stewardship

Financial Support "Ain't What It Used To Be."

By Rev. Mindi

The second congregation I was called to as a pastor, an old New England church with white columns and red carpet down the aisles of the white pews and white walls, had a chart in the back of its sanctuary, built in 1825. The chart was for the old box pews, long pulled out of the main floor, but still standing up in the balcony. Because, as you may know, back in the day families paid for their pew for the year. Back then, when someone got mad at you for sitting in their pew, it was because they had paid good money for it. That was how church buildings were funded, Sunday School literature purchased, and how pastors were paid.

At some point, the box pews were pulled out. The idea of being able to buy your seat in church and pay more for better seats became appalling. You can’t claim it’s your pew anymore, and all are encouraged to give what they are able. And this model worked for some time, where those who had more could give their share, and churches began creating endowments and building bigger buildings. Families still had a lot of children that filled up those Sunday School classes.

But here we are, in the twenty-first century. Two adults with full-time incomes also may have student loans, childcare expenses, healthcare expenses, rent or mortgage, and other costs that leave little wiggle room. Fewer and fewer have disposable income. People are not able to give as much to the church, and churches are shrinking their budgets, cutting staff, and in some cases, closing altogether.

We know this. And we know the church is changing and the new worshiping communities don’t look like what we have known on Sunday mornings. For some of those communities, income isn’t a problem. They meet in coffee shops or at bars or other public places, and don’t pay rent, or pay little for reserved space. Many do not have a full-time pastor, but someone who leads their community and works a different full-time job. Some of them are not seminary trained and don’t have the same debt. The operating costs may be significantly less.

But there are still many who value seminary trained pastors, who need to pay their pastor something to help with their debt, who have expenses for worship space. And they have a lot in common with the traditional church coming in to today’s world: both need to figure out how to raise financial support.

Being a PTA mom, sometimes I turn my nose up at the word “fundraising.” All I can think about is wrapping paper and cookie dough sales. But we need to look at ways to raise financial support beyond what we are used to, whether we are in a new, innovative ministry that meets outside of the box, or if we are continuing within the traditional church—the old ways are not going to work any longer.

Here are some ideas I have seen traditional and non-traditional worshiping communities use:

--Dinner and Silent Auction

--Kids Carnival

--Community Festival and Appreciation

--Concerts

--Inviting people to partner with the community through financial giving, whether they attend worship or not, by inviting people to give to help fund meaningful work in the community.

--Online giving campaigns

For the next two weeks, the “out-of-the-box-in-the-box” worshiping community I am part of, Open Gathering, which is a ministry of Bellevue Christian Church in Bellevue, Washington, is partnering in an online fundraising effort with other innovative ministries in what we are calling the “Island of Misfit Toys” Fundraiser. We are inviting folks from our communities and those who support them to offer up an item for an online auction—something they received for Christmas they didn’t want, or new (and like-new) items they have, or handmade items (there are some delicious baked goods being offered by a former Manhattan pastry chef). You can check it out on Facebook, and even bid on items to support some of these innovative ministries happening around the country. To see what other ministries are being supported by this online auction, visit this website.

Feel free to steal these ideas. Better yet, reply to this post and share your own ideas for thinking outside of the box, partnering in the community, and helping to support new and innovative ministries, whether it happen within the traditional four-walled church, or outside of the box!

Rethinking Stewardship

By Rev. Mindi

It’s getting that time of year again, for those of us on a January-December fiscal year. Stewardship season. Pledge cards and budgets and all that.

I love and hate the season of stewardship.

I love the idea of recommitting ourselves to being good stewards of all of God’s gifts: our talents, our time, our finances, our very selves.  I grew up reciting a church covenant that included that concept of stewardship. We all participated, in all of who we are, with all of who we were. A little startup church that began in 1985 and sometimes had no more than ten members has managed to not only survive but thrive as a small church with this understanding of stewardship.

However, the first church I served in, a much larger church, talked about stewardship in the concept of filling out a pledge card. Don’t get me wrong—there were great “Stewardship Moments” during the worship which were mini-testimonials of what the church meant to them. We did a Gift’s Survey and tried to expand our concept of stewardship. But when it came down to it, the pledge cards were what drove the budget and drove the pulse of the congregation. A church with an operating budget of over two hundred thousand dollars, with an endowment—and every year there was talk of cutting the budget, cutting ministries—and cutting salaries. There was fear about not having enough.

I now serve a much smaller congregation. Pledge cards haven’t been filled out in years, and I have been told by leaders in the church they won’t fill them out on principal—it’s no one’s business to know what they will give except for God’s. While I could argue about giving as a spiritual practice and just like being concerned about their prayer and devotional life the church is concerned about their financial giving, I need to back up for a minute.

I believe that we have failed to teach about stewardship well in the church. 

This isn’t to say there aren’t good models of stewardship practiced in churches. But generally speaking in the churches I have served, and in conversation with many of my colleagues, we have limited stewardship to being about pledging or about financial giving only in our conversations.

We need to change our understanding of stewardship and we need to not be afraid of talking about all of our resources. Not just our finances, but using our gifts. How many of us scramble to find teachers every year for Christian Education programs? How many of us cannot find enough volunteers for our weekday ministries?  So are we limiting Christian Education to an outdated model of Sunday School? Are we continuing weekday ministries during which most of the people likely to volunteer are working? How can we use our resources of time, talent, finances—and our very selves—to the best of our God-given ability?

