Different Audiences, Different Messages

This fall as you begin to draft your letter for the stewardship campaign I’m willing to bet that most you will write something like:

While we have been able to do so much this past year thanks to your incredible generosity please consider giving more, as our budget has increased for next year.

But what do different giving groups in your church read when they read this?

At the bottom of your giving ladder you probably have a pretty good chunk of folks who are giving nothing or maybe a hundred bucks or so for the year.  They get to read about their “incredible generosity” from the past year, affirming their minimal giving.  I have this vision of Archie and Edith with Edith nagging him to give more to the church.  This sentence would be great evidence in his own defense that they are already meeting the church’s expectations.

In the middle are folks whose giving and motivations are pretty diverse.  Some give out of guilt, some out of a sense paying either their dues or the cover charge for their club or show.  Some have been giving the same amount for a decade or more.  I’m reminded of a small group leader I had years ago at our church.  He pointed out that we have a nice building, good pastors, effective ministries, we seem to be in good shape.  But when he gets the letter from the homeless program they talk about all the things they want to do if they only had the money.  So he and his wife have had flat giving to the church but their giving to that mission has increased every year.  The two of them read that sentence and realize that once again the church’s sole vision is to pay a slightly higher salary line and the usual increases in utilities and the copier contract but nothing exciting is happening.

At the top are your tithers.  These are people who have accepted the challenge to give where their hearts are, who have cleared out some of the financial weeds in their lives and have made the church their top priority in their lives.  They know they’re among the top givers and they’re happy to do it. But when they hear that they need to “give just a little more” knowing that others are giving a fraction of what they are they can feel mighty unappreciated.

The solution?  You need to send different messages to different groups.

Let’s start at the top.  Simply acknowledging the generosity of your tithers will make a huge difference.  Let them know the things you were able to accomplish in the church last year because of their work, emphasizing changing lives in the name of God.  Go easy on the ask, they’re giving out of a spiritual place, not a transactional place.  Seems like the kind of conversation you’d want to have personally with this group, perhaps a dinner or dessert reception.

Your folks in the middle are bought in, but not to the point of tithers.  Challenge them to increase their giving and give them a reason to do so.  Throw out a vision like “if giving increases 20% we will start an after school tutoring program, send an adult mission team to the Urban Mission, etc.   There are two ways to challenge this growth. Herb Miller talks about challenging people who give $10 a week to grow to $20 or  $20 a week to give $30.  I prefer to talk in terms of moving toward tithing.  Have your people figure what percentage of their income they are currently giving, then grow by a percentage point.  Two percent grows to 3%, and hopefully that growth continues until they reach a tithe, maybe even beyond!

As for the folks at the bottom, give them a mission project to support.  A letter asking them to help purchase the curriculum and crackers for the kids Sunday School or supporting the monthly mission meal is a great beginning.  This is the kind of ask they are used to receiving from other nonprofits and it lets you focus on your work in the world, stuff people early on their disciple walk like to hear.

These example may not be a perfect match for your church, but I guarantee that one size fits relatively no one in your church.  Get started early both drafting your letters and dividing your congregation into three or more categories.  And don’t let perfect be the enemy of very good.  Take your best effort at this.

Not sure about moving ahead?  As always, let me know how I can help.

So about that whole tithing thing

In the church tithing is a word kind of like “cancer”, it’s best whispered only in appropriate company.  At least that’s the opinion of many folks I talk stewardship with but  I think this is wholly inaccurate.  I hear the word used lots of times, usually in a sentence like “would the ushers come forward to receive our tithes and our offerings.”

Tithing, of course, is the spiritual discipline of giving 10% of income to the church.  Net income or gross income?  United Methodists average 1% at this point, so if you’re to the point where you’re debating net or gross, I’ll just get out of your way and let you make that decision on your own.

Many of us in The United Methodist Church are a little squeamish about talking or teaching tithing.  We don’t want to be that church that “always talks about money” or scares people away with unrealistic expectations.  Instead of teaching the widow’s mite, we are willing to accept the millionaire’s mite.

