Give your budget a twist

The nice thing about the church is that no matter how incredibly boring the sermon may be, it’s still more exciting than reading the budget.

Let’s change that.  The budget, I mean, you’re on your own with the sermon.

While a line item budget is a necessary tool for fiscal management it really tells a lousy story about how the church is spending its money.  As you move through the budgeting process (oh PLEASE tell me you have a budgeting process) work on a second version, a narrative budget.

The narrative need not be a great deal of work, but once complete it can be a real help.

Divide all of your expenses into a few broad categories:  worship, outreach, discipling and administration.  Sunday School expenses, for instance, will all go into discipling, while the cost of altar candles and communion supplies will go into worship.

After that it get a little more complicated.   While some in your congregation believe the pastor only works during worship, his or salary will probably be divided over most or all of the categories.  A music director will mostly be in worship but 10% of the time may be spent with the children’s music program, which should be attributed to discipleship. 

The same should be true of your facility costs.  How much of your building is worship space and how much is classrooms?  Is your building used during the week for a tutoring program, scout meetings or serving meals to the hungry?  Use these ratios to determine not only mortgage expenses, but also utility costs, janitorial expenses and your building insurance.

I won’t give you a formula to use, each church will allocate its expenses a bit differently, depending on things like the focus of the church, staffing patterns and where and how volunteers and donated items and services fit in.

Are you overwhelmed yet?  I know it sounds like an awful lot of work, but it should probably take less than hour.  If you are doing your budget on an Excel spread sheet, just add a few more columns to the right, one for each of our narrative categories.  Then for each line item expense decide what percentage should go into each category.  Have it add it up at the bottom and you’re good to go.

And don’t get too wound up on the details.  While you need to do this with some integrity most people won’t care if the pastor’s time allotted to worship is 46% or 49%.

Then take a step back.  If 95% of your expenses are spent on worship, you’re probably not taking outreach and discipling as seriously as other churches.

When people give money away they want to know where it is going.  A narrative budget will help them understand how their tithes and offerings are being used for Kingdom work.

Bridging the gap between generations

The good people in the Conference Communications Office asked me to contribute to the fall edition of Joining Hands Magazine. This issue deals with bridging the gap between generations and below are my thoughts. If you haven’t read it yet  or don’t receive a subscription you can read it on-line.

In response to the earthquake in Haiti, the American Red Cross invited people to send a text that would result in a $10 donation to help their relief efforts.  More than $33 million was raised this way from 3.2 million individual donors.  At one point, 900 such gifts were made in a single second.

Unfortunately the church is not as adept to change as the Red Cross.  I would bet that if you looked back to the stewardship program of your church 50 years ago, it would look very familiar.  Every October or November you ask your members to make a financial commitment to support the church for the following year.  You may mention tithing but not really expect most of your members to do so.  You have the same pledge cards, the same offering envelopes sized to hold cash or checks and ushers passing the plate each Sunday.

Can you imagine if the Red Cross still did business the way they did 50 years ago?

We have already recognized that “church” needs to bridge the gap to be relevant these days.  The music has changed, we are more accepting of a casual dress code and we may even see a Starbucks cup during worship.   If we are to ask younger generations to support the church, stewardship needs to make changes as well.

Younger people are less likely to want to support the institution of the church.  They don’t care about the copier contract or the pastor’s health insurance costs.  They want to invest in what they deem to be important: changing lives.  Show them how their financial contributions help feed the hungry, clothe the poor and comfort the afflicted.  Stop hiding shared mission funding and lift up the work the church is doing in the area and around the world.

Make giving possible for a generation that rarely carries cash or a checkbook.  Are you set up to receive electronic transfers either one time or regularly every month?  Can a member stop by the church office after worship to swipe a debit card to pay a special offering or even register a child for Vacation Bible School?

Talk about money all year.  The old stewardship model assumed that the person in the pew in August had been there the previous November to hear the stewardship sermon.  How do you respond year-round to not only new members but also new attendees who may never join?

