It Does All Belong to God. That Doesn’t Mean It All Belongs to the Church. It Sure Doesn’t Mean It All Belongs to Your Church.

My wife is a pastor of a local congregation of the United Church of Christ. That means that she sometimes receives mail from fundraising consultants looking for clients. Recently, she got a mailing that included these two paragraphs (emphasis original):

Why aren’t their people giving as they could or should? It’s not the economy which goes up and down like a thermometer. It’s not unemployment, though many people have simply quit looking for work. And it’s not that they don’t love the Lord or want to see their church grow and abound.

The reason people are not giving as they could or should is that they have never been trained to give. They have never come face to face with the fact that God owns it all. They have never realized that all of us own exactly the same amount – zero – and that we are managers and stewards of what God has entrusted to us.

Sigh. This is an attitude I see a lot in fundraising for religious organizations. It is frighteningly common belief that being a good steward of God’s gifts means using those gifts to support one particular organization: my organization. In the church, it looks like the paragraphs I quoted: people who are good stewards of God’s gifts will give those gifts to my church.

And that’s just not true.

Being a good steward of God’s gifts means doing with those gifts what God calls us to do with those gifts. And while many people are called to give to the institutional church or to a particular congregation, many people are called to give to other organizations as well (or instead). I believe that God really does want us to support education and the arts; God really does want us to help refugees and support human rights; God really does want us to save the rainforests and keep rhinoceroses from going extinct.

God has a lot of work for us to do. Sometimes that’s going to mean giving our gifts to organizations other than our congregations. Sometimes, that’s even going to mean not giving our gifts to our congregations.

Because sometimes, our congregations are terrible stewards of those gifts. Sometimes, our congregations aren’t doing the work that we’re called to give to. Sometimes, our congregations are more focused on maintaining an institution than being a force for good in the world.

And most of the time, when people aren’t giving, it isn’t because people don’t understand the importance of giving.

It’s because people haven’t been given a reason to give.

So this letter had some things right. When people aren’t giving to a congregation, it isn’t because of the economy, it isn’t because of unemployment, it isn’t because they don’t love the Lord. But it also isn’t that they’ve never learned to give.

But it may be because that congregation hasn’t made a strong case that it is a worthy recipient of those gifts. And making that case is what congregations should focus on.

Development Is a Program

Recently, on a forum I frequent, I came across this question:

Fundraising seems like a full time job. How do you do it when you’re the only employee of your nonprofit, and you have to do it all, from programming, accounting, marketing, events, and fundraising?

I responded on that forum, but I wanted to take a minute to flesh out my response here.

One of the mistakes that a lot of nonprofits make is thinking that development is something that they do in addition to their programs. Often, those nonprofits believe that development is something they do in order to support their real work: it’s how they raise the money to feed the hungry, house the homeless, care for abandoned animals, and so on.

I believe that this is a fundamental misunderstanding of the role of nonprofits and the role of development. I believe that development is part of the mission of every nonprofit.

In a sense, every nonprofit has two sets of clients. One is the group of people we usually think of as clients. The other is the donors who support the organization. You see, one of the purposes of a nonprofit organization is to be a conduit for the power of its donors to change the world; every nonprofit is an organization that donors give through, not just to. People who want to feed the hungry do that by giving through nonprofits that feed the hungry. People who want to house the homeless do that by giving through nonprofits that house the homeless. And so on. Those donors might do other things as well, but one of the ways they take action is through their giving.

Once a nonprofit sees this, it can begin understanding its donors not as potential sources of funding, but as people who it is serving.

Realizing that doesn’t make fundraising any less work. It doesn’t diminish the size of ‘doing it all’. But it does change the nature of that work. Once the only employee, and the Board, and volunteers, understand that fundraising and stewardship are part of the mission, they can integrate that work into the work of the organization. And that can make an unbelievable difference.

Vox: This Kenyan Village Is a Laboratory for the Biggest Basic Income Experiment Ever

Charities almost never have good evidence that what they want to spend money on is better than what poor people would choose to spend the money on if they just got the cash themselves. I certainly don’t trust myself to know what the world’s poorest people need most.

I’ve been profoundly lucky to never experience the kind of extreme poverty that billions of people worldwide have to endure. I have no idea what I would spend a cash transfer from GiveDirectly on if I were in Jacklin’s shoes. Would I spend it on school fees? Maybe! Or maybe I’d use it to supplement my food budget. Or save for a new house. I really don’t know.

