Catholicsm through a different lens

A week ago my family and I attended The Fest, an all-day Christian music concert outdoors on Cleveland’s far east side.  There were thousands of people there, enjoying the music, relaxing in the decent weather and eating overpriced bratwurst and that fresh-squeezed lemonade that leaves a sugar sludge in the bottom of the cup.

It was sponsored by the Catholic Church and really was a celebration of all things Catholic.  We were handed a copy of the Catholic newspaper on our way in.  Notre Dame College was very visible and there were tents for various missions projects and private high schools.  Heck, even the group that prints their offering envelopes was identified as a sponsor.

I had never been to a Catholic mass except for weddings and funerals.  This was my first real interaction with them.

I will admit that my perception of Catholicism has taken some hits in recent years.  They have had their share of scandals and infighting.  But I was surprised by much of what I saw. 

I actually saw men dressed in monk’s robes, women in habits and priests dressed in far too many layers to be comfortable on a nearly 90 degree day.  And frankly I was surprised at how young many of these people were.  It did me good to see priests in their 20s dancing to the music as I would expect our own young clergy to do.   I saw half a dozen teenage girls who look like they may be in the “in crowd” wearing t-shirts with a picture of a nun and on the back it read, “not all habits are bad.”  My favorite was the young man whose shirt said “Putting the stud back in Bible study.”

Before that day my perception of the Catholic Church was that it was stagnant, all the priests were 100 years old and young people only went because their parents dragged them to their “weekly obligation.”  I left that concert with a much healthier respect for where that denomination stands.

It got me wondering what (if anything) the public perception of United Methodism is.  Do people really see  us as having open doors, open minds, and open hearts.  Or do they just think of our open hand, asking them to give?  What is the end result of our somewhat public battles over homosexuality and other incendiary issues we face every four years?

But I really landed on the fact that we, the United Methodists,  have much to offer a hurting world.  But until we find a way to get those who need God into our churches (or an open field with live music, lemonade and bratwursts), they will continue to have the same jaded views of our church that I had of the Catholics.

I never would have gone to a mass, no matter who invited me or how effective their ads were.  What are we doing to get those same people to see United Methodism at work?

A circle is round, it has no end…

The newest fad in philanthropy is the Giving Circle.  This is a group of individuals who come together to discuss different needs and the organizations that work to meet those needs.  The group decides on a mission project to support and pools the members’ donations to make a larger gift and a larger impact than each could do individually.

Some circles are very large and well-organized with written “investment” guidelines, officers and meeting minutes.  Dining for Women has 140 different circles and raise $20,000 per month for programs that foster good health,education, and economic self-sufficiency in developing countries. 

But I think more typical is a bunch of friends sitting around a pizza concerned about their own zip code.

I think this is a fascinating concept, but in the church it isn’t a new one.  UMW and other groups have long had missions as a priority, using the meeting time to learn about mission projects and decide where money should be spent.  Our two children’s homes, Berea and Flat Rock, have long histories of these groups changing the lives of those in their care.

But in our society, fewer people are joining established groups.  From UMW circles to bowling leagues long-term members are tough to come by.  And as a result how people give is moving to the pizza parlor and out of the church parlor.

Giving Circles are popular because they are efficient.  Compatible donors self-select.  Information is gathered and disseminated, perspectives are offered and at the end of an hour a decision is made.  Oh if only every church meeting could happen so efficiently.

What would a giving circle in your church look like?  I’m sure you have a handful of members who are more passionate than others about certain mission projects.  Others may be excited about music and education within the church.  You could have a circle for Habitat with both financial and labor donors. 

The tough thing for churches is to give these circles the latitude they need.  While it should be the Trustees who decide whether or not to paint the outside of the church building purple with polka dots, we will need to allow groups to identify their own passions and realize that the missions givers may not have the same priorities as the Missions Committee.  (Maybe it’s time for the Missions Committee to rethink it?)

