Hubs and Networks (and the United Church of Christ)

Last week, my denomination — the United Church of Christ — released a bit of bad news. Fourteen people were laid off as the national setting of the denomination reorganized itself around new mission priorities.  Among the transitions are the combining of operations and global ministries; the combining of justice work and local church ministries; and the combining of Publishing, Identity, and Communication with the Office of Philanthropy and Stewardship to form an Office of Philanthropy and Marketing. As a colleague and friend who used to work at the national offices pointed out on Facebook, this continues a precipitous decline in staff there: from around 300 near the beginning of the century to slightly more than 100 now (someone else pointed out that there were more than 400 in the early 90s).

These layoffs aren’t surprising. The national setting and muddle judicatories have been shrinking as long as the denomination has existed. Every year brings predictions about when the United Church of Christ will close its doors, even if individual congregations keep going.

One of the biggest challenges for the United Church of Christ is how money flows through it. Offerings are collected in struggling local congregations. Some of that money — almost always a shrinking amount — is sent to middle judicatories. Those struggling middle judicatories then send some of that monty — again, almost always a shrinking amount — on to the national setting. The pie keeps getting smaller every year and at every level, and much of the reorganization at every level is about surviving on less and less.

And, unfortunately, too many of the expressions of the United Church of Christ — from local churches to the national setting — respond to that shrinking pie by focusing on how they can get more instead of how they can connect more. We focus more and more on our hubs; we focus less and less on our networks.

Let me give a simple example. The new Director of Marketing and Philanthropy will be tasked with raising money for the United Church of Christ, meaning, by and large, the national setting and its initiatives. She will also be responsible for developing stewardship materials for local congregations. Historically, those materials include some third-party books on stewardship, as well as annual themed posters, bulletin inserts, pledge cards, letters, and so on (which, of course, local congregations have to pay for). That means she’s focused mostly on raising money for her hub: the national setting.

What’s missing? Real coaching and training for the local congregations who want to support the national setting and who are themselves struggling. In other words: the creation of networks that will connect professionals and successful congregations with congregations that they can help.

And that’s also true on a broader scale. As a denomination — and like many other mainline denominations — we are focused on the survival of hubs, from local churches through middle judicatories to the national setting.

But any future for the United Church of Christ, I suspect, isn’t found in keeping hubs alive. It’s found in creating and sustaining dynamic networks. If the United Church of Christ wants to be an effective denomination in the future, it needs to invest in serving and connecting its local congregations, covenanted ministries, and other expressions. For example:

  • we might invest substantially in a group of consultants and coaches focused on stewardship and church vitality
  • we might look at how congregations who are successful at a certain ministry can be connected to congregations interested in developing a similar ministry and share resources
  • we might provide smaller congregations merge into single church bodies with multiple campuses
  • we might investigate what new models of membership — models that recognize that fewer people are likely to belong to the same congregation for their entire lives — might look like

There are any number of options here, but they are all based on networks. And it is investment in creating and sustaining those networks — not keeping hubs functioning — that will help the United Church of Christ remain a powerful force in the future.

Membership and Engagement

Recently, I’ve had a few conversations about church membership. The simple fact is that most mainline congregations are facing declining and aging memberships, and some of the congregations want to do something about it. And I always answer the same way:

I’m not concerned with membership; I’m concerned with engagement.

Membership in most mainline congregations is a formality. Someone who has been coming to worship for a while might take a membership class where they learn things about that congregation and its denomination. Then they stand in front of the congregation some Sunday morning and make some promises. And the members of the congregation who are there that morning make some promises. And the new member signs a book.

Now that person is a member. And the perk is that they can serve on committees and vote in the congregational meeting. And if they don’t show up for a few years and somebody bothers cleaning up the rolls, they’ll be taken off the membership list. Yay.

Engagement is a way of life. Each summer, at the church where I’m a member, we have Christmas in July. That Sunday morning, we collect diapers and toilet paper and feminine hygiene products for the food pantry. And this year, a young woman who is not a member and who occasionally comes to services reached out to her friends and said,

My church is doing this thing and I think it would be great if you got involved. If you want to give, but don’t want to come to services, let me know. I’ll get your donation and take it myself.