And finally, be transparent.  Finances that are open and available to all people suggest good management and wise stewardship of your resources.  Do you have a narrative budget that shows how much of that copier contract supports missions and that utility expenses are actually costs to feed the hungry?  Keep this information available and easy to find on your website.

Businesses have learned they need to make it easy for us to be their customers.  How hard is it for someone to be a paying “customer” at your church?

Let’s Celebrate Stewardship, no seriously, I mean it

Churches in Africa do things a bit differently. From what I understand the offering is a time for great joy, as congregants celebrate that they have something to contribute. In remote areas where food and water are a daily struggle, having a li’l something extra to share is truly something special.

We don’t really do it that way, do we? Usually we have stern-faced ushers pass a plate through the pews. We put our offering envelopes in face down and pass it along, usually without eye contact with the people next to us. Next week in the bulletin we read how much less the church took in than was “needed” when the annual budget is divided by 52.

Woo hoo. Sure makes you want to give more, doesn’t it?

What if we did things a bit differently? I’m not suggesting that your congregation dance down the aisle and enthusiastically place their gift on the altar (but boy wouldn’t that be fun to watch?). But what if as part of consecrating the offering you remind your people that in today’s offering is money to make sure that a widow at Wesleyan Senior Living in Elyria will be able to keep her modest apartment even though she has outlived her financial resources?

That may not be dance-worthy (I mean c’mon, we’re Methodists for cryin’ out loud) but it may be put some pep, energy and enthusiasm into the middle of your worship service.

And how can you translate this into your pledge process this fall? Putting the card in the plate is good. Placing the card on the altar is better. What’s the music at this time? How is the altar decorated? Is the pastor’s message immediately before one of celebration or is it as dry as a jar of Tang with basic instructions “to proceed down the center aisle and return by way of the side aisle.” Any chance the pastor could smile at this point?

Is the organist playing “Here I am Lord” in her best dirge style? How about “Lord of the Dance” or something from the contemporary worship side that actually inspires people to move a bit. Heck, they might even clap once or twice.

Have you ever watched kids on the playground when their parents are around? How does a skinned knee victim respond to an overprotective mother who is instantly worried and whips out a bottle of Bactine and a Band Aid big enough to hermetically seal the entire leg? There are fewer tears when a dad beams with pride and congratulates the child on “an awesome wipe out” and encourages another trip up the sliding board.

If we treat money in the church with great enthusiasm and joy, this is how people will give. If it’s closer to facing a firing squad, they will give that way as well.

Put away the Bactine and Band Aids. Make giving to the church something your members actually enjoy.

Not all of your eggs go in the same basket

One of the key tasks in any stewardship campaign is writing The Letter. Sometimes The Letter is written by the committee, but usually by the pastor. Hours are spent wordsmithing, proof reading, getting a fresh pair of eyes on it to make sure nothing was skipped or could be misinterpreted.

This year I encourage you not to write The Letter.

Instead, write The Letters. yep. plural. Did I just ruin your day?

Think about the message you usually put into The Letter. Hopefully you talk about what the church accomplished this year and what you want to accomplish next year. You appeal to the left brains and the right brains. Your biblically-based theme is integral to the tone of the letter and not just stapled on as an afterthought.

Then it comes to The Ask. “This year, can Wesbury United Methodist Church count on you to…..” That’s when it gets tough because you’re really asking different segments of your church to do different things.

To your tithers and over-tithers we should be asking them to continue their generous support, thanking them for making the church a priority in their lives and being critical to the ministry’s success.

To most of your members you are asking them to increase their giving. Herb Miller’s Consecration Sunday invites members to take a step up in their giving, either in terms of a dollar figure or determine the percentage of income they are currently giving and increasing it, such as going from 2% to 3%.

I’m sure you have active folks in your congregation who give to the church but do not pledge. I’m more OK with this practice than your Finance Committee is likely to be. Invite them to indicate their pledge but remind them that it can be changed down the road, simply by contacting the church office.