And, of course, there is the age-old concern that people will give less in the offering plate to run the church so they will have more to give to the Circle.  But stewardship research has actually shown the opposite to be true.

Some time in the next year, spend a month (or even 40 days) encouraging and building giving circles.  Divide your average attendance by 15 and that should give you a good guess on how many circles your church should have.  Accept suggestions for topics and mission projects and lift up the concept of giving to change lives.  Encourage them to have speakers come in, to visit mission sites and learn about the needs and opportunities.  Then get out of the way.

Will some circles shrivel up and die when no one joins?  Of course they will.  But others will grow and blossom and let your members change the world.  Some, especially younger people and recently re-churched may see the church as a place that really is about spreading the word and helping people.

A church that is relevant in the world will, I believe, have fuller pews and a healthier bottom line.

Better to rent or buy?

I remember going to Buckeye Village Market with my mom when I was a kid.  She would clip coupons to get savings.  We would stop by the deli counter, the bakery counter and the meat counter, all of which were staffed by middle-aged men.  The closest we got to ethnic food were two big cans of Chow Mein that were glued together.  Mom would pay with a check.  Our groceries went in big paper bags that were taken to our car by a guy with a special cart.

Every part of the shopping experience is different.  There are few paper bags anymore.  Service counters are few and far between and if they are staffed it’s by teenagers who know very little about their products.  We pay with a debit card and put our own groceries in the car.  Savings come not from coupons but from “specials” when you swipe your customer card.

Grocery shopping has adapted.

But how we pay in church has not.  Nearly every store you go into takes a debit card.  But I bet your church does not. 

Younger folks and “newly churched” people don’t like to make a long-term commitment, but we still ask them to do that every fall.  We ask them to support an institution rather than a cause that excites them. 

We apologize when we ask for money, or sometimes we just don’t talk about money at all and hope it comes in.  Then we get mad when it doesn’t.

J. Clif Christopher wrote “Not Your Parents’ Offering Plate” a couple of years back.  I read it in less than a day on vacation and I highly recommend to anyone who does this work, whether clergy or lay volunteer.

If Buckeye Village tried to still operate like it did when I was a kid we know what its future would be.  Can we really expect it to be any different for the church?

Let them feel the church

Last week I attended a dinner at a church where Danny and Kathy Dickriede told their story.  Kathy is a Deacon and on the staff at Mentor.  The Dickriedes have committed much of the last three years to missionary work in Africa with a great deal of 2009 in Liberia at Camphor Mission Station

Here at the Foundation we have a significant endowment that supports Camphor and I have been generally aware of their work.  But hearing it first hand from people who went there, served and have a passion for the place and the work is something different.

You can preach about missions all you want to.  But that kind of personal story telling is so very effective.

Oprah Winfrey says that people will change what they do not because of what they know, but because of what they feel.  Anybody want to argue with Oprah?

This fall, make your congregation feel the church.

I spent a dozen years working for Health and Welfare Agencies of the Conference.  I can tell you that the biggest challenge in that work was being able to tell the story.  In those years I don’t believe I ever turned down an opportunity to preach, speak at a potluck or a UMW meeting.  I met with youth groups, missions committees and even rogue couples who were trying to get a mission movement started in their church.

I would bet that any organization that is supported by the United Methodist Church would come to your place to tell the story, to tell your members how lives are being changed in your county, your region and the world because of their gifts. 

They’ll let your members feel the church.

There are some United Methodists who get very excited that their financial commitments support the copier contract and the pastor’s health insurance.  But far more will be excited that they are helping the people of Camphor dig wells in surround communities to provide the only clean water a generation of villagers have ever known, or that midwives receive the first real medical training they have ever had because of the church.

Or they may be spurred to action when they find out a girl from Mentor collected 1,000 toothbrushes and tubes of toothpaste so children wouldn’t have to clean their teeth with a finger dipped into the ash of  a cooking fire.

There are two realities at work here.  First, people want and need to feel the church.  And second, we have a church worth feeling.

Get a speaker scheduled and let the church be felt.

