason for the season, we should remind our visitors that the reason continues well after the season is over.

Let’s all learn from each other

By now I’m fairly sure that everyone who is doing a fall stewardship campaign has completed it.

So give us all some feedback on what you did and how you did.  If you scroll down a bit, just above the big orange signs it says “Leave a comment” in red letters.  Or you can email me your feedback and I can repost them but I’ll do anonymously.  Of course if you’d like to bask in the success of your campaign let me know and I’ll be glad to include your name!

Feel free to answer some or all of the following or something else completely.

How did you do?

What were your victories?  Your struggles?  Your defeats?

What campaign structure did you use?  What did you like about it?  What did you not like so much about it?

What creative bits did you try, did they go over?

Are you seeing any indication that your congregation seems to believe the recession is easing?

What did you think about trying but didn’t get around to it or have the nerve?

Did you do the analysis I suggested?  What surprised you?

What rewarding or disturbing conversations did you have through the stewardship process?

Did anything you learned from this blog help (or hurt) your campaign?

What do you need to accomplish in your congregation before next year’s campaign?

I do hope it was a fruitful and spirit-filled time for your church, let’s work together to help strengthen next year’s effort.

Ignoring big orange signs?

My neighborhood at home is off of a state route that is under major construction.  Just south of our street the road is closed.  Really, really closed.  So closed that the concrete is gone and the dirt is showing.  They don’t get more closed than that.

This fact is announced in several signs before you get to our street.  The first sign is some two miles north and nearly blocks the road.  Just past the fire station there is another barricade blocking the road.   If you ignore all of these signs a series of barrels routes you right into our neighborhood.

Last Saturday I was doing yard work and watched dozens of cars turn around in my driveway.  Apparently they thought the State of Ohio was kidding when it erected all of those big, bright, orange signs and figured the road wasn’t really closed.

As a result, what could have been a fairly simple course correction two miles north results in a much longer detour and a far higher level of frustration.

As you prepared your reports for Church Conference, what big, bright orange signs did you see?  What are your people trends?  How are you doing in terms of members, professions of faith and attendance?  Reverend Orlando Chaffee, Superintendent of the North Coast District, is fond of interpreting these numbers as where you’ve been, where you’re going and where you are, respectively.

What are your financial trends?  Graph your total pledge dollars, the total offerings received, shortfalls made up with endowment or other reserves.  When you account for inflation is your budget growing or stagnant?  How much are you spending on caring for your own flock as opposed to missions and outreach?  Are you paying your apportionments?  If not, are you paying more than you have been or less?

Then move away from the numbers.  Are your committees healthy and a tool for growth or a hinderance?  Does your kitchen committee support using the facility for Kingdom Work or get it the way of it?  How is the physical appearance of your building?  Are visitors greeted with a dingy appearance, worn out carpeting or signs taped to the door saying that Children’s Sunday School is cancelled this week?  Do you have passionate worship or does it suck the energy out of your congregation like a Browns’ fumble during overtime?  Does the calendar on your church website seem to think it is still June of 2007?

With all due respect to Reverend Chaffee I can tell you that our church conference was little more than a rubber stamp of the budget and the pastor’s salary.  Dig down into these reports with your church leaders and do the same when you compile the statistical reports you submit to the Treasurer’s Office in January.

Don’t ignore the looming orange barricades, dig deep now, find them and make a simple course correction before your church ends up on a side street, watching some guy rake his leaves.

We are all called to action

I don’t know if you know it or not, but our denomination is in trouble.  Deep trouble.

You’ve seen or heard the numbers.  Attendance is down, churches are closing, debt is up.

So what are we supposed to do?

A group of church leaders met throughout this past year to figure that out.  Our own Bishop Hopkins and Bishop Palmer were part of the group, as were other Bishops, lay persons, experts in a number of areas.

I encourage you read their final report.  It’s known as the Call to Action Report and you’ll find it here.  Give it a read.  It should only take you an hour or two.  In fact I recommend you distribute it to the key leaders in your church.

Here’s the bottom line.  They tell us we have to get focused on one thing:  making and maturing disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.  In United Methodist non-jargon, that means go get new members and involve them in your church.

In doing the research the committee not only talked to people (we’re good at that) but they also crunched a whole lot of numbers.  They defined vital churches as those with strong attendance, growth and engagement.  For you small church folk who are always being picked on for being small, rejoice, the report indicates that as long as your are growing, you can be vital.