I don’t know if that young woman will ever stand in front of the congregation and make promises and sign a book. I don’t know if she will ever become a member. But she is engaged. She may even be more engaged – at least in this one thing – than some of our members.

We know for a fact that not all members are involved in the life of the congregation. We know that not everyone who is involved in the life of the congregation is a member. We know that someone who is engaged in the life of the community makes more of a difference than someone who is not, even if they aren’t a member, and even if the person who isn’t engaged has been a member for forty years.

And yet we spend so much time and energy worrying about membership when we should be focusing on engagement.

I’m not saying to ignore membership. Membership, probably, still matters. But if we focus on engagement – if we focus on getting people involved in our communities, without worrying about whether they take the formal step that improves our numbers in the yearbook – then membership, if it matters, will follow.

On the Nashville Statement

On Tuesday, the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood released a statement on human sexuality in order to affirm that these anti-LGBTQA Christians are, in fact, anti-LGBTQA. Just in case anyone had forgotten.

Here’s the first paragraph of their preamble:

Evangelical Christians at the dawn of the twenty-first century find themselves living in a period of historic transition. As Western culture has become increasingly post-Christian, it has embarked upon a massive revision of what it means to be a human being. By and large the spirit of our age no longer discerns or delights in the beauty of God’s design for human life. Many deny that God created human beings for his glory, and that his good purposes for us include our personal and physical design as male and female. It is common to think that human identity as male and female is not part of God’s beautiful plan, but is, rather, an expression of an individual’s autonomous preferences. The pathway to full and lasting joy through God’s good design for his creatures is thus replaced by the path of shortsighted alternatives that, sooner or later, ruin human life and dishonor God.

Nashville Mayor Megan Barry wants people to know that the Nashville Statement does not represent Nashville. I want people to know that the Nashville Statement does not represent Christianity.

Yes, the people who wrote it are Christians and, like all Christians, are caught up in a web of sin and are wholly reliant on God’s grace. But they do not represent Christianity. Christianity is represented by love and compassion for all people. And, despite the statement of the founder of the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, the Nashville Statement is not rooted in the love and compassion that are at the heart of the gospel.

We Need to be Noticers

One of the things I’ve learned over my time in the nonprofit sector is that it takes a whole lot of people to make a difference in even one life. Even something as seemingly simple as getting a person who is homeless into temporary housing is a process that involves a lot of people pitching in. On large scale issues – like fighting white supremacy or changing housing policy – change is the result of the work of hundreds, or hundreds of thousands, or millions, of people.

And yet…

Even in the nonprofit sector, we celebrate rock stars. Even in the church, we pay the most attention to our celebrities. I can appreciate that. People can become symbols of something bigger than themselves, and there are reasons to pay attention to people doing big things.

But it’s also important to notice the other people. The people who aren’t rock stars. The people who aren’t celebrities. Even in the little corner of the world that is the nonprofit sector. Even in the little corder of the world that is the progressive church. There are people doing the hard work of making a difference every day. And, while they’re not in it for the kudos, they deserve to be acknowledged. They deserve to be thanked.

So take a minute this week to notice someone who might not usually get noticed and say ‘thank you’. It means a lot.

The United Church of Christ Needs to Invest in Stewardship

Last week, I attended the United Church of Christ’s General Synod. General Synod is our biannual business meeting, full of resolutions to be examined and officers to be elected. There are also exhibits, workshops, reunions, and lots (and lots) of events. Even the extroverts are exhausted after a few days!

One of our tasks at Synod was to debate a resolution about covenantal giving and adopting fundraising best practices (I wrote a little bit about it a few weeks ago). Here’s the key paragraph:

Be it further resolved that the Thirty First General Synod of the United Church of Christ encourages all ministry settings of the United Church of Christ to establish coordinated and comprehensive development programs using best practices that: are sensitive to the needs of all settings of the church; are responsive to changing patterns and practices of generosity across the church and within the culture in which the church lives; are consistent with norms, expectations, and policies of a donor-centered approach to fundraising and philanthropy; and empower congregations and individual donors to donate directly to the mission priorities that are most compelling to them.