We may need to rethink our ministries of Christian Education and worship to be more inclusive, as evidenced by many churches ending traditional Sunday School programs and incorporating education and worship together in a multi-generational setting. We may need to rethink how we ask people to contribute to the work of God through the church. Maybe traditional pledge cards don’t cut it any longer. Maybe we need to commit ourselves, every year, to the fullness of the call to be the body of Christ.

We need to teach stewardship, that all of us have a responsibility to contribute and participate in the body of Christ. The old ten percent tithe doesn’t cut it any longer, as very few can afford to give ten percent with student loans, medical bills and just the plain old cost of living. But we can give in multiple ways. All too often, stewardship has been understood as financial giving alone. Volunteering one’s time has been a response to a call for a need for volunteers from leaders in the church.  Instead, we need to think about all the ways we can give, and share what our gifts are instead of waiting for someone to ask.  But we need to retrain the ways we talk and think about stewardship in order for that to happen effectively.

I don’t have all the answers—I’m still working on it—but for the past two years I have made new pledge cards that I distribute to the church. On them we write what we are thankful for in the past year. Then we write what we hope we can give in the coming year. Only a few write down a financial amount. Most write down a gift they can share—praying, helping in the church kitchen, volunteering with children. And all of us work to contribute out of what we have.

I believe not only will we survive, but we will thrive, when we all take part, recognize we are all the body of Christ, and that we are in this together.

All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved. 

--Acts 2:43-47 

The Practice of Stewardship

I’m going to begin by saying I don’t have the answers to this. I’ve been thinking about this since I started at this church in September, even before I began, and still haven’t come up with an answer.

How do we practice stewardship better with limited resources?

Facts: few people give 10% of their income anymore.  I know I don’t, and can’t, with the amount of student loan debt, healthcare expenses and other things that have been added into my life. I’d like to give 10% and strive to get closer to that amount, but I can’t right now. 

In larger congregations, traditional stewardship campaigns may work, but I bet they don’t work as well as they used to.  While you may have a greater pool of people who can give ten percent or more, it’s not the same as it once was.  In smaller congregations, the pool of course is much smaller.  And there are income demographics to take into consideration.  I currently serve a small church, with most folks on a fixed income (retired) or two-income households that still struggle to make ends meet.  Most young adults in my congregation still live at home and/or depend upon their parents for childcare or other help. 

So what are our options, as income shrinks and operating expenses grow?

Some churches have opted to sell the building.  This is a great option for those who can go through the process.  It is difficult.  So many have memories that intertwine “church” with “building” and it is hard to let go.  I have now seen a number of congregations who have sold their building and moved into rental situations or have purchased much smaller, more efficient buildings for their ministries and they are thriving. Still others are meeting in more communal settings such as malls, schools, community centers, and bars.  Operating expenses are down, plus they have a nice financial cushion for the period afterwards.

For churches that aren’t in commercial locations, however, this can be a challenge.  Crunching the numbers, it may not be a great financial decision in the long run—short-term needs will be met, but longer term needs are set aside. 

There is, of course, the option of renting space. Most churches (in fact, I think all of the mainline Protestant churches I know if in the area) rent space to other groups.  We already do so.  What happens then is that one owns a building one cannot use except for the previously reserved times and dates.  As ministry is moving back out of the building and into the community, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but churches end up in the tenant/landlord business which isn’t always good business or good ministry.  I have seen some great models of this relationship where the church building has become more of a community center.  It can work, but it can be difficult as well.

I think, however, the question still needs to be asked of stewardship.  What does stewardship look like in the 21st century? Is it always about tithing or giving money?  What else does stewardship mean?

I have always thought of stewardship as taking care of the gifts God has given us.  Gifts such as finances, but also our time, our prayers, and our gifts.  Stewardship needs to have a holistic approach.  Those who cannot give much financially maybe give more of their time. We all know that one person in the church who does so much—they aren’t always the biggest givers financially but they are the biggest givers of themselves.  There are also those you know who are praying for you and the church.  They are giving much of their spiritual gifts and energy.  We need to find ways of cultivating those gifts and honoring those who give out of what they have.

But we still need to talk about money, and it’s not easy.  Some are repulsed by the thought of churches talking about money, especially pastors talking about money from the pulpit.  This hasn’t changed—if anything, it’s become more difficult as the gap between the rich and the poor increases.  There are those who cannot afford to give and those who don’t believe they should have to give because they can afford it. 

As I stated before, I don’t have the answers.  But I do believe we have to change the way we think about stewardship.  It’s beyond money, and yet still includes money.  It is beyond the giving of our individual gifts but it includes all that we can give, individually and collectively.   It involves the questions of how we use our buildings and whether it’s time to rent or sell our buildings.  It also involves the question of what is our purpose and vision and are we needed anymore?  

The questions about continuing on or closing are also difficult.  My small church is choosing to continue on, casting a new vision and generating new ideas and dreams for the church.  There is a lot of great energy here.  And yet, a church twice our size decided to close due to dwindling numbers.  Are we fools for thinking we can go on? Or are we dreamers with a lot of faith?  I think we may be a little of both. 

How are you addressing stewardship in your congregation?  How are you rethinking your ministries?  How are you rethinking the purpose of having a building?  How are you rethinking your church? For newer congregations, how are you addressing stewardship?