Is Stewardship Important?

I think that working for a sausage factory would be a lot like working for the church.  There are some things you’re just better off not seeing behind the scenes.

One thing that I have been very disappointed to learn in the three years that I have been with the Foundation is the state of stewardship education in United Methodist seminaries.  About a month ago I was part of a conversation with some of United Methodism’s best minds in stewardship.  I assure you I just listened.  I learned that there is currently not a single course in stewardship taught at any of the United Methodist seminaries in this country.  Not one.

Is it any surprise that pastors are not comfortable talking about money?  Or that a minority of our churches have an intentional stewardship campaign every year?

In conversation with some retired pastors it seems that seminaries see themselves as academic programs, not professional programs.  They believe that it is more important to teach ancient greek than it is to talk about money.

I was also interested to learn that at seminary you don’t learn how to officiate at a wedding or funeral.  You kind of have to feel your way through those things.

I must say that I appreciate the work of the seminaries and their work.   But it seems to me that this approach would be like failing to teach MBA candidates anything about finance or surgeons how to wield a scalpel.

When you look at the current state of the church we need to insist that our seminaries spend more time in “vocational training” mode if we are to turn around the denomination.  A strong foundation around stewardship (both spiritual and practical applications) evangelism, marketing, human resources and leadership must all be part of preparing pastors to truly lead churches in the future.

A generation ago graduate study in general was limited largely to those who taught at the advanced level or wanted to explore areas for their own satisfaction.  According to the National Center for Educational Statistics, the number of MBAs awarded each year grew 310 percent between 1975 and 2000. 

Should we abandon the academic understanding of theology and ask our ministers to earn MBAs instead?  Absolutely not.  But our churches must learn the lesson that other employers figured out years ago, that if your leaders are not equipped to lead and manage, results will be disappointing.

At the East Ohio Foundation we are focused on improving the clergy leadership in our Conference.  Next year we will spend nearly $20,000 teaching stewardship.  And our Firebrand scholarship program will support a high-capacity leader in his theological studies. 

If the direction of the church is to change, we must change the way our leaders are trained.

Is the Church a family business?

I thought one of the most thought-provoking presentations at Annual Conference was Rev. Valerie Stultz’ analogy of the church as a family business.  I thought about retelling the story, but thought it would be better coming from her.  Here is the much boiled-down version she provided. 

I was raised in a family business – truly. Our family talked, ate and slept the business of my grandfather, father, uncles, siblings and children. Plumbing supplies and building materials were our 24/7 diet.

 Edwin Freidman predicts that family businesses don’t survive beyond three generations because the tensions, alliances and unresolved feelings that characterize the family bleed into the decision-making processes that effect advancement of the business.  This became the reality of our family business as the business was so caught up in the dynamics of family that it failed. The business became the preservation of the family rather than the sale of the products.

 Sometimes churches go out of business because of shifting demographics, but for the most part churches close their doors because people have been confused for too long about just who the business owner is and just what the business owner expects of us. We know that we are to be in the business of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world, but too often, we take our eyes off of Jesus and slip into the family business mode. Our church family loyalties blur our vision. Our church family modes of operation impede out mission. Our church family grudges ruin our reputation in the community.  

My sincere thanks for Rev. Stultz for her insights.

We’re not out of money yet!

Largely lost in the cycle of annual conference was an announcement that the churches of East Ohio had donated  $634,423.74 for relief in Haiti.  This is money that people donated through their local churches to UMCOR for this important cause.

That’s a lot of money.  Of the nearly 800 local churches in the conference there are only about two dozen with larger annual budgets than this amount.  And it came at a time with our region is full of economic challenges.

So what made thousands of United Methodists dig deep into their pockets and give money to a country that few of us will ever see, to help people we will never meet and make God’s presence known thousands of miles away from our steeples?

Because there was a need, and we knew we could make a difference.

I imagine church treasurers fell into one of two categories as they were seeing those gifts come in and writing the checks get this aid to where it needed to be.  Some swelled with pride as they saw their members respond to such devastation with so much generosity. 

