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.”

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

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.


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.

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.

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

No Country but the Kingdom

I belong to a church that began as a church of and for German immigrants. It’s a congregation that’s proud of its German heritage. The nativity story is still told in German on Christmas Eve. Hymns occasionally include a verse in German. Events have German roots.

It’s also a congregation that’s proud to be in America. On one side of the chancel, right next to the pulpit, is an American flag. On the other side, next to the lectern that holds the Bible, is a POW/MIA flag. In the little chapel that’s hardly used for anything are plaques listing congregation members who have fought in wars.

It’s an interesting tension. No one in the congregation – that I’m aware of – is originally from Germany. But they hold onto that heritage and that pride. There are no plaques for recent wars like Iraq or Afghanistan. But there is a great deal of patriotism. It is a congregation that is proudly German and proudly American.

(And, though they may not realize it, proudly several other nationalities as well).

It’s not the only congregation that’s like this. A current of patriotism runs under while American Christianity.

And that has always made me uncomfortable.

Don’t get me wrong. I am often proud of my country. I am grateful that I have the freedoms that I have. I am grateful to the people who worked hard and took great risks so that I could enjoy the life I lead here in America.

I am also often ashamed of my country. I know that much of what we have here was built on the backs of others. I know that much of what we have here is not evenly or fairly distributed to the people. I know that we have – collectively, as a nation – done terrible things to far too many people.

But the bigger and more important point is this: the church is not American. The church is not German or Russian or Indian or Malawian. The church has no country but the kingdom. And, as a Christian, my first loyalty is to that kingdom.

As long as my country is prioritizes good news for the poor, release to the captives, sight to the blind, and freedom for the oppressed, I will be proud and supportive. As long as my country feeds the hungry, gives drink to the thirsty, welcomes the stranger, clothes the naked, cares for the sick, and walks with the imprisoned, I will be proud and supportive. As long as my country cares for the least of these, I will be proud and supportive.

And as long as my country does not do those things, I will work in love to convince it to do those things.

The church, of course, should always do those things, and worship should prepare us for that work. I understand the impulse to patriotism. I understand the desire to have flags in the sanctuary. I understand remembering the people who were called to war. But the church needs call us to the work that transcends country: delivering – and being – the gospel of Jesus Christ.

If Churches Paid Taxes

This is an article that appeared, in a couple of different forms, on previous versions of this blog. Since it critiques an opinion that’s become ‘common knowledge’ in some circles, I thought it would be good to repost it.

If Churches Paid TaxesA few years ago, the image to the right started popping up on my Facebook feed. For those who can’t see images, here’s what it says: if churches paid taxes, it would generate enough revenue ($83.5 billion) to pay for the entire Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) ($76 billion) and house everyone who is homeless.

The same concept later showed up in an article by Matthew Yglesias at Slate and, in turn, by Dylan Matthews at Wonkblog, who added material from an article by Ryan Cragun, Stephanie Yeager, and Desmond Vega titled “Research Report: How Secular Humanists (and Everyone Else) Subsidize Religion in the United States”. Both of these posts were picked up by Steve Benen at Maddowblog’s “This Week in God”.

Yglesias’s argument is fairly general, and there’s something to be said for at least a part of it. Yglesias points out that “discussing moral action is at the heart of many religious enterprises,” and that “much moral action plays itself out in the arena of politics.” It is somewhat perverse – in a soft sense – that a religious organization can advocate on behalf of the poor, but not on behalf of a partisan political party or candidate who also advocates on behalf of the poor. Likewise, it is somewhat perverse that a religious organization can organize against abortion, but not endorse political candidates who would work to end abortion legislatively.

The same issue applies to other nonprofit organizations as well, of course. Environmental nonprofits can advocate and organize to save our wetlands, but cannot endorse the candidates or parties who would actually protect those wetlands; housing nonprofits can work to increase affordable housing, but cannot endorse the candidates or parties who would create affordable housing trust funds; hunger nonprofits can operate food banks, but cannot endorse candidates or parties who would protect SNAP; and so on. If Yglesias’s argument applies to religious organizations, then it applies to all organizations that work on issues that have partisan implications. Yglesias’s argument isn’t so much against tax-exemption for religious organizations as it’s an argument against tax-exempt status more broadly.