You know who does have a good sense of the needs of poor people like Jacklin? Poor people like Jacklin. They have a very good idea of what they need. And you should only give something other than cash if you are confident you know the recipients’ needs better than they do.

Two Challenges When Raising Money from Churches

My official title is ‘church relations associate’, so you might think that I spend a lot of my time relating to congregations. And, since my job is to raise money, you might think I spend a lot of time raising money from congregations.

I don’t.

I spend far more of my time relating to – and raising money from – individuals. Yes, I visit congregations. I preach. I attend events. I ask them to send groups to volunteer. I ask them for money. But I spend more of my time on direct mail, social media, email, our website, phone calls, and personal visits with individuals.

Here’s why: raising money from congregations is hard. The amount of effort it takes to raise $1,000 from a congregation is generally exponentially larger than the amount of effort it takes to raise the same amount of money from an individual or family. This is true for two major reasons. First, many congregations are themselves under a great deal of financial pressure. Second, decision making authority in congregations tends to be dispersed.

Financial Pressure in Congregations

Let’s be honest, a lot of congregations – especially, but not only, mainline congregations – are facing immense financial pressures. We live in an era of rising employment costs, aging memberships, shrinking congregations, and a million other realities that mean that congregations have less money to spend on more things.

This fact is easily illustrated by looking at employment in churches. As I write this, there are eight congregations in the Illinois Conference of the United Church of Christ (my own denomination) actively searching for a pastor. Seven of those positions are part time, and one of them is part time and temporary. Five of the congregations have a membership of under 100 people (two more have a membership of 100 people). Five of them also have total budgets under $100,000 per year.

I’m not going to claim that those congregations are representative of mainline congregations, but I suspect that more mainline congregations look like these congregations than don’t.

And how many of them are in any position to make a financial contribution to another organization?

The simple fact is that more congregations are facing these kinds of financial pressures. And when they face these pressures, one of the first things they try to do is cut their budgets. And when they try to cut their budgets, one of the first places they look is their mission spending, whether that’s to their denomination or to outside organizations.

Decision Making in Congregations

It’s easy to imagine that the best route to a gift from a congregation is through the pastor. After all, the pastors have real authority within churches and can be powerful advocates for missions that they believe in. Even if the congregation is thinking about cutting their total mission spending, surely the pastor can make sure that a particular line of mission spending is kept… or even increased!

And that’s true… up to a point.

The fact is that in most congregations, the pastor has some – but nowhere close to all – of the decision making power. When it comes to mission spending, the pastor is a lone voice. Decision making authority rests with the stewardship committee (which raises the money), the finance committee (which designs the budget), the mission committee (which makes specific recommendations about mission spending), and the congregation (which must approve all of these decisions in some way). The ability to make decisions is dispersed across committees and individuals throughout the congregation.

And who those individuals are – whether they act alone or as part of a committee – can change from year to year or even month to month.

That means that you, as a fundraiser, never know quite who to approach about that gift. And given the variety of budget making processes in congregations, you may never quite know when.

Conclusion

That leaves fundraisers seeking money from churches in a tight position. We’re talking about raising money from an organization that probably doesn’t have money to spare. And we’re talking about doing that without a clear picture of who to speak to or when to speak to them. That is not an idea position to be in when asking for money.

That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t ask congregations for money, of course. It just means that you need to recognize the limits of doing that. You are far better off focusing on individuals. And, if you want to raise money from congregations, equipping those individuals to be advocates within their own congregations.

 

Washington Post: Laziness Isn’t Why People Are Poor. And IPhones Aren’t Why They Lack Health Care.

Third — and conveniently, perhaps, for people like Chaffetz or House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) — this stubborn insistence that people could have more money or more health care if only they wanted them more absolves the government of having to intervene and use its power on their behalf. In this way of thinking, reducing access to subsidized health insurance isn’t cruel, it’s responsible, a form of tough love in which people are forced to make good choices instead of bad ones. This is both patronizing and, of course, a gross misreading of the actual outcome of laws like these.

The New York Times: The Pope on Panhandling

But what if someone uses the money for, say, a glass of wine? (A perfectly Milanese question.) His answer: If “a glass of wine is the only happiness he has in life, that’s O.K. Instead, ask yourself, what do you do on the sly? What ‘happiness’ do you seek in secret?” Another way to look at it, he said, is to recognize how you are the “luckier” one, with a home, a spouse and children, and then ask why your responsibility to help should be pushed onto someone else.