As you consider your stewardship campaign this fall, I would encourage tithing to be part of the message

  1. We need to teach tithing.  Do your members even know what it is?  I learned to give to the church when I was a kid.  It was understood that some of my allowance was to go to the church.  But how many of your new members were not raised in a church?  Do they know what a tithe is?  Do they have a scriptural basis or is it like going to Playhouse Square and just reading in the program that a lot of people give a whole lot more than I do?
  2. We need to understand that tithing isn’t for everyone.  I believe that tithing and super tithing (giving more than 10%) is perhaps the most significant indication of spiritual maturity.  So should we really expect a new seeker to buy into the idea?  Probably not.  But who in your congregation are you discipling?  Who has grown spiritually, perhaps through an Emmaus Walk, a significant event in their lives, or their own study and prayer?  Tithing should be taught and encouraged as they reorder all of their priorities to align with God’s call upon their lives their household budget should see that same impact.
  3. Tithing is often a process.  Several years ago my wife and I realized that our giving to the church did not reflect our priorities.  Shifting to a full tithe seemed impossible, so we began to take a bite.  I think that year we were giving 3% to the church.  We committed to growing to 4% the next year, then 5% the following year and so on.  This gives your members to get comfortable with the idea and spend those few years cleaning the financial weeds out of their lives.  Speaking of those weeds…
  4. Lifestyles get in the way of tithing.  No matter where our hearts may be, our treasure may be committed elsewhere.  It’s really hard to tithe to both God and the MasterCard.   So teach about contentment and Enough.  Teach priorities.  Teach against the consumerism that we see every day.  Get your people to Financial Peace University.  If you hear families talk of this struggle, get them together into a small group to learn as well as support each other in the process.  Adam Hamilton’s contentment prayer is a great tool:

Lord, help me to be grateful for what I have, to remember that I don’t need most of what I want, and that joy is found in simplicity and generosity.  Amen.

Next week we’ll cover the message you should be sending to your tithers (and others) this fall, and all year.

PS, Hamilton’s contentment prayer is part of his book Enough:  Discovering Joy Through Simplicity and Generosity.

You can buy key tags with the prayer on it to distribute to your congregation.  



About Those 52 Years

Timing is, they say, everything.  Here is the report I gave at Annual Conference in 2015.  Looking back, it seems I was a year ahead of my time.


I don’t know if you’ve noticed or not, but in the last couple of months things are different in downtown Cleveland.  The Cavaliers are good.  Really good, and they just might win a Championship.

As I considered this, I thought back to a conversation I had with Bishop Hopkins in May probably six or seven years ago.  We were just chatting and at the time the Indians were doing quite well.  He asked if I thought they would win the World Series that year.  I scoffed and said, “No, of course not.”  He pointed out their current record and quality pitching.  I told him, “You have to realize that Cleveland has not had a championship since before I was born.  Why would I expect that to change?”

And, of course, I was right.  Another summer went by without a Tribe victory parade in November, just as every Browns and Cavaliers season has gone by since 1964.  Those teams, along with two seasons by the Cleveland Barons Hockey team,  have combined for about 150 seasons without a championship.  By comparison the City of San Diego is in second place with about 100 seasons.

We have learned to temper our expectations.

The problem that I see with some of the churches I work with is that they have the same defeatist attitude as Cleveland sports fans.  I have pastors lamenting that finances are tight   So they’re left limping along, shrinking programs, burned out staff, out-of-date facilities.  When I ask the laity what they would brag about their church they go back to the glory days and tell me how things used to be, a decade or more ago.

But when I ask them about their stewardship program their eyes drop and they tell me that they don’t do a stewardship campaign.  Some say they have never done one, others say they used to… and their voices trail off.  They don’t have the resources to do the kind of ministry the community needs them to do, and at the same time refuse to do what is necessary to make those resources happen.  We have churches in our conference that can’t claim a ministry victory for a long time.

