Monday, May 20, 2013

Where Did It All Begin?

Last week the staff with whom I work had a "retreat."  It was really just an ever-so-slightly longer than usual weekly staff meeting, but we did have a different agenda.  Well, again to be honest, we had our usual agenda but we whipped through it double-time so that we could do something different -- we wanted to intentionally work on deepening our relationships with one another. After all, we're all working for a church -- an intentional faith community -- and so it seems to make sense that we shouldn't just be to each other people who happen to work at the same place.  We, too, should be about cultivating connections among ourselves.

And, so, after our usual work was done I invited everyone to think of a time when they most fully felt their "calling."  I was purposefully vague by what I meant about that, and I offered alternatives to the question such as:  "Can you think of an early spiritual experience?"  "When did you first feel yourself stepping on to the path you're on now?"  "Would you talk about a time when you felt profoundly alive?"  (To be honest, I figured that folks would all have their own interpretations of the question anyway, no matter how specific I got, and after all the point really wasn't the particular answer as much as the sharing.)

When it was my turn I talked about a time when I was at either Camp Westminster or Denton Lake.  (Both were Presbyterian camps that I attended during elementary school.  I think it was around 5th or 6th grade that I switched over to the Methodists, so this event happened pretty early in life.)  I remember a conversation between a couple of counselors that had begun around the camp fire which eventually moved over to the picnic table near our cabins.  This conversation has a lot to do with who I am today, what I'm doing, and why I'm doing it.

One of the two was a guy we all called "Rev. Ev."  His name was Evan, and he was going to be going to seminary that next year.  He'd earlier that evening told us the story of his sense of "call."  He'd been in a terrible car accident a year or so before.  The entire car had been demolished, it was truly totaled, except for the driver's compartment.  His door opened easily, and he was able to walk out of his mangled car without a scratch.  And right then and there he dedicated himself to serving the God he believed had saved him.

The other participant in this late-night conversation somewhere around forty years ago was one of the female counselors.  I don't remember her name.  But I remember the way she challenged Rev. Ev, the way she pushed, and prodded, and refused to accept too-simple answers.  My memory is that she wasn't being mean, although I think she was certainly somewhat enjoying the discomfort she knew she was creating.  But at her core she was truly curious; she really wanted to understand; and she took all of this too seriously to be satisfied with pat answers.

Visually I remember the way the campfire highlighted only their eyes as they talked.  And if "eyes are the windows of the soul" then there was a true conversation, perhaps even a true communion of sorts, between those two souls.  I can close my eyes today and be vividly back there in an instant.

And one of the things I believe that evening did for me was to awaken a delight in such conversations that has only grown over the intervening years.  I find them thrilling.  Delicious.  ("Taste and see that the Lord is good," is one of my favorite of Biblical verses for describing the delight of the spiritual life.)  There are few things that bring me to life more than really engaging deeply and courageously with someone else's spiritual journey; seeing how it's been for them and sharing how it's been for me.  And as an ordained minister -- a professional spiritual person -- I get to have these kinds of conversations a lot.  Not as much as I'd like or as my non-clergy friends might imagine, but a lot.  And every so often I get to have one during which it seems that everything else fades away but our eyes, and I can almost smell the woodsmoke.

In Gassho,


Saturday, May 18, 2013

Musings on Money

Last Sunday, Mother's Day, I noted that I'd much rather preach the annual canvas sermon to my congregation than the annual Mothers' Day sermon.  (I said, "Nobody wants to talk about money, but some people actually like their mothers . . ."  I said that on Mothers' Day it's harder to find the right balance.)

But that got me thinking about money and, specifically, the giving of money to the church.  That and the fact that last week we also announced to the congregation I serve that a goodly number of people have paid nothing on this year's pledge and that, two months out from the end of our fiscal year, if we were to add up all of the currently unpaid pledges from folks who've paid 50% or less of this year's pledge we'd be looking at approximately $100,000.  That's $100,000 that our community members have promised to one another, and that we've budgeted for, but that at least so far looks like won't be coming in.  (And if we add up all the pledges from folks who've pledged for this year but not yet for next year then we'd be looking at $200,000 of shortfall next year.)  And, yet, most of the folks I see on Sunday mornings seem to be feeling really good about our congregation; seem to be feeling really engaged and energized.  So something's not clicking; there's some kind of disconnect.

I know that a lot of people from Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church - Unitarian Universalist read this blog, yet a lot of folks from other UU churches (as well as from churches of other stripes and no churches at all) do too.  So I'm really not musing here about the fiscal foibles of the congregation I'm currently serving.  I really am thinking about money, and the giving of money to the church, in a wider context.  I'm really dancing with a pretty generalized question.

Why is it that so many faith communities have so much trouble raising the funds needed to do the things they do from the very people who are the primary beneficiaries of those things?  

It seems odd, and I know is frustrating to church leaders widely, that this is so.  In general congregations -- again, at least the liberal/progressive congregations I know the most about -- are almost always one small problem away from disaster.  No matter how excited their members are about what's happening in the church the annual budget process is always a matter of figuring out how to squeeze the most out of every last dollar.  Year after year congregations "muddle through," knowing how much more they could do if they were better funded, yet not being able to increase the congregation's financial offerings.  There's an old joke -- the minister ascends to the pulpit and says, "I have good news, and I have bad news.  The good news is that we have all the money we need to create the church of our dreams!  The bad news is that most of it is stuck in your wallets." 