This is a great resolution, and I’m glad that it passed. But, as with all resolutions, it means that there’s serious work to do.

As I wandered the exhibit hall and pored over the list of workshops, I noticed that there was a severe lack of compelling materials to help congregations and other expressions of the United Church of Christ to establish those coordinated and comprehensive development programs. Most congregations, associations, and conferences do not have fundraising professionals on staff. Most probably don’t even have fundraising professionals in their pews. In the absence of professionals, this work is going to be left to pastors and volunteers.

And there’s nothing wrong with that. But those pastors and volunteers need to be well-resourced by the denomination. They need a way to understand fundraising from a practical, theological, and pastoral perspective that is honest to the history and values of the United Church of Christ. There is a desperate need for the denomination to invest in resources for clergy and laity in all expressions of the United Church of Christ. In my opinion, this means books, manuals, workshops, webinars, and specialized ministers.

When so many congregations are struggling financially, we cannot afford to have this resolution simply be a suggestion for congregations, conferences, and other bodies. We must invest in the work of ensuring that our denomination and its expressions have the financial resources that they need.

Baptist News Global: Diana Butler Bass: SBC Decline Dispels Idea That Only Liberal Denominations Die

“The issue is not whether you’re a liberal or a conservative denomination,” she said. “That’s irrelevant. The issue is: Are you a congregation that provides a way of meaningful life for people to be able to navigate chaotic times and to be able to connect with God, to experience a new sense of the Spirit, to be able to love and be compassionate? That’s what makes religious communities vibrant, not whether they are liberal or conservative.”

Yes, It’s Time to Change the Pattern of Giving

Excuse me while I get a little provincial.

My denomination, the United Church of Christ, adopted a fundraising policy known as the Pattern of Giving in 1968 (and revised it in 1984). The policy says, basically, that individual donors give to their local congregations. Local congregations then give to their conferences and associations (our middle judicatories). And the conferences and associations then give to our national setting. Dollars move nicely and evenly from the donor, through the local congregation, and on to other expressions and ministries of the United Church of Christ.

It’s a system that was never going to work over the long term. I find it a little hard to believe that it really worked in 1968 or 1984. As the New Ecology of Giving report points out, the Pattern of Giving was good at managing the flow of existing gifts; it was not (and is) not good at attracting new donors or developing relationships with existing donors.

There are three big problems with the Pattern of Giving.

First, local congregations are struggling financially. That means that there is less money available to pass on to conferences and associations and, eventually, to the national setting. As congregations continue to struggle, there is less and less money being passed on every year.

Second, many local congregations don’t really know what the conferences, associations, and national setting actually do. They don’t feel any significant connection to the denomination and its expressions, and so they don’t feel any real impulse to give. Congregations that are struggling financially simply aren’t going to support ministries that they don’t feel a connection to.

Third, I don’t know that many expressions of the United Church of Christ are really following the Pattern of Giving anyway. Certainly, church related institutions like health and human services ministries, camps, and seminaries have had to develop far more robust fundraising strategies than hoping that conferences give to them.

The Pattern of Giving needs to be replaced with strategies and practices that will help expressions of the United Church of Christ – from the smallest local church to the national setting – raise the money they need to realize their missions in the world. Two resolutions about the Pattern of Giving will come before the General Synod this year. I’m confident that these will be combined into a single resolution. I do not know whether that resolution will ask the denomination to lay aside the Pattern of Giving or to explore new options over the next few years. Either way, it is time for the Pattern of Giving to change. It is time for the United Church of Christ to adopt better and more faithful practices for fundraising.

New York Times: For Alabama Christians, Governor Bentley’s Downfall Is a Bitter Blow

“The idea that moral hypocrisy hurts you among evangelical voters is not true, if you’re sound on all of the fundamentals,” said Wayne Flynt, an ordained Baptist minister and one of Alabama’s pre-eminent historians. “Being sound on the fundamentals depends on what the evangelical community has decided the fundamentals have become. At this time, what is fundamental is hating liberals, hating Obama, hating abortion and hating same-sex marriage.”

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.

 

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.