It’s kind of like I’m talking to Cleveland sports fans.

If this sounds like your church, I offer you a challenge this morning. I challenge you stop looking at Cleveland sports since 1964.  Instead, look to this season.  A team and a city that have been down accomplished the unthinkable and just might win that championship.

What would winning a championship look like for your church?  It would have to start with a vision, a dream, and hopefully that dream isn’t a balanced budget or shorter finance committee meetings, but instead a vision to be as Bishop Hopkins calls us to be, mission outposts to your community.

To do this, you would have to challenge your congregation to see that vision for ministry.  You would challenge them to meet that vision through their financial gifts, their volunteer hours.  Maybe you have such a huge vision that your congregation can’t pull it off alone and you need to involve that other United Methodist Church in town (let’s face it, almost all of us have another United Methodist Church in town).  Or maybe it will be ecumenical project with a number of denominations involved.

Would it be easy?  Probably not.  Especially if your church hasn’t had a championship in what feels like 150 seasons.

Some of you are still shaking your heads.  “Our people don’t give anymore.”    Our offering plates are empty.  We don’t have enough to pay our bills, let alone go out and do ministry.”

The number one reason why people give money to one organization over another is the mission.  What is your mission?  If your mission is to keep the lights on, pay the bills, try not to mess the place up, this isn’t a mission that is likely to spark a strong generosity streak in your congregation.

What if you said your mission is to win a championship in ministry this year?  What if you set out a plan for a challenging but still attainable program?  What if you didn’t let the naysayers stand in the way?  What if you and your congregation were all in on this project?

Maybe you win the ministry championship.  Or maybe you play hard and wind up just short.   But either way your church, your members and you community will be better off because you tried.  And I assure you that if you decide to accept this challenge, the Foundation will be there to help you.

Photo credit:  Ryan Haidet, WKYC-TV

My Favorite Wednesday

I often begin my sermon for stewardship Sunday by saying that it’s my favorite day of the church year, the day that the congregation decides what kind of church it chooses to be next year:  a church of scarcity or a church of abundance.  It’s not about the money, it’s about the ministry that will be possible. So that’s my favorite Sunday of the year, unless my anniversary, my wife’s birthday or the Browns Super Bowl debut happens to fall on a Sunday.

But today was my favorite Wednesday of the year (see disclaimer above re:  anniversary et al).  Commissioning and ordination night, much like stewardship Sunday, tells us what kind of church we will be.  Will we be a conference comprised solely of follicley challenged older men or will we also have young women to speak the truth if it is so?  Will we have both progressive and conservative theologies represented? Will we attract the best and brightest?

On second thought, forget those questions.  Only one matters:  would I want that person, that ordinand, that provisional member, that elder, that deacon, that man or that woman to lead my church?  And by my church I’m talking about the one at the corner of Royalton and Webster but also that one across East Ohio or the one that came together in Portland last month.

You can ask future pastors to write all the papers you want, answer all the questions, jump through the hoops and lie about not being in debt so as to embarrass themselves all you want.  But that’s what it  boils down to.

Do I want that person leading my church?

While I never miss an ordination service I rarely attend the retirement service.  I’ve only had one pastor, one very very dear man retire from a church where I worshiped.  And in my Foundation work I’m far more involved in the folks on the way in than the folks on the way out.

I’d rather see the fresh faces of men and women excited to start ministry.  They’re weathered a bit from the process and in the case of ordinands from the provisional process.  But they’re excited energetic and ready to lead.  It’s as if they’re saying “Give me a church to lead, Bishop then get out of the way and let me amaze you.”

I have worked with young clergy enough to know there are two things I am not allowed to say to them. The first is that we’re counting on them to save the church.  The second is that they’re the future of the church (they are, afterall, the present of the church as well).

So instead what I will say is what I saw tonight and in preceding Favorite Wednesdays is encouraging.  We are, indeed attracting and developing leaders who can lead us to a better place and while they are certainly the present church they represent a very bright future church as well.

