The following article, extracted primarily from the Diocese’ leadership newsletter Parish Pulse, offers useful insights into good practices for building commitment to the parish –particularly financial commitment.
On Going Formation – Not a Stewardship Drive
If you were to take an advanced 500 level college course as a freshman you would likely be unprepared to appreciate, understand and apply the material. Likewise without laying the proper foundation, efforts to strengthen financial generosity in and toward the parish can, and likely will, be misunderstood.
Part of a comprehensive effort toward parish renewal, increased stewardship (financial and otherwise) is a result — not a first step. It is something the parish works on twelve months of the year –or at least well in advance of the annual stewardship canvass.
Obviously any message or teaching area can be overdone – particularly one that appears to be about money. We do however recall words from CS Lewis. “People need to be reminded more than they need to be instructed.” With that –continue reminding!
As a way of underscoring that stewardship equates to more than money, consider asking for a commitment of time for support of various parish and other ministries. To preface this consider offering in-parish “giftedness” seminars and workshops to help members evaluate and discern their God given gifts, skills and talents and how these can be focused toward God.
A Job for Everyone
A number of parishes in our Diocese, admittedly not always with total success, focus on getting to a point where each parishioner has a clear job or role that they contribute to the parish and its ministries. Since it is well known that people are more likely to financially support charitable causes to which they have a real and active commitment the stewardship of personal time can be the leading edge toward stronger financial support.
Financial Stewardship Practices
Hopefully from the above we’ve reminded ourselves that “stewardship” is not totally about money. While stewardship is not a fund raising program, appropriate well executed programmatic elements can help parishes and parishioners to become more financially generous.
Here are a few of the practices that we have seen and heard to be valuable –when used in the right way in the right situation:
Establish Trust — Good Parish Fiscal Management
The first step to strengthening income from tithes and offerings is impeccable fiscal management in the parish.
If the parish appears to be poorly managed parishioners –particularly in difficult times — are reticent to make contributions. All it takes to get financial stewardship efforts sidetracked is one or two fumbled questions about budget status or mistakenly allocated expenses. Confidence erodes quickly.
Consider these points:
- Focus on clear, open, understandable management and reporting of the finances and administrative practices of the parish. Some parishes offer detail but the complexity is astounding and basic story seems to get lost.
- Keep people informed of parish financials throughout the year. Provide this in bulletins, newsletters or parish website monthly and quarterly financial updates. Keep these simple, short, understandable and regular.
- Be sure to provide a clear thorough year- end report. Make sure that it is audited, that the audit report is broadly available and its recommendations followed.
- Take particular care in managing restricted and temporarily restricted funds. Clearly call these out in year end reports. Communicate with donors about their desires on spending of these restricted donations. Don’t accept donations if you cannot agree to their restrictions.
- Scrub the budget. Nobody likes waste so be diligent in finding areas where savings can occur –without compromising the fundamental mission and vision of the community.
You Have to Ask
We would probably all like to believe that our parish has done such a good job of stewardship formation that we will consistently receive generous, important, meaningful donations from all members with little or no effort. This may be the case in some parishes but they are the exception.
Fr. Anthony Scott of Stewardship Advocates an Orthodox priest and editor of the book Good and Faithful Servant – Stewardship in the Orthodox Church cites research in his workshops that indicates the leading reason people donate to charitable causes is – – well — because they are asked! So it stands to reason that as part of a set of good parish stewardship practices — we need to ask. How we ask – hopefully respectfully, confidently and directly – as well as who asks and when we ask are important.
How do you do this in your parish?
The Dues Flaw
The “need to ask” forms the crux of the flaw of building parish stewardship practice around “dues”. A dues system is minimalistic. It blurs the need for parishioners to reflect on their gifts and blessings. And, it really provides no platform for “asking” people to make a commitment. Instead it tells people about minimums.
A Stewardship System
To get away from the minimalism of the dues mentality parishes — and parishioners — need a planned stewardship approach. People who plan their giving, either by making a pledge or by pre -determining a percentage to contribute to the work of the church give significantly more than those who decide what to give on a week-to-week basis. For many parishes this approach is a pledge system or sometimes known as an all member canvas.
Laity Do the Asking
Having teed up the idea that good practice in building financial support requires “asking”, the question could be – who should ask? Obviously all formation related efforts of the parish are led by the priest. But not every effort needs to be done by the priest. When the pastor is the only person speaking about the principles and importance of stewardship the message blends in with many other teaching messages — and cynical parishioners may easily ascribe other motivations to the priest’s message.
The Stewardship Team
The topics of stewardship and generosity become a wonderful opportunity for laity to take an important role in strengthening the parish. Why not appoint lay persons to run an annual stewardship campaign? And, by the way, since most parish treasurers have plenty to do, this need not be perpetually their job. Instead solicit lay persons to express, either in writing, video, or presentation, their personal narrative of the joys of proportional stewardship and how God has worked in their life. Peer to peer messages and requests are usually much more potent and and deliver greater impact.
If your parish stewardship efforts place all, or even most, of the heavy lifting tasks of strengthened stewardship on the back of your pastor (or treasurer) it will most likely under perform. We’ve offered this “laity does the asking” suggestion to numerous parishes.
Often the objection is, “Well I just couldn’t ask people for money.” Just as evangelization is not a gift shared by all it is true that not everyone is equipped for this ministry. However many people can speak passionately and persuasively about what is important to them. Are we as lay persons not called to express the hope that is in us?
Parish Vision: Depict a Result
Contrary to what you may think, tax deductions or personal recognition are actually not, in most cases,the primary motivators behind people making charitable donations. Instead experts say that philanthropists decide on a charity in basically the same way as they decide on personal investments. They give because they believe in the result to be achieved by the donation.