If many of these folks are under age 35 I suggest strongly that you not ask them to make a commitment just so the budget can be determined. There’s a good chance they don’t have a budget at home and probably don’t care if the bean counters on the Finance Committee have their pledge or not (those aren’t my words, I love bean counters). Instead, suggest that they consider their entire commitment to the church, in terms of worship attendance, volunteer service, and finances.

The toughest can be the never givers. The folks who show up somewhat regularly, may or may not be members and if they do give, they do so with cash and you don’t have a record of their giving. This group, while it may represent very few dollars, will take some time and care. The barely-employed single mother needs a different message than someone who seems to have more discretionary income. Invite this group to support a specific cause this year, such as a mission project or special effort to update Sunday School curriculum.

You may also choose to do a different letter for youth, for first year members, or other similar groups as well.

Most of The Letter will be the same for all of these groups. Just amend the last paragraph, where you make the ask. Does it really make sense to say to a never giver “we appreciate your generous support and hope we can count on it again this year?”

And please, if at all possible, personalize the letters. Does opening the letter with “Dear Valued Member of our Congregation” really send the message that they are valued? I don’t think so. I also encourage the letters to be signed individually in blue ink. It really takes less than an hour to sign hundreds of letters and research shows that this touch can make a difference. And as you individually sign a stack of letters with inside addresses it is very easy to jot a quick note at the bottom in the interest of pastoral care.

A more focused ask will make it very clear to your members what is hoped or expected of them, and make them more likely to move ahead in this area of their discipleship.

PS, I’d be happy to read over a draft of your version of The Letter(s). Just email it to me and include “The Letter” in the subject line.

What should you ask for?

The old adage goes that you should be careful what you ask for, you just might get it.  In stewardship I believe there is a corollary, ask for what you want, there’s a good chance you’ll get it.

Which raises the obvious question, what is it we should be asking for?

I will tell you that the first step is to ask for something, anything, just ask.  Only about 40% of protestant churches have an intentional stewardship campaign.  This means they’re asking for nothing. I wonder how many are surprised or disappointed when this is exactly what they get.

About 15 years ago Dean Hoge published Money Matters:  Personal Giving in American Churches.  His research for the book divided churches into three different groups based on their culture of asking for money.

One group did not ask for a pledge from its members.  The second group asked for a dollar commitment.  The third asked what percentage of income a member would be giving in the following year.

Care to guess which one had the highest giving rate?  Go ahead, take a shot, I’ll wait.

Those that had no annual stewardship campaign received, on average, a gift equalling 1.5% of a donor’s income.

The churches that asked for a dollar commitment nearly doubled that figure at 2.9%.

And the churches that asked for a percentage commitment received 4.6%.

According to Uncle Sam the average household income for a family of four in Ohio is about $68,000.  So, which would you rather receive from that family?  To make it easier, this one will be multiple choice:

  1. $1,020 with no commitment card
  2. $1,972 asking for a dollar figure
  3. $3,128 asking for a percentage gift

For those of you would rather stay at $1,020, you just go right ahead and continue to not have a stewardship campaign.

Now, does this mean that all you have to do this year is switch from no campaign mode to percentage mode and your income will triple next year?  Probably not (but go ahead, give it a shot and prove me wrong, I double dog dare you).  I think what it means is that a church that is comfortable talking about money, lifts up tithing as an expectation and is clear about the church’s needs does better than a church where members who are embarrassed about their giving have convinced others to keep the subject quiet.

Now those of you who read this as members of your Finance Committee are beginning to twitch at the idea of receiving a bunch of pledge cards with a percentage number and no actual dollar figures.  Relax, it’s OK.

I suggest one of two ways to combat this. 

The first is to have a line on the pledge card that reads, “I pledge  _____% of my annual income, which I estimate to be $_____________. ”  But this may leave some squeamish about telling the church what their annual income is after a simple calculation.