For the last month I have reflected a great deal on whether I am optimistic or skeptical about the church a decade or five down the road.  My favorite part about Favorite Wednesday is how I am overwhelmed with optimism.

I can’t wait to see where these new leaders take our church.

Photo:  Reverend Amy Price is ordained a Deacon in Full Connection.  Credit:  East Ohio Communications.


Final reflections on Portland

Some thoughts about Portland that I never got around to writing about…

Portland reminds me of Austin, Texas or Denver, Colorado.  It’s a city that feels young, lots of millennials out on their bikes or walking, dining at some of the non-snootiest places I’ve seen and generally being happy.

VooDoo Doughnuts really are that good and unfortunately located between my hotel and the Convention Center.

There are lots of homeless people in Portland and everyone is nice.  The city doesn’t flush the homeless out of parks or out from under bridges.  And I was never accosted by aggressive pan handling.  Everyone gets along.  Hmmm….

And in my politically incorrectness I mused to myself that I couldn’t tell the homeless form the hipsters.  Maybe that’s why folks get along, when the line blurs between the Thems and the Usses it reminds us that our similarities exceed our differences.

There’s no traffic in Portland.  Stopping at a red light I would let the few cars go by then safely crossed against the light.  This is a city that takes public transportation and bike-commuting very seriously, a lesson Cleveland should learn.

I don’t think there is enough to do in Portland to make it a vacation destination, but I enjoyed my time there and wouldn’t mind returning.  Though I’d certainly find a more peaceful way to spend my waking hours.


Final reflections on General Conference

Some thoughts on General Conference that I never got around to writing about…

The diversity was amazing.  We had delegates from six continents (Antarctica was not represented) and we had seven official languages.  Live proceedings were translated into these five languages and we all had headphones like in the U.N.  At one point Bishop Streiff decided to preside in French, even though he spoke English, just for fun I suppose.  But all of this diversity is expensive, word is we spent about $2 million in translation services.

I was frustrated with the delegate from the North Katanga Conference in the Congo because he kept coming to the microphone with questions.  But then I remembered sitting in on the Liberia Annual Conference a couple of years ago and figured that if I had had a way to get my questions answered I would be pushing that button without ceasing.  And I wasn’t even being asked to vote. Grace granted to my Congolese brother and it took me longer to get to that point than I would care to admit.

Good and bad, there are people who really understand this whole General Conference thing.  As the resident Methodist Geek, I often get questions at church about polity, like explaining commissioned versus ordained.  But General Conference was a whole different animal for me but clearly the home turf to others.  Sometimes this was bad as those with an agenda could manipulate parliamentary procedure for their own good.  But it also helped us move legislation through our committees and get to the floor what needed to get there.

The music during worship was amazing.  I especially loved the closing number, when all of the groups from that morning were on stage together.  I doubt the young African American choir from Brooklyn had ever been backed up with a banjo before, but in my own bizarre way it was a real highlight.

A former coworker said of our employer:  “There is good weird and there is bad weird.  As long as more of the weird is good than bad, it’s OK.”  There was plenty of bad weird in Portland.  But there was so much more good stuff.  Looking back the week was trying but positive and I’m grateful for the opportunity.

Photo Credit:  East Ohio Communications







Post script

I gave myself five days before writing this post as an intentional time of reflection.  As I sat in the Portland Airport (the picture above is me waiting for my plane) I was exhausted, demoralized and skeptical.  After a rigorous schedule of naps, I am no longer exhausted.  I remain, to some extent, demoralized and skeptical but at the same time have added hopeful and encouraged.

Those things don’t all seem to go together, do they?  Yeah, well that’s pretty much General Conference in a nutshell.

I am still demoralized that a schism for our church seems so very near.  I flew to Portland believing it was a possibility, but not very likely, kind of like the Cleveland Indians winning the World Series.  During the week I realized how near to that we are, and that maybe it’s not an entirely bad thing.  But I am hopeful and encouraged that it hasn’t happened yet.    As of now, we still have a global set of legs sitting under the same table.