Out of the 32,000 churches they crunched, just 15% were deemed “highly vital” by the group.  That’s just one in seven.

Is your church one of the one in seven?  Or are you in the majority?

The report points to four key factors in a church being “highly vital.” 

  • Effective pastoral leadership including aspects of management, visioning and inspiration
  • Multiple small groups and programs for children and youth
  • Mix of traditional and contemporary worship services
  • High percentage of spiritually engaged laity who assume leadership roles

For you lay people who want to blame your pastor for your troubles, you have an agreement from the study.  But the bad news is that if the pastor wants to blame the lay leadership, she also has that agreement.    Clearly the entire church needs to work together to get this done.

And in my mind the key is that the Call to Action challenges us to put all of the petty stuff aside.  Do you not have an afterschool youth program because the trustees fear they will have to repaint the fellowship hall more often?  Is your worship stuck in the 50s because your worship committee doesn’t like contemporary music?  Does your congregation welcome all visitors, as long as they look like, act like and smell like the current members?

It’s time to put all of those things aside and get serious about growing the church.

Not only is the denomination called to action but every single local church is as well.  Are you going to answer that call, or will you let it go to voice mail because your church is too busy with the status quo?

Distribute the report to your leaders, then spend the first quarter of 2011 doing several things:

  • Determine if your church is highly vital
  • If not, what is keeping it from being vital?  This will get sticky and I insist you participate in holy conferencing, but as they say in Alcoholics Anonymous, the first step is to admit you have a problem
  • What changes can you make immediately to help become vital?
  • What changes will take a year, three years, five years?  How can you make these things happen?

We really are called to action.  Please pick up the phone.

Following up on electronic giving

Wow, what a great response to last week’s post about electronic giving!  It was the most-read entry we’ve had in 12 weeks!

One church member told me that his church does nearly all of its “transactions” with members electronically.  These are things other than the offering, like registering for VBS.  And the biggest fan is the youth director who no longer has to keep track of checks when his group meets in the parking lot before a retreat.  On the permission slip the parent simply checks that the electronic payment has been made and the date.

Another pastor told me that in his congregation of about 200 they have 15 or so regular electronic donors representing well more than half of the total dollars. 

A testimony at my own church said that because the church is paid automatically the day his paycheck is deposited he really does feel he is giving “first fruits” rather than paying his bills and seeing what is left on Sunday for the church.

Vanco, the service in relationship with the United Methodist Church, charges 25 cents per transaction.  Someone pointed out that his church pays more than that per month for envelopes for each giving unit, so if someone signs up for automatic payment they can cancel the envelopes and actually save money with electronic giving.

No one offered my any negative feedback about electronic giving.  Not everyone does it, but those who do are sold on the idea.  Now when is the last time ANYTHING was universally liked in the United Methodist Church? 

This seems like a great New Year’s resolution for your church.

Entering the 21st Century

A couple of weeks ago I reposted an article I did for the Joining Hands Magazine about electronic giving.  Thanks for all of the positive feedback and I wanted to answer for all of you the question I got most often, “How do I do it?”

The good news is that it’s easier and cheaper than you think it is.

You have two options.  Your member can go to her bank’s website and set up an automatic bill pay.  The bank would then most likely mail you a physical check in that member’s name for the amount and the frequency she chooses.  The good news is that this is a free service for both you and the member.

The other option is to hang an affiliated website off of your own website.  This would be a button on your church’s webpage that takes a member to a secure site that would allow them to enter this same information.  This third party would automatically debit the member’s checking or savings account and electronically transfer the funds into your checking account.  This is known as Electronic Funds Transfer (EFT).

The United Methodist General Council on Finance and Administration has established a preferred vendor relationship with Vanco Services.  Vanco will set up this web page service free of charge and charge $25 per month to host it.  So if no one ever uses the service you’re only out $300 for a year. 

And for each member who uses the service it costs 50 cents to authorize that user (a one-time charge per user) then 25 cents for every transaction.  So a member who uses this service monthly would cost you 50 cents to get started then $3 for the year.  If they give twice a month, it would cost you $6 for the year.

Credit cards, including debit cards, are more expensive.  There is the same 50 cent registration fee (one time) but add on a 45 cent transaction fee plus 2.75% of each transaction.  If you don’t want to accept credit cards you can just go with the EFT option.