Another alternative is to have a chart in your stewardship materials.  One axis of the chart lists 1%, 1.5%, 2%, 2.5% all the way up to 15%.  On the other axis indicate annual income in $5,000 or $10,000 increments.  Your members find the corresponding cell in the chart and write in this amount as their pledge.  When you do this, make sure the income side goes down low enough and up high enough to reach your entire congregation.

Will some members skip this step and write in the same thing they gave last year?  You betcha.  Will this make some members angry?  Come on, this is the church, anything we do makes someone angry. 

But it will also help to turn around that culture of giving.

And I’ll let you in on another secret.  When the economy is bad and people are worried about their jobs is the perfect time to talk about percentage giving.  Because if income does drop, your congregant can lower his giving to the church and still be faithful to his pledge.  I think this can be a great “we’re in this together message” for your members.

Yes, you have to do stewardship

Imagine a pastor preaching at his new church the first Sunday in July.  The bulletin has the unison invocation written out word for word.  At one point he prays for the sick and needy, for the missionaries, for the leaders of the church and then leads the congregation in the Lord’s Prayer.  After the closing hymn he offers the benediction.

The next morning, his lay leader calls him on the phone.  “I know that a lot of churches do that praying thing, but we don’t do that at this church.  We used to, but it offended a lot of people, so we’ve just decided that it’s not right for us.  You can pray all you want at your next church, but we would all feel more comfortable if you didn’t do that anymore at ours.”

Few of us would expect the pastor to simply agree and promise to never have prayer again in worship.  In fact, the example is ludicrous.

But how many pastors have agreed to do exactly this when it comes to stewardship?  Not that I’m biased or anything, but I find this almost as ludicrous.

If you have ever asked What Would Jesus Do?  The answer is talk about money.  It was his favorite topic.

In the church we have let a vocal minority decide whether or not we are allowed to talk about one of the most prominent topics in the Gospels. 

And that needs to stop this year.

The culture of money in the church is dictated largely by people who are embarrassed about their giving, people who don’t want to give, and people whose discipleship has not matured to the point where they are giving sacrificially.  It’s kind of like if you let a philandering member of your church talk you into never preaching against adultery or having out of control youth convince you to skip the “honor they mother and father” part of what would become the Nine Commandments

But they can only do that if we let them.

I implore you, challenge you, beg you and otherwise insist that you have a stewardship campaign this year.  Ignore the naysayers and the grumblers and decide that it has to happen, just as you would ignore the lay leader who says you shouldn’t pray during worship.

It need not be an elaborate campaign.  At the very least preach on it for a couple of Sundays, have them indicate their intentions on a card and follow-up with those who don’t turn one in.  Then announce the results.

Easy peasy lemon squeezey.

If the heat gets too bad, tell your congregation it’s my fault, or the District Superintendent or the Bishop.  We have thick skin, we can take it.  Seriously, if they’re ready to lynch you I will come to meet with your group and fall on the sword.  I think it’s that important.

If you “do stewardship” this year, I can almost guarantee a few things:

  1. This will open a discussion about the finances of not only the church but individuals’ financial situations.  Some of it will be griping (it is the church, after all) but far more will be healthy and helpful in discipling your members.
  2. You will see more money in your collection plate next year.  The people who complain the loudest will likely be the ones who give the least.  The faithful stewards and the tithers will be glad to see you raise expectations for others in the pew.
  3. As members “buy in” financially they may also do so more with their passions and their time.  You may see attendance increase at committee meetings or the climate may be right to get a group of volunteers together to get a chore accomplished.

Church culture, especially around money, turns around about as quickly as an aircraft carrier.  But if you don’t start turning that wheel now that culture will never change.  And as is always true in the church, all members deserve to be heard and respected. But let’s make sure that those who are setting policy (officially or otherwise) are doing so out of love of the Lord and the church.

Where does all of that money go?

I was talking church finances with a group of ministers a few weeks ago.  One asked me what our members need to hear more of in order to “get them to give more.”  It wouldn’t have been my choice of words, but you get a feel for where this conversation was going.

