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.

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.

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.

Emily C. Heath: On Throwing the Baby Jesus Out with the Bath Water

That is counter-cultural to what my generation has heard for its whole existence. It’s Niebuhr’s classic idea of Christ transforming culture. And, if the church is to be “marketed” to the spiritual seekers under 40, this is our strongest “selling point”. The days of obligatory church attendance are over. If people fill our pews again it won’t be because we are offering something they can get anywhere else. It will be because we are sharing a Gospel that challenges and sustains them.