October 23, 2013

Rethinking the Pledge, Part 2: A New Way

Second in a two-part series. Read part 1 here.

These next few months are an opportunity for the Christian church to start talking in real terms about real life. It takes courage, in this case, to talk about money. Naming in real terms what amount of money we believe this church will need in the next year and why we believe people will want to give is hard, and yet it’s also really refreshing when you approach this season in that way.

But in order for this to have value the church also needs to be courageous in another area: a courage to re-think what we’re funding and why. If the Christian church is going to take advantage of this opportunity for real-talk, we’ve got to model in our own household what we’re requesting from others.

At St. George’s, Valley Lee, ironically, being real when it comes to talking about money has led us beyond finances and into some new, truly