But I bet others were a little ticked off.  Giving at their church may have been flat for the last few (or even many) years.  The carpet needs to be replaced, apportionments aren’t paid and the staff has to use both sides of copier paper because the budget is tight.  They may have wondered why people were so generous to the need in Haiti while the need in their own church seems to be less important than their members’ consumerism.

One of my mantras is that giving follows vision. 

In Haiti the vision was pretty easy to understand.  People were hungry, homeless, desperate.  UMCOR had been there for decades and was prepared to make a difference in these people’s lives.  John and Jane Doe sitting in the pews knew that their financial support was the link between people who needed help and those who could provide this help.

They gave because they knew it would make a difference in someone’s life.

When was the last time your local church sent that message to its members?  What need in the community are you solving?  How are lives better because your church is in the community? 

St. Francis of Assisi is often quoted as saying “Preach the gospel at all times and use words when necessary.”  UMCOR’s work in Haiti is a wonderful example of how the gospel teachings of compassion, love and generosity are being preached without words. 

Commit your church to preaching this same way and challenge your members to support it financially.  We were exceptionally generous to people in Haiti.  Don’t you think your people want to be that generous in their own community?

An irrelevant tourist stop

In the last week I had the pleasure of spending more than 24 hours driving on Interstate 70 between home and Kansas City.  There’s not much to see, so in the rare event that something came up, it got our attention.

About an hour outside of St. Louis was the American Farm Heritage Museum.  It had great visibility from the interstate and we could see a great collection of steam-powered tractors, the kind of things I would always pause to admire at the County Fair.

But as we drove on I got thinking about the viability of such a museum.  I gave it not much more than a thoughtful “hmm” and kept going.  We never thought about getting off at the exit and paying it a visit.  I have nothing against this stuff, but it had no relevance for me or my family.  There was no reason for us to go there.

I even started wondering if such a place was really needed or if it was merely for the benefit of those who already knew about antique tractors.  Did school kids really go there wide-eyed dying to known more about equipment that was outdated half a century ago or if it was really for guys to go show off to each other and have a place to tinker and hang out.

It didn’t take long for me to connect those same questions to our local churches.  At annual conference we learned that one in three churches in our Conference have not had a single new member “in years.”   This means that for a third our churches people drive by and have the same response that I did to antique tractors.

I will tell you that I don’t know a thing about the Farm Heritage Museum.  It may be the best museum of its kind in the free world.  They have a great sign in the front and plenty of parking, convenient from the interstate and a pretty good web site.

But I still had no reason to go.

 Expecting people to come to our churches simply because we are the church is an outdated notion.  We need to go out into our communities and feed the hungry, heal the sick, comfort the afflicted.  The Book of Matthew tells us over and over that Jesus built the church first by doing good works, then, when a crowd had gathered, he preached them.

We have the preaching part figured out, we need to do a better job gathering crowds.  If not, we are no more than a place for our own members to tinker and hang out.

My Annual Conference Thoughts

I’ve had many requests for copies of the information I presented at Annual Conference last week.  Below is my report in its entirety.  Take what is helpful and leave the rest.

They say it’s good to summarize at the beginning of the presentation.  So here’s my summary.  This is the fourth consecutive day you have sat in this auditorium.  We adjourn in four hours and it’s my job to grab and hold your undivided attention.  How tough can that be?

I stand here this morning representing not only the Foundation but also the 150 churches and other ministries, including the Annual Conference, that have chosen to invest their resources with us. As you may or may not be aware, the Foundation does not receive any apportionment or shared ministry funding.  We are entirely supported by our own endowments and the modest investment fees that we charge. 

In 2008 Americans donated more than $300 billion to nonprofit organizations, according to the American Association of Fund Raising Counsel.  You may be surprised that the type of institution that received the most money was religious organizations.  One in three dollars goes to churches, mosques or synagogues.  We do significantly better than colleges, universities, arts organizations, even the United Way.  This has been the case for the 55 years that this study has been conducted.  And giving to UMCOR or other church-related causes doesn’t count. This is only for religious purposes.

