Methodist Foundation of Ohio

I’ll have the evangelism, hold the gravy

In this forum, the topic is often money.  Without money there is no mission.  But what happens when money gets in the way of mission?

My friend David Scavuzzo seems to hate Swiss steak dinners.  Maybe he doesn’t hate the dinners (anything covered in that much gravy has to be good, doesn’t it?) but he wants churches to stop spending so much time on them.

I asked Reverend Scavuzzo if he really does hate these dinners.  His response:  “I would be open to churches “serving” meals, if they were for free or a part of a real gift (grace) giving ministry. Meals and rummage sales can really be ministry but when they become a means for the church to make money or survive rather than us offering a wild, untamed life-changing relationship with a living and loving God through Jesus … then I do hate them.” 

Now how in the world do you argue with that?

You can almost imagine the sign in front of the church:  “Wesley United Methodist Church, all are welcome.  Admission $8, kids under 12 $5, under 2 free.”  Not exactly the centerpiece of the Rethink Church movement is it?

He believes that if churches took the volunteer hours and energy they invest in dinners, rummage sales, flower sales and all the other things they do and invest that time in evangelism the church would be better off.

I happen to agree with him.

While nothing is guaranteed (other than death and taxes which happen to be favorite topics of the Foundation’s planned giving program) it’s tough to believe that so much energy pointed toward the community wouldn’t pay off in new members, a stronger sense of mission and a return to Christian and Wesleyan values.

Did I mention that Reverend Scavuzzo is the Superintendent of the Western Reserve District?  He has told his churches that if they take him up on the offer he would help them make up the money lost on these events.  Care to guess how many churches have taken him up on his effort?   If you guessed two churches you’re too high.  He did have one take him up on it.

We would rather spend 50 hours in a hot kitchen clogging our arteries than a single hour knocking on doors in our neighborhood.  We would rather tie up Fellowship Hall with a dinner than a classroom with a parenting support group.  We are very comfortable selling dinner tickets around town, but inviting others to worship is a different story, isn’t it?

I firmly believe in the value of fellowship.  I think peeling potatoes and doing dishes develops a strong sense of community within the church; it gives members a place to plug in and get to know each other.  And never ever discount the value of opening your church to the community for events like a dinner.

But wouldn’t we get the same sense of community knocking on doors?  Wouldn’t the community rather come to our church to be fed spiritually than literally?

There are lots of restaurants in our communities where people can pay to be fed.  Let’s leave the restaurant business to them and decide the Church will be about something else.

An update for the old Pony Express

Nothing strikes fear in the heart of a stewardship chair quite like the phrase “Pony Express.” 

The once popular stewardship program is now distinctly out of style.  It worked kind of like several concurrent chain letters that would be delivered in person.  A chain had a list of members; the one at the top of the list would read the information, complete his pledge, and then pass the information on to the next person on the list.  By the end each member had been personally contacted and each had completed a pledge card.

Not that it ever went that smoothly.

But have you seen mailboxes lately?  When I grew up we had a black metal mailbox on our front porch.  The mail man (yes they were mail men back then) would walk to each house and deliver the mail.  But now a neighborhood will have a single location with perhaps hundreds of mailboxes.  The letter carrier makes one stop, drops off all the mail and moves on.

There are implications for a modern-day pony express stewardship program.

The Pony Express had some great features.  Each member was personally reached out to by another member.  Sometimes this was a drive by visit, but other times they might have shared a cup of coffee and visited. In church we call that fellowship, don’t we?

This year consider a Mail Stop campaign.  Find the cohort groups in your church, small groups that members fit into.  These may be obvious, like Sunday School classes or the bell choir.  How about the ladies who work together in the kitchen or the men who do fix-it chores around the church (the gender stereotypes are hereby acknowledged and apologized for).  Stay at home moms, the softball team or kids’ Sunday School teachers may click together as well.

Downtown churches that serve a large geographic area may be inclined to group people by zip codes or neighborhoods.  I encourage you to resist this urge, if all they have in common is an address, they are not likely to feel comfortable together.

Get each of these groups together for an hour or so to discuss the vision of the church and what their financial gifts support (no, I did not say review the budget).  Give them time to ask questions and provide their feedback.  For some, especially younger or newer members, it may be the first time they even meet the financial leaders of the church or have the opportunity to voice their questions or concerns.

Make the meetings comfortable for the group.  Sunday school classes can meet during class time.  Others may do an evening dessert.  Young families may opt for a play date at a home with a backyard swing set.  Make sure there is plenty of time for fellowship.  A group that feels comfortable will be more likely to ask questions.

Many church members will tell you they want more small-group time in general.  This may be a great format for church leaders to reach out to all of their constituents and talk money is an open, nonthreatening way. 

Give this a try this fall and let me know how it goes.

P.S., I’d love to take credit for this as a “new” idea, but it was actually the first stewardship campaign I was ever involved with, nearly 20 years ago at a church in Rochester, NY where my wife and I were members.  Bob Remington chaired the effort and I was pleased to run into Bob this past spring.  He and his wife are now members of Westlake UMC near Cleveland.

Your Easter Message (not the one in the sermon)

Most ministers would tell you that there are three high holy days on the calendar when they expect their sanctuaries to be more full than usual: Christmas Eve, Easter and Mother’s Day.

What message do you send to visitors on those days? I have always sat in the congregation hoping just once that the pastor will mention that we’re here all of the other Sundays of the year and we’d love to have them come back again. But that rarely happens. Evangelism opportunity missed.