Intergenerational Ministry Matters

Recently, I ran across the image from the Art of the Sermon podcast that you see on the right. This episode of the podcast is an interview with Rev. Melissa Cooper, Director of LECFamily, the intergenerational program of the United Methodist Life Enrichment Center. If you can’t see the image, here’s the important piece, which is the text: “We see such sharp departure with young adults because we’ve done too good a job developing children’s and youth ministries.”

As Rev. Cooper points out, many young people leave the church when they graduate from high school and never look back. She cites a figure of forty to fifty percent and, frankly, I wouldn’t be surprised if it was higher. And while a lot of people are asking how we can bring those people back to the church – and that’s a good question to be asking – Rev. Cooper has a different question: why did they leave in the first place?

A critical part of the answer to that question is the quote on the image: “We’ve done too good a job developing children’s and youth ministries.”

There’s an important story here. Fifty years ago – maybe less depending on the church, culture, and geography – many church activities were intergenerational. Children and youth were in worship, parents brought their kids to meetings, and so on. There were Sunday School classes, confirmation classes, youth groups, and other activities focused on children and youth. But those were in addition to the intergenerational activities that formed the core of the experience of the church community. Children and youth were part of the community.

This had its problems. Those intergenerational activities weren’t created or managed with children and youth in mind. So while children and youth were there, they weren’t included.

So we did something about this, we invested resources in children’s and youth ministries. We created more ministries – and expanded existing ministries – that were focused on faith formation in children and youth. That was a good thing.

But we created and expanded those ministries largely through segregation: Sunday School and children’s church and youth groups and so on happening at the same time as ‘adult’ activities. For example, a congregation might have a suite of activities for children and youth that happen at the same time as Sunday morning worship… keeping those children and youth out of worship. The first time those young people experience traditional worship is when their confirmation class ‘visits’ their own church! The second time might be when that same class leads a service they’ve only seen once. Then it’s on to sporadic attendance and leadership, for example, after a mission trip. Most of the time, those youth are back to activities that take place at the same time – but outside of  – ‘traditional’ worship.

Children and youth build their church community in children’s church, youth groups, and the other ministries that we’ve designed for them.

There’s a good side to this. These ministries are focused on teaching, caring for, and working with young people. They have a community where they’re included.

But there’s also a bad side. When young people graduate from high school, they suddenly become adults and we suddenly expect them to participate in ‘real’ church. The community that they had isn’t there anymore, and they’re thrown into a new community where they still aren’t exactly included.

And then we wonder why they don’t come to a church they’ve never known.

So, what do we do? How do we help young people not leave the church? Or, better, how do we keep the church from leaving young people?

The answer is both simple and complicated. Ministries segregated by age aren’t bad. Ministries designed to be developmentally appropriate aren’t bad. But they need to be balanced with intergenerational ministries.

We need to reverse the trend. Age-segregated ministries shouldn’t be normal; intergenerational ministries shouldn’t be special. Instead, intergenerational ministries should be normal; age-segregated ministries should be special. People of every age should be part of the ministry of the church, from serving on the church council to reading scripture to being an acolyte.

By including people of all ages in the life of the church – by limiting the segregation of age-based ministry – we can help young people be part of the whole church. As they age, they will find new ways to be members of the whole church, instead of seeing their church disappear as they age out of youth group.

Intergenerational ministry is the future of the church because it helps young people be the present of the church.

The Concourse: You Can’t Balance Out Racism

Here I am writing an essay pointing out that racism is bad. This is kindergarten material. We should not have to have these conversations. Our national media’s instinct to normalize whatever is happening among the politically powerful is so strong that they are now writing stories giving positive reviews to a speech in which the president just proposed one of the most baldly racist official government actions that I can remember. The fact that he stuck to the teleprompter does not balance this out. The fact that he did not insult the media as much as usual does not balance this out. The fact that a widow cried does not balance this out. This sort of determined, poisonous persecution of a minority group is not just one more factor to be weighed for its public relations value. Nothing balances this out. Go ask an immigrant how presidential Donald Trump seemed last night.

Vital Signs and Statistics: On the Streets, In Schools and Prisons…..and Yes, in the Church

Ultimately, I must respectfully disagree with Rev. Lindsey. We in the UCC do NOT face a crisis of diminishing pastoral leadership. We have a crisis of diminishing congregational opportunities for clergy, as well as a diminished capacity for clergy to be compensated appropriately for the work they do. HOWEVER, we also have an exploding opportunity for ministry beyond the traditional walls of the “church,” and we have strong and faithful clergy who serve part-time or bi-vocationally no matter their age. The UCC is on a leading edge for what ministry might look like in the 21st century.