What I want to focus on in this short series, though, is not the broader issue of tax exemption overall. Rather, I want to focus on the article by Cragun, Yeager, and Vega, as the estimates in this article seem to form the basis for assertions about how much additional revenue the government would have if religious organizations were taxed and all of the things that the government would do with it. As Matthews writes, “they’re not exactly disinterested parties; their research appeared in Free Inquiry, a publication of the Council for Secular Humanism.” However, I must disagree with Matthews’s assertion that “the data seems to check out.” The article by Cragun et al suffers from several major deficiencies:

  • The authors use various ad hoc definitions of ‘charity’ that fit neither popular understandings or the term nor the broader legal framework within which nonprofit organizations exist; in fact, the article seems wholly ignorant of that larger framework.
  • They make use of incongruous figures, using mixtures of absolute dollar amounts and percentages of revenue from different timeframes.
  • They make use of surface-level research without digging deeper into figures that they cite, causing them to make some statements that are simply false.
  • They make assumptions about the revenues of religious congregations that are (1) absurd on their face, (2) based on small samples, (3) and/or incompatible with other assumptions that they make in the article.
  • They make estimates for various taxes using methods that we would not expect to yield accurate estimates.

I’ll take each of these on in greater detail below.

One final note before we dive into the article. Cragun et al refer repeatedly to the charitable status and subsidies that ‘religion’ enjoys or that ‘religions’ enjoy. ‘Religion’, of course, is an (often poorly defined) abstract concept, and abstract concepts – no matter how well defined – are neither given nonprofit status nor taxed. What Cragun et al are discussing in their article is not ‘religion’ or ‘religions’, but religious organizations. Moreover, they are not discussing all religious organizations – organizations that the authors consider both religious and predominantly charitable are not included – but a particular kind of religious organization: religious congregations. This is more or a pet peeve than anything else – the reification of religion often seems to lead to fuzzy thinking – but it is important to be clear about what we are discussing.

Read moreIf Churches Paid Taxes

Congregational Vitality and Ministerial Excellence… and Me

I’ve been a development professional ever since I graduated from seminary almost (gasp) ten years ago. I’ve worked in higher education – both religious and secular – and in community organizations. I’ve volunteered with local congregations and middle judicatories. In my free time, I’ve read and written about charity and fundraising from a variety of perspectives. A couple of years ago, I felt that this career was more than a career… it was a ministry and a calling.

And on April 3, I was ordained into Christian ministry in the United Church of Christ.

I won’t be changing jobs. I won’t be looking for a local congregation. I won’t be preaching every week or performing sacraments regularly or providing pastoral care. In a sense, very little has changed.

Except that my work is no longer my work… it’s the work of the church.

Ordination in the United Church of Christ begins with a process of discernment. During this process, the candidate meets with a committee from his or her local church as well as a committee from the Association (the geographically related group of churches of which the congregation is a part). Some of these meetings involve questions; and one of the questions that came up a lot in my process was why ordination mattered if I wasn’t going to be doing those things I won’t be doing.

My answer was that this was a ministry and a calling… and that my work isn’t just my work, it’s the work of the church.

So there was a certain joy for me when I read a post by Chris Xenakis at Vital Signs & Statistics, the blog of the United Church of Christ’s Center for Analytics, Research, and Data (CARD). Xenakis pointed to a recent-ish study by CARD entitled Congregational Vitality and Ministerial Excellent: Intersections and Possibilities for Ministry. Today, I want to talk a little bit about that study and what it found.

The study asked members of the United Church of Christ to rate their congregations on a set of marks of congregational vitality and their pastors on a set of marks of ministerial excellence. CARD then took the ratings in each area – congregational vitality and ministerial excellence – and ranked them from highest rated to lowest rated. Finally, they looked at the relationship between the marks of congregational vitality and the marks of ministerial excellence.