We’ve talked about the costs, but what are the benefits?

One of the big ones is stabilizing your cash flow.  There aren’t many churches whose offerings are as big in July as they are in October.  The old adage that you can’t put it in the plate ’til you plop it in the pew means that giving declines during the summer and even in bad winter weather in Ohio.  Automatic EFTs help even out those giving curves.

How about your members who go to Florida for the winter or even go on vacation for a week or two?  Does their giving go with them?  And do they make up those lost offerings? 

Do your members always have their checkbooks with them?  Do your twenty-something members even know where their check books are?  This is how more of our members of all ages are paying bills, let’s meet them where they are and make it easy for them to be “paying customers” of the church.

And don’t think just in terms of your annual stewardship giving.  Use it for capital campaign payments, Christmas Eve or Easter special offerings,  registration for Vacation Bible School or buying tickets for the spaghetti dinner

If you really want to make your financial secretary happy, the report from Vanco may dump directly into your church management software, depending on which program you use.  You will no longer need to enter each gift individually.

Are you unsure about the reliability and safety of a service like Vanco?  You’re already using it.  It’s the service the Conference uses for shared missions (apportionment) collection as well as clergy health insurance premiums.

I realize that churches don’t always move fast when such things are involved, but I encourage you to have these conversations and move forward, by the first of the year ideally.

If you have questions see the Vanco information online or contact Jan Palmer, the sales rep at Vanco who handles the United Methodist churches.

The campaign has passed, but it’s not over

By now your fall stewardship campaign may be over, for others that time is still a month or so away.

Whatever your timeline, keep in mind that the day after your commitment Sunday does not indicate the end of the campaign. There is still work to be done.

I strongly urge you to contact each person in your congregation who has not yet returned a pledge card and encourage them to do so.

Does that seem prickly to you? I hope not. I think it is great congregational care.

First, let’s get something straight. The script for that phone call should not be “Hey, knucklehead.  Yesterday was Commitment Sunday and you didn’t turn in your card, what’s your problem?”

Instead, let’s go with a more Christian approach. “Hi, this is Bob at the church, sure is a nice day out, isn’t it? (if it’s raining you may want to amend the last part of that sentence.) I didn’t see you in church on Sunday, I hope everything is OK. (you’ll notice we don’t ask why they weren’t in church). We’re going through the commitment cards that were turned in and don’t seem to have one from you, should we put a new one in the mail to you, or if you’d prefer I could just fill one out for you now and put it in the pile.”

The first thing your committee needs to understand is the most important part of this whole process is in the middle of the conversation. Asking if everything is OK isn’t just a formality, it’s time to pause and listen. This may be the time you hear that she hasn’t been feeling well and can’t get out or the neighbor who used to provide a ride can’t do that anymore. These thoughts should be carefully recorded and passed along to the pastor and prayer team, with the member’s permission, of course.

They should also keep their ears open to other indications such as unhappiness with the pastor or other things that may have changed that person’s relationship with the church. Again, this is important feedback that should not be treated as top-secret.

Of course if the answer is that they had tickets to the Ohio State game the day before or that was the day they took their boat out of the water then it’s a different situation, isn’t it?

You will get additional information at the end when you ask about the commitment. You may get a vague “send me a card and I’ll mail it in” which is fine. But you may also hear that “money is tight since my job was cut to part-time” or “Bob’s medical bills have us in a real pickle.”

In classic sales training we would train your committee to overcome these objections with a “I’m sorry to hear that, but the church still needs your support, can we at least count on you to maintain last year’s pledge?” This may work when you’re selling aluminum siding but I wouldn’t recommend it for church stewardship work.

I suggest the committee member acknowledge what they said and offer compassion and understanding. This will, of course, depend largely on the relationship between the two of them. Give your committee permission to respond with a heartfelt “Then this is really no time to worry about your pledge. I’m sorry about your job and you’ll be in my prayers. I hope to see you in church real soon.” Then he should write “no pledge at this time” on that person’s card and turn it in. That way you’ll know that no more follow-up by the stewardship committee is necessary.

We need to remember that the offering is not the cost of admission to the church. A member who has supported the church in the past will continue to do so as they are able. Reaching out in both the context of the campaign and pastoral care can be an important of the church’s work with that member.

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