Those of you who read this blog with some regularity will not be surprised to know that I responded that we should lift up all the great things that happen with apportionment dollars and stop portraying it as a tax paid to the Bishop.  Then I thought for a moment and corrected “apportionments” with “shared ministry funding.”  I am sooo last decade.

He generally agreed with what I was saying, but had no idea how to get that information.  “How do I find out where all that money is going and what is being done with it?”  I got the feeling  I had convinced him, now it was a matter of getting him connected.

There are several wonderful resources available (and by the way, your shared ministry dollars are paying for them, so you might as well use the dang things).

First, you already have a great deal of that information in your Annual Conference materials.  Remember when we passed that budget or were you eating ice cream at the Patio?  It has gives a great overview of Conference finances.

Second, get in touch with Jessica Vargo, our Conference Treasurer.  She and her team of interpreters will come to your church and discuss the church’s work.  It’s probably too late to get one of these great speakers scheduled for later this fall, but get them on the calendar for the spring, or even plan ahead to have one in the fall of 2011.

Jessica’s office also has a great printed piece that talks about where your shared ministry dollars go.  It’s designed as a bulletin insert.  If you believe your sermons are way too captivating for anyone to want to read this in worship you can include it in a newsletter or even some of your mailed stewardship information.  And if you were to have a mail stop campaign to talk church finances you would certainly want to include this.

Make sure  you are getting all of the electronic information that’s available to you.

I imagine most of you receive the Conference E-news and Stewardship E-news.  If not, send an email to Lois Speelman and get registered.

The United Methodist Giving website  is a great place to get started for topical stories about how your church’s financial support is changing the world.

United Methodist Communications provides current news articles by email.  They generally do about three features a day, and you can choose to receive them once a day or once a week.  Just go on line to register.

Once you get this information, don’t keep it to yourself.  Include a 90 second version every week during worship.  Post a selected link on your church’s Facebook page or in your weekly email broadcasts.

Younger generations (you know, the people you’re trying to reach) have shown researchers that they don’t want to give to support bureuacracies and institutions, they want to change lives.  The good news is that the United Methodist Church is already doing this.  I say we let ’em know what we’re doing.

Let’s get your campaign started

Kids are back in school and church committees are once again getting fired up.  Your Stewardship Committee is about to meet to plan the campaign and the conversation will go something like this:

What do you wanna do this year?

I dunno, what do you wanna do this year?

Last year seemed to work.

Yep, wanna do the same thing again?

OK.

Great, meeting adjourned.

It actually sounds like  a dorm full of college sophomores trying to figure out what to do on a Friday night, doesn’t it?

One option is to get an off the shelf campaign package.  They may cost a few bucks, but they are tried and true and are particularly helpful for the committee having the above conversation.

  • Herb Miller’s New Consecration Sunday isn’t all that new anymore but it is still quite popular and effective. I used it last spring at a church and the saw an 18% increase in giving over the previous year.
  • Neil Orchard’s Linear Giving  is pretty steep at $270 but has some great strategies to increase giving. 
  • I’m a huge fan of Reverend Adam Hamilton.  He has adjusted his book Enough to make it a stewardship program. I have not reviewed it personally but I’ve loved everything else he has done and have great respect for Reverend Dr.  Clayton Smith, his Executive Pastor of Generosity.

If you don’t want to go with one of these (or the dozens of others that are out there), feel free to design your own, but follow some basic guidelines.

Make sure you approach money and stewardship with a Biblical Foundation.  Jesus talked about money an awful lot, he talked about rich people, poor people, giving it, hoarding it and even paying taxes.  Use one of these familiar passages as a campaign theme.

Reach both the left and right-brained people.  There are those in your church who want to hear about missions and changing lives. Others want to hear about your good fiscal management and balancing the budget.  We need to realize that both sides are very legitimate and worthy of being addressed.

The pastor must be the voice, but not the only voice. The pastor must be the face of the campaign as the leader of the church.  But enlist others to tell the story of how the church is at work in their lives.

Emphasize how the money will be used to change lives and the community.  Don’t tell them you need a new copier, tell them how that copier will do Kingdom work.