Here’s what they found.

First, they found that there were four marks of ministerial excellence that were significantly related to a large number of marks of congregational vitality:

The ability to mutually equip and motivate a community of faith (related to 8 vitality factors)

The ability to lead and encourage ministries of evangelism, service, stewardship and social transformation (related to 6 vitality factors)

The ability to read the contexts of a community’s ministry and creatively lead that community through change or conflict (related to 5 vitality factors)

The ability to frame and test a vision in community (related to 5 vitality factors)1Kristina Lizardy-Hajbi, William McKinney, Holly Miller-Shank, and Cameron Trimble, Congregational Vitality and Ministerial Excellence: Intersections and Possibilities for Ministry, Center for Analytics, Research, and Data (2015), 30

Second, they found that these marks of ministerial excellence “were the lowest-rated items by congregants.”2Lizardy-Hajbi et alCongregational Vitality and Ministerial Excellence: Intersections and Possibilities for Ministry, 30

Think about that: the abilities that clergy might have that correlate most closely with congregational vitality are the abilities that congregation members were least likely to say that their pastors displayed!

That’s not good. But it’s entirely understandable.

Here are the four marks of ministerial excellence that were rated highest:

Preaches the good news, lead worship and participate in the sacraments in a manner faithful to the broader Christian heritage and appropriate to the characteristics of a specific culture and setting

A thorough knowledge of, and personal engagement with, the Bible

Demonstrates moral maturity, including integrity in personal and public life and responsibility to self, family, church, and community

Communicates biblical knowledge in an understandable way3Lizardy-Hajbi et alCongregational Vitality and Ministerial Excellence: Intersections and Possibilities for Ministry, 29

These, not the marks linked to congregational vitality, are the skills we learn in seminary and through the discernment process. I was never asked about equipping a community of faith, stewardship and social transformation, leading a community through change, or framing a vision for a community. Instead, I was questioned about my belief that a person doesn’t have to be ordained to preside over communion.

Let’s own this: the church is focused on preparing clergy who are functionaries, not facilitators. We’re focused on preparing clergy who do very specific things – preaching, leading worship, presiding over sacraments, communicating biblical knowledge, being a good moral example, etc. – instead of empowering a community to do all of those things together.

What lesson can we take from this? I don’t think it’s that members of the clergy don’t need a seminary education, deep knowledge of the Bible and the Christian tradition, moral maturity, and so on. Neither does Xenakis.

I think the lesson is that we need more people being ordained to more work. We can recognize that different pastors will have different specialties. Not everyone will be an excellent preacher, or youth minister, or pastoral caregiver, or administrator. But among all of us – among the entirety of God’s people – we have all of these skills and more. We could have pastors who specialize in worship, youth ministry, pastoral care, administration, community building, stewardship, and so on. And we could educate clergy who could do those things – who could develop those “marketing, fundraising, vision-framing, entrepreneurial, and leadership skills”4Chris Xenakis, The Politician-ization of Authorized Ministry: Some Lenten Thoughts about Dying Churches, Congregational Resurrections, and Pastoral Leadership, (Vital Signs and Statistics: Blog, March 20, 2016)  – with theological and biblical integrity.

We could, in other words, give clergy the opportunity to specialize in the same way that we do with youth ministry. And we could recognize that those clergy who do specialize are not ‘junior clergy’, but simply clergy whose calling is narrow for good reason.

So… what does this have to do with me? I know the challenges of being ordained to a ministry that doesn’t look like traditional congregational ministry. I know what it is to have to justify the church’s sanction of a call. I know what it’s like to be asked why I’m bothering to go through this process if I’m not going to be a traditional pastor.

And as much as this was a process I went through because I feel called to be ordained. I also went through it because I think that the church is being called to something new, and because there are people who will come after me and I wanted to do my part to open the doors a little wider for them.

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