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,


Print this post


Lynn said...

This is just a musing; I'm not at all sure how to apply it to the specifics of supporting a UU church. But I visited a lot of spiritual sites in Asia over the last few months, and I talked to a number of people for whom faith is a bedrock, unquestioned part of life. In Burma, the monks go begging for their daily food, but that's a misnomer. They make their rounds of specific houses, and those houses cook a regular meal for a given number--it's their pledge if you will. Burma is a poor country, and so is Viet Nam, but temples there are well supported. There is always money for the house of worship. They are, literally, covered in gold. I came with a bias against putting money into idols and lofty buildings, but I saw a fundamental belief that was very moving (if not personally convincing). Yes, we are connected to our church, but not in that central way. Shifting perspective to our country, it's true that those who have least are giving more (as a proportion of income, and certainly of disposable income). I think it has to do with the myth of independent achievement. "I worked hard for what I've got and it's mine."

Adding one other seemingly random thought, most of us are one disaster away from catastrophe. I heard a Freakonomics episode that said almost no one felt confident they could raise $2000 in 30 days, and that included getting loans from friends. That shocked me. Those folks with the boat loans may be floating in shallow water indeed.

Cathy Finn-Derecki said...

The trouble is that in the case of a given congregation, the size of the "pie" is fixed. So, it's a very different paradigm to get a fixed number of people to give MORE than to get MORE people to give (which is the thrust of this talk). I think the mechanics of giving are different than they were when I was a kid. When that collection plate comes around, we all have a debit card in our wallets and don't carry cash like our parents did. How many of us have enough cash in our wallets, or even HAVE a checkbook on us? My full-time mom dealt with the mechanics of making sure she had the church envelope and checks done before service. Today's parents have have full-time jobs, hectic lives, lots of stress, and in many cases, much less disposable income than our parents' generation. Make the mechanics of giving easier, and you may just reap more funds from pledges.