We suspect the same thought process is involved in tithes and offerings to the parish. Parishes need to continually articulate a vision capable of engaging parishioners to consistently make important, proportional and meaningful offerings. Have we built a picture of what we can accomplish together? Where do we believe God would like this parish to be in 3, 5, 10 years?
Communicate a solid future in terms of how your community intends to do an ever better job of doing Christ’s work — and how you spend money to do it.
Consistency and Consensus — Who is On Board?
Perhaps you have expressed that vision. If you believe you’ve done this well in your parish then check for consistency and consensus. Ask five people about your vision and direction? Can they answer? Do the answers agree? If not perhaps this answers why parishioners give back small portions of their income and assets to support the work of the parish.
Priorities: Making the Vision Real
One problem with visions of course is they can be horribly general – not memorable or useful. Lofty language in many instances is appropriate for the church but vagueness may preclude someone from committing to it. (Literally and figuratively.)
To overcome the fuzziness work on annually expressing the vision in terms of some specific “priorities” that align with the overarching vision. These priorities make the vision real and actionable and can become the magnet for a stewardly commitment of time and treasure. These priorities should express the prayerful, shared consensus of the community. If they come from the preferences of a small group of parish personalities (clergy or laity) the “priorities” likely will sound like pet projects that galvanize debate and even resistance — not action.
Priorities help describe what our parish can do with God’s help in a few key areas. One parish attempts to describe three priorities as part of their annual stewardship effort. Consider this formula:
- One priority focuses internally. (Physical/facilities needs or ministry related.)
- Another focuses on a local, external charitable or evangelization related relationship.
- Another focuses on a charitable effort that may be not local.
The priorities idea can also be the backbone of efforts to restructure the parish annual meeting to make it a more effective part of parish life.
The parish budget needs to describe a solid future for the parish in terms of what you do and how you spend money to do it. Once you’ve described the priorities make sure they are clearly visible in the parish budget.
We mentioned above the idea of scrubbing the budget. Yes, it is important to explore savings opportunities. But many parishes overdo the idea of thriftiness. An emphasis on savings can preempt helpful discussion about how we fulfill our mission as a Christian community. Make sure your budget looks out beyond one year (three to five) to express your vision.
“He who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and he who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully.”
Another budget related practice that is often mentioned by stewardship experts is then need to offer a vision/stretch budget — one that clearly expresses exciting possibilities. Most parishes unfortunately continue the practice of asking for pledges then building the budget around these pledges. If we fail to express what could be done with incremental resources we have failed to give practical result that can be achieved with a larger offering. Stewardship levels then stagnate.
Stewardship is not begging. It is also not a “sales pitch” or “arm twisting”. We don’t “hit people up for money” or “shake them down”. It is about helping people to learn to be cheerfully generous –with all of their resources. Asking in the right way is important.
Stewardship experts remind us that, though it may be our responsibility as Orthodox Christians, few people are inclined to generously support a parish or institution that appears desperate, apologetic, timid or embarrassed. Avoid talking about parish needs and financial distress. (Admittedly, there can be a fine line between helping parishioners face facts and practicalities and appearing to beg.) Few people, however, donate deck chairs toward the titanic. And actually relatively few people are truly inspired by a narrative that says we need you to “give more money to keep the lights on and pay the priest.”
Continuing on the theme of what not to say, various stewardship handbooks make the following suggestions:
- Avoid bargaining language: “I gave this much and God did this much for me.
- Do not get too personal or specific.
- Avoid talking dollar amounts: “If we all just average $10 a week”….”give $2 more each week”….”our fair share.”
- Likewise don’t threaten the consequences of failure to give: “We won’t be able to heat/air condition the church”….”We’ll have to sell the annex.”
- Many experts strongly recommend avoiding talking about “obligations”.
Stewardship is a free will action that demonstrates trust in God and a love for His Holy House and all His creation. Tithes need to be joyful, unconstrained, proportional and authentic — an offering willingly, gratefully made from the heart from the first share of God’s blessings. Authentic stewardship is neither grudgingly offered or compulsory but rather confident and trusting.
If you are considering making a change to your stewardship practices, you’re probably concerned. Change is never easy. Will people understand and accept a new approach?
One key practice is to remember, and expect, that what leaders (should) do is—well –lead! If, for example, you are adopting a pledge program to replace a dysfunctional dues approach, the parish council needs to be the first to step up and to seed the pledge period with hopeful, generous offerings that represent a first portion of God’s blessings.
No matter how much teaching of the basis and basics of stewardship is done and by whom, old habits and attitudes are hard to break. Over the long haul you’ll need to grow good stewards from the ground floor so to speak. Many parishes are incorporating a set of age appropriate church school lessons into their church school (and adult education) curricula.
Rite of Entrance — Set Expectations
Financial stewardship is not the first conversation to have with new people in your parish. If we regard new members as a ‘source of new income’ it will be obvious. Visitors will sense this and often not return.
However, when new parishioners commit to your parish via reception or transfer they need to know the lay of the land. How does the parish operate? What is expected of me? They’ll have questions in many areas – including financial stewardship. Don’t make it a mystery and, more importantly, do not be embarrassed to talk about the expectations that exist for parishioners to offer proportional generous support to parish upkeep and ministries.
After an appropriate time new members need to be asked and informed. Make sure new member packets explain expectations. Include that information on your parish website – perhaps with a special tab – that includes a description of your stewardship method an annual stewardship letter. As mentioned above make it clear how to make time and talent commitments as well.
Sharing Personal Stories
One the most powerful approaches to sharing principles of good stewardship with your parish is through the experiences of parishioners. Ask respected parishioners -be they parish leaders or those operating below the radar — so share how generous, grateful sharing of the gifts, financial and otherwise, they receive from God has been a blessing to them.