I am encouraged after reflecting on the awesome mission work that our church accomplishes.  I’m very proud of local efforts like the Nehemiah Mission in Cleveland and the Urban Mission in Steubenville.  I learned more about the 30-year history of Africa University and its role in developing not only leaders for the African church but also leaders in business, mission and government in that part of the world.  I am encouraged that Imagine No Malaria connects with 300 clinics in Africa and has cut annual malaria deaths in half.

I am encouraged that we showed faith in our leaders, defeating legislation that would have given bishops term limits and forced them to run for re-election every 8 years.  We guaranteed pastors access to giving records not so they could be financial voyeurs but in recognition of the spiritual diagnosis that giving also provides.

The outstanding preaching inspired me.  I think we have let preaching slide in our culture.  There was a time, I’m sure, when the sermon was the most important part of spiritual guidance we received.  But now with online resources, great books from the likes of Adam Hamilton and James Harnish, the sermon is secondary.  And it sure better end early enough that we get to lunch before the Presbyterians. I heard sermons written to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.  It’s been a long time since I heard a preacher take on the forces of evil.  Bishop Swanson from Mississippi gave my favorite sermon of the week, and you can watch it here.

Finally I’m encouraged by what is being called the Methodist Middle.  A relatively small number of delegates were involved in all of the protests and heated debates.  For many of us, these social issues don’t define the church.  We are defined by what I have written about here, and folks whose houses are repaired by Nehemiah or a mother whose child is cured at an African clinic doesn’t really care about what was debated last week.

They care that we continue to be the hands and feet of God.  And to that I press 1 to vote “yes.”

Save a church for me to serve

Wednesday morning before we were to consider the Bishops’ proposal of a way forward we did something different.  We prayed together.  No, praying together wasn’t that unusual, in last ten days we prayed more than an unprepared college student taking an Organic Chemistry final.

We were asked to pray with folks we don’t usually talk to.  The group from Susquehanna Conference in central Pennsylvania had been next to us for a week at that point.  That’s them in the photo above, and some of us in the background.  They’re way happier about holding hands than we are.

So we crowded around a table and we were to tell our stories, and no further instructions were given.

There were eight or nine of us around the table:  men and women, clergy and lay, black and white, some older than others, Browns fans and, well, you get the idea.  What was remarkable was the number around the table who had spawned pastors.  One had a college freshman discerning a call, up to one whose son was in his second appointment as a pastor.  About half of the group was focused on the future of the church for very intimate and perhaps even selfish reasons.

One of the two active pastors with a parent at our table had been following the proceedings online and just a few minutes earlier had sent his dad a text: “Save a church for me to serve.”

What a gut wrenching text to receive.  And at the time it seemed spot on, the very existence of the church was on the line.

Last week I had written about the Trust Clause, the concept that the current members of a church don’t own the church, but hold it in trust, a gift from previous generations and a gift for future generations.

Being entrusted with a local church is a real responsibility, but being one of 860 people on the hook for an entire denomination is something else.  The church that had been handed down by the Wesley Brothers, Francis Asbury, Bishop James Thomas and even Rev. Orland Ruby, who neither baptized me nor married me but took care of everything in the middle.  They had all given us the keys to this thing, and it seemed like we were on some pretty slippery roads.

As I board the red eye flight home tonight, I will do so knowing that there is, indeed, a church left to be served.  But that’s not a complete victory, it seems.  We are still divided.  The biggest issues we were asked to face were kicked down the road to the next General Conference, whether that happens in four years or less.  And in those intervening years our churches will continue to make disciples.  We will spread the word to children and adults who need to hear it.  We’ll feed, clothe and advocate for those who need us, just as we were taught by John and Charles, Bishop Thomas and Rev.  Ruby.