But are we missing another opportunity? How do you use the unusually large offerings from these special worship services? And more importantly, what message does that convey to the visitors or CEO Christians (Christmas and Easter Only) who are in your pews that day?

I challenge you to use your special offerings in a way that makes it very clear that yours is a church that is outwardly-focused. Think about what we are celebrating on Easter. Is that really an appropriate time for you to be worried about self? I think it is a better time to lift up selflessness as reflected in Holy Week and the miracle of the empty tomb. Using your holiday offering to pay your copier contract doesn’t really seem to follow that does it?

It may be too late for Easter this year, but find a mission project that makes sense for Mother’s Day. Is there a women’s shelter in your community? How about an organization that is going to provide free lunches for school-aged kids during summer vacation? Is there a nursing home or retirement community full of moms that could use a helping hand?

I realize that many of our churches do count on these offerings to help balance the books. If you are in this situation I urge you to make it part of your shared missions or apportionment income. If you can do so with integrity, tell those in attendance that every penny of this offering will support the United Methodist presence around the world, in areas like Chile, Haiti, Liberia, and right here at home.

As you prepare to take the offering refer to the special holiday and the fact that we are called as a church to serve those outside our walls (if your congregation would argue with that statement you may have more work to do) and invite all of those present to support this project. If possible, tell a short (one minute) story about how that organization changes lives and why you believe it is worthy of financial support.

The money you will collect for this organization is a wonderful thing. You might even want to have a representative come to worship in the following weeks and give a two-minute thank you from the pulpit.

Look this offering from the point of view of one of your visitors that day. How many of them have been turned off by churches that are cold, unwelcoming and only concerned about themselves? What message will they receive from this selfless and unexpected display of mission and generosity?

And please, before the benediction, invite them to come back again. You never know, they just might surprise you.

Don’t Keep Your Eyes on Your Own Paper

At the Learning to Turn our Cups Over seminar on Saturday Reverend David Bell offered many wonderful challenges and insights.  One of them in particular really resonated with me.  He pointed out that if people make donations to help people, we as churches should emphasize that in all of our stewardship communications.

The next time you get a quarterly newsletter from a nonprofit you support financially read it cover to cover.  Think about how that organization, based solely on the information in that newsletter, changes people’s lives.  Now take the newsletter from your church and do the same analysis.  Is there any evidence at all that your church does this work?

Start a file of all of the correspondence you receive from nonprofits.  Throw in newsletters, solicitation letters, thank you letters, response envelopes, annual reports, any printed material that seems to come out of the public relations office or fund raising office. 

As you begin to plan your stewardship campaign dump the file out on the table and invite your committee to read through the collection.
· What seemed particularly effective?
· Did anything rub you the wrong way?
· What did you read that would make you want to make a donation?
· What is being done to make it easier or more convenient for you to make a gift to that organization?

Then consider what lessons your church can learn from this analysis.
I would never say that church stewardship and other fund raising are or should be the same.  But there are certainly lessons that we can learn from what others are doing.  And the reality is that many of your members will equate the two.

Nonprofits spend thousands of dollars to research what is working.  What should we be learning from them?

Thinking about legacies

I got to go to two funerals last week. Not many say they “get to go” to these things, but these were very nice. Both gentlemen had lived long, full lives. One was a much-loved pastor. The other was an accountant who loaned his professional expertise to many organizations, both United Methodist and secular. There were few tears at either; each was truly a celebration of a wonderful life, a life that left a clear legacy.
It got me thinking about legacies. We all leave legacies, don’t we?
Some in our churches will leave a legacy of service, the Sunday School teacher who served faithfully for decades or the usher who manned his post as long as anyone can remember. You may have a Mr. Fix-It who never receives public commendation for his work. Or someone may leave the legacy of never having had anything nice to say and stood in the way of anything that resembled change.
Are you inviting your members to leave a financial legacy? Do you have an endowment fund established to receive a gift someone leaves in his or her will? When is the last time you hosted a seminar to discuss a financial legacy with your retired members? If you have an endowment do you lift up how this money is used to support ministry?
As church leaders perhaps part of our legacy is making it possible for others to leave their own legacies, financial and otherwise.


The push or pull of change

I heard someone talk about change last week. He asserted that change happens for one of two reasons. It is either pushed by fear or pulled by vision.

In terms of church finances there has been very little “business as usual” in recent years. Attendance and membership in mainline denominations is already dropping. And the economic situation has decreased many of our members to give less. So we have fewer people making smaller financial gifts.

Would you be surprised to find that many churches have seen their offering income decrease? Probably not. But you may be surprised to find that others have seen their income increase.

Consider the church whose pastor made a plea in the fall of 2007. The stock market had already begun to slide. Unemployment was rising, both locally and across the region. He made it clear that in these times the church would need to be more missional. This was a time when local hunger centers would need more financial support, not less. When mission giving through apportionments would need to go up, not down. And while some in the church would lose their ability to give at their current rates, those in better financial circumstances would need to increase their giving.

This was a courageous request. It would have been easier for this pastor to offer excuses and invite members to retreat back into themselves, to play it safe and focus on the church’s inward survival. But he didn’t. His members responded and that church has offered not only financial resources to local agencies but also volunteer time and expertise.

Giving in that church wasn’t changed based on fear. It changed because of vision. And more importantly the congregation grew stronger during this time, not weaker.

As the economy improves, is the change in your church being pushed or pulled? Are you operating out of vision or fear?

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