Ask for a commitment card.  Feel more comfortable with an estimate of giving card, pledge card or some other name?  That’s fine, but if you can get that number down in writing you will be far better off.

Preach about stewardship, and do it before they fill out the pledge card.  Effective pastors often spend as much as a month before Commitment Sunday talking about money and ministry.  If you only do one sermon on the topic and it comes right after the cards are turned in, you won’t be doing any good.

Follow up with those who have not pledged.  A follow-up letter or phone call not only helps to facilitate the process of getting the card filled out, but it adds clout to the process.  If you let a giver go a year without pledging, you may be sending the message that his or her gift is not important, or more tragically, that this person is no longer important to the church.

Finally, announce the results of the campaign and celebrate what God and your generous members have made possible for the coming year.

The last six months and the next two

I have now been writing this blog for about six months.  As you are aware some of the posts have been tightly focused on the issues of stewardship and helping that effort in the local church.

Then there are others.

As you and your Stewardship Committee (you DO have a Stewardship Committee, don’t you?) get back to work this fall, I want to lift up a handful of posts to reflect on.

Make sure your congregation connects the church to changing lives.

A good planned giving program must be part of your plans for the next 12 months.

Simply asking for the same 3 percent increase every year cheats your members of the chance to have a lively, viable, growing church.

Have small group meetings to talk about the finances of your church.  The Finance Committee probably thinks everyone sitting in the pews has a good understanding of church finances.  I assure you they don’t.

Steal some good ideas from folk who do a really good job of raising money.

Why should they give?

About a decade ago, Jerry Panas wrote the book Mega Gifts.  The book is the result of many, many interviews he conducted with people who had given huge gifts to charity.  Wouldn’t you love to sit down with those folk and ask them why they made the gift?  Panas did, and the results may surprise you.

According to his research, there were three main criteria for why the gift was made: 

  • a belief in the mission
  • regard for staff leadership
  • the financial stability of the organization

What implication do those three have for church giving?

You probably read the first one and figured you were in good shape.  After all, anyone who is a member of the church and shows up on a regular basis on Sunday mornings has to believe in the mission, right?   If you asked your members to state the mission of your congregation, what would they say?  Many would say it is to make disciples and be God’s witness in the world, externally-focused causes.  Others would say it is to provide meaningful worship and give their kids good Christian education, essentially an internal focus.

I am not going to take sides (although most readers of this blog can figure out my leaning on their own) but I will ask how you reconcile these two camps.  And what does this mean for their belief in the mission of your church as it relates to financial support?

When it comes to staff leadership we as United Methodists have some unique challenges.  Pastors don’t lead local churches forever.  Our itinerant system moves pastors, which if you don’t like your minister is a good thing but not so much if the minister is well-loved.  It also takes time for a new pastor to come up to speed and understand the dynamics of his congregation. 

But the minister must be the leader.  He or she must be aware of all that is going on in the church and in the members’ relationship with Christ and the church.  And yes, that includes having access to members’ giving information.  I have written before about how we let members who are embarrassed by what they give drive the culture around money. 

Financial stability is a tricky one, isn’t it?  I once worked for the VP of a small college who was fond of saying “we spare no expense to look austere.”  People won’t give to a sinking ship but there must be a need.  I believe donors want to support organizations that have a need but also get results.  In my years at the Foundation I have watched a church drain hundreds of thousands of dollars from its endowment to keep the lights on as the congregation slowly dies.  But I have also seen a church “invest” some of its endowment into a rebirth. 

Stop writing letters to your members bragging about how much money you managed not to spend last year.  Start telling them about the kingdom work that was possible because of their investment and how there is more kingdom work to be done.

I challenge you to look at these three criteria through the eyes of the people sitting in the pew.  But not the eyes of the Finance Chair or the lay leader.  Look through the eyes of the first time visitor or the member who is serving his first stint on the finance committee and for the first time is starting to see how ministry happens.

Is your congregation worthy of a megagift?  Most members would say no, can we prove them wrong?

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