That college freshman will retire 50 years from now.  That means she is counting on The United Methodist Church being more than twice as old then as it is now. I believe that as long as we keep doing the work of the church, the business of the church will take care of itself.  Maybe the United Methodist will fail, but the Word of God won’t.

And the local church is far more about the Word of God than the Book of Discipline. And that’s the source of my optimism.

I am confident that there will, indeed, be a church for these young pastors to serve.  The business of the church will look far different in 50 years, but the work of the church will endure forever.

Lessons from the bike lane

Each morning and most evenings I walk the mile and a half or so from my hotel to the Portland Convention Center.  I zig zag through downtown streets, go along the East Esplanade, an old industrial dock along the Willamette River.  Then I take the Steel Bridge across river then up the ramps and stairs to the Convention Center.  The photo above was taken between the river and convention center and roughly shows how busy it is in the morning.

The weather has been great and a 30 minute or so hike is great when I’m going to be camped out in a folding chair for the entire day.

Portland was Bicycling Magazine’s #1 biking city, which doesn’t surprise me at all.  On my walk I probably see 50-100 bicyclists.  Some are serious athletes in spandex and high performance bikes.  Several mornings I’ve seen a mom and her elementary-aged daughter on a tandem.  Others are probably tourists or newbies.

It’s pretty clear that my role as a pedestrian is to get out of their way.  I’m careful to yield at intersections and pinch points.  On a bike, momentum is everything.  On foot I can start and stop easily.  But on a bike, getting going from a dead stop is an awful lot of work.

It’s momentum, or more accurately the lack of momentum, that has me concerned about General Conference at this point.  Last week we started out like a bicyclist going up hill in wet sand.  It seemed to take forever but a detour into committee rooms got us moving and we came back with a sense of purpose and enthusiasm.  We were finally getting stuff done and Tuesday the promise of a plan from the Council of Bishops for a way forward buoyed our optimism.

We started yesterday receiving the plan from the Bishops.  Nothing seemed too radical, nothing, I thought, that would get the middle upset, although the extremes were sure to get rankled about something.  We were, it seemed, going downhill with a tailwind.

But mistrust and frustrations flared, frustrations boiled over and it got ugly.  I mean ugly ugly.  Productivity for the rest of the day was minimal and the odds of getting anything passed with noses so far out of joint seems roughly the same as the Browns winning the Super Bowl this year.

Four years ago delegates left Tampa frustrated that so little had been accomplished.  And now this morning as we again start pedaling uphill in wet sand I don’t know that we will be able to get any momentum going again.

My hopefulness exceeds my optimism at this point, and I desperately want to be wrong about it.

Photo credit:  Jonathan Maus, BikePortland

An opportunity squandered

Kay Panovec and Rev. Gary Henderson pray during a plenary session.  Photo Credit:  Rick Wolcott, East Ohio Annual Conference.


At the request of the General Conference, the Council of Bishops came back this morning with a proposal for a path forward.  They proposed that:

  1.  Form a special commission to conduct a complete examination and possible revision of every paragraph in our Discipline regarding human sexuality
  2. To call a special, two or three day, General Conference before the 2020 General Conference, specifically focused on the question of human sexuality
  3. We recommend that the General Conference defer all votes on human sexuality legislation scheduled for today.

Because the Bishops can’t actually propose legislation, Rev. Adam Hamilton made that proposal officially.  It became known as the Hamilton proposal.

I very much liked this proposal for several reasons:

  1.  By deferring any legislation based on human sexuality clears the decks for us to discuss other important business for the rest of the week.
  2. The level of trust in this room makes it clear that no significant movement, in either direction is likely to happen on any of the 50 plus pieces of legislation we are to consider.
  3. The proposal carries the opportunity for a full, comprehensive rethink of the Discipline in this area, rather than amending one paragraph at a time.

But in an extraordinary plenary issue.this proposal was voted down.

So this afternoon we begin a grueling grind of legislation in a room that feels more like a Trump rally than Christian conferencing.


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