But when people reach the end of their lives and make gifts to charities in their wills, churches do not do nearly as well.  While exact figures are tough to come by, that number goes from one in three when they are living to about one in 20 when they pass away.

Why the discrepancy?  I think it’s because we don’t ask for these gifts.

Our five United Methodist Colleges (now colleges and universities) employ a combined 8 full-time professional staff members who have the term “planned giving” in their job titles.  Combined these colleges work with 125,000 living alumni.

In our 784 United Methodist congregations we have 164,000 members, but no full-time planned giving professionals on the staff at the Conference level or in the local church.  I know of just one part-time staff member doing this work in the local church. 

These schools have learned that an ongoing, sustained effort of keeping these kinds of gifts in front of their can result in significant financial resources.

The difference is not the relationship.  Once you graduate from college at age 22 (or these days 25) your relationship with the institution decreases.  Each time you return you see fewer people and buildings you recognize.  The church, however, often becomes more important in its members lives as they age.  In fact this continues several days after death with the church’s involvement in the funeral.

So how am I doing with that undivided attention thing so far?

That same study by the AAFRC shows that for every ten dollars Americans gave away when they were alive, they gave one dollar through their wills.  So if your church is an average nonprofit organization in this country, you should receive one tenth of your annual budget every year in bequests from your members.

As representatives of your local churches I assume that each of you knows about what your church’s annual budget is.  Now imagine receiving one-tenth of that every year to be put into your endowment.  And now imagine if that happened every year for the last 20 years. Sure, it would be a lot of money, but think of that money as a tool for ministry.  How would your ministry be different, how would it affect your ability to truly be a mission outpost if you had those financial resources?

What if every time an opportunity for outreach, for mission, for evangelism, for creative programming came up your church could afford to explore that ministry opportunity?

This year I challenge you to take planned giving seriously.

If your church has an endowment, make sure your members know how endowment proceeds are spent and the difference it makes in the life of your ministry.  Remind them that this is possible because of planned gifts made years ago.

Second, educate your members about planned gifts and how they can support your church.  A conversation around bequests, charitable gift annuities and gifts of other assets will spark thought and conversation without overwhelming them with details.

And third, connect the vision of the future of your church with future gifts such as bequests.  Good visions result in strong giving.

The East Ohio United Methodist Foundation stands ready to assist you and the leaders of your church in making these things happen.

Please let us know how we can help.

Who should be worried about your financial future?

I had a great consultation with a local church last week.  The topic was starting an endowment fund and a planned giving program.  By the end of June I will have had this conversation with four different churches this month.

When I do these, I am interested to see who the group is that I’m talking with.  It is often a committee, generally finance or the trustees, sometimes stewardship.  But last week it was the leadership team.  Chairs of various committees, most of whom do not get financial reports, were there, as was the lay leader, even the delegate to Annual Conference.

The pastor had made this conversation a priority for the church leadership as a whole.    As a result my confidence that this project will succeed is higher than average.

Too often, I think, important issues in the church get sent to a committee rather than a larger group like the Administrative Board.  Clearly a strong endowment program can help the congregation as a whole, so the leaders as a whole should be involved.

If all your Ad Board does is receive reports, then it’s following the work of the committees.  But if it as a whole is taking on major projects and developing the vision of the church, it is truly leading.

We put many of our best leaders and visionaries on our Ad Board, then build a structure that prevents them from leading.

In the example from last week I am sure that most of the work around endowments and planned gifts will be handled by the appropriate committee.  How frustrating would it be if the Missions Committee meetings were full of endowment policy and not missions work?  But by elevating the initial conversation to the top tier of church leaders it adds importance to the effort and helps the church as a whole buy in to the idea.

As you consider where the important work in your church, do it in a way that gets the whole church get behind the issue and let your leaders lead.

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