I think that there are probably several reasons for this.  Here are three:

People no longer know what's appropriate to give.  This is a big one, especially in congregations in which a lot of folks grew up outside of "the church."  This is definitely true of a lot of Unitarian Universalist congregations -- where in many cases a majority of members grew up in other denominations or outside of any organized religion -- but it's increasingly true within all liberal faith communities. That institutional memory of just what it takes to keep a church alive -- and the institutional commitment needed to do it -- just hasn't been passed down efficiently from one generation to the next.  My parents, and even more my parents parents, knew and understood the meaning of the phrase "sacrificial giving."  They understood that the goal of giving -- especially giving to a church -- was not to try to get away with giving as little as you can, or to give only what one is comfortable giving, but to give to the point that you feel it.  To give to the extent that there's a little sacrifice in one's giving.  I'm afraid that this is a foreign concept to the majority of people in the majority of today's congregations.

I've known double-income couples where one is a doctor and the other a lawyer and yet whose annual pledge to their church was less than that made by a single-income elementary school teacher.  To be fair, the former probably also gave to other charities as well, and may have had other expenses like country club dues and marina fees for their boat that the teacher didn't have.  It really doesn't work to compare one person's donation to another's on a dollar-to-dollar basis.  It is fascinating, though, to think about our giving on a percentage-of-income basis.  (And, as my mentor was fond of saying, "if you're asking gross or net you're missing the point.)

So . . . my family and I give roughly 3% of our income to the church.  It's a stretch for us, yet one that feels really worth it to us.  We believe in what church, in general, and Unitarian Universalist churches, in particular, can do for individuals and for the community.  And while 3% is nowhere near the tradition of a tithe -- 10% -- I feel pretty good about.  In part that's because it's an amount that, as I said, is a stretch for us.  In part it's also because I know that I've heard the figure that the average Unitarian Universalist gives 1% or less.  (And if you add up all of their charitable giving it comes in at less than 3%.)  I know that there are plenty of people giving considerably more than that, but there are considerably more who are giving a whole lot less.  In fact, I've heard it said that if everyone in the average congregation were to give only 2% of their income to the church -- and that means both that the folks below that mark increase but also that those above decrease to it -- most congregations would be able to double, if not triple, their budgets.

Another reason for the challenges many churches have in this area is that churches never really learned how to ask for money.  If you think about the congregational appeals you may have received -- or participated in -- over the years I think you'd agree that the vast majority of them sound something like this:

Well!  We barely scraped by last year, and that only because we cut everything to the bare bones.  We'd really like to do some good things this year, so we really, really, really hope you'll give our church some money because otherwise we're going to be in serious trouble . . . again.

Right?  Yet have you ever received an appeal from any other non-profit that sounded like that?  No matter how tight things might have actually been, most non-profits frame their appeals for donations in terms of all the good they are doing and all the visions they have of the future.  Rather than begging you to solve their desperate problems they invite you to help create new solutions.

This observation comes from a wonderful new book that I recently discovered.  (Actually, I didn't discover it.  A colleague who's recommendations I greatly respect, Tandi Rogers, mentioned it on FaceBook a month or so ago, and I immediately ordered myself a copy!)  The book is Not Your Parents' Offering Plate: a new vision for financial stewardship by J. Clif Christopher.  Rev. Christopher, a long-time parish minister and now professional fundraising consultant for churches, challenges much of the conventional wisdom of congregations about how to ask for money and, for that matter, why we do it.  A bottom-line summary of the book might be this:  organizationally, the church is a non-profit, so it might be wise to heed the lessons learned by virtually every other non-profit when it comes to successfully soliciting donations.

Here's one practical ramification of this notion -- how many other institutions give each and every one of their potential donors their entire line-item budget?  Not many.  Pretty much none, actually.  That's because these other institutions realize that people don't give to support such a detailed description of costs incurred; nobody donates to ensure that an organization can buy more copy paper next year.  People donate to a vision and, even more, to a vision enacted -- people give their money (as well as their time and their energy) to people served, lives changes, impact made.  Yet it is the rare congregation that actually engages its constituents at this level come pledge time.  More often it's making a plaintive plea for folks to increase their pledges enough so that they might be able to make a minute adjustment to a budget that barely allowed them to scrape by this past year.  Not particularly inspiring.

There may be another, perhaps even more fundamental, reason than this.  Today I was listening to the TED Radio Hour on NPR and heard a wonderful program about giving.  One segment looked at Dan Pallotta, whose original TED Talk is below.  Pallotta asserts that even non-profits really don't understand what's needed when it comes to inspiring philanthropic giving and that, "the things we've been taught to think about giving, and about charity, and about the non-profit sector are actually undermining the causes we love and our profound yearning to change the world."  As I listened I thought about the situation at TJMC, and the situation in liberal/progressive faith communities generally, and I thought it worth sharing some of these musings.

I know I've been away from the blogosphere for a while, and I know that this is an awfully long re-introduction, but I hope that you'll give this topic just about 18 more minutes so that you can listen to what Dan Pallotta has to say.  I hope you'll find it as worthwhile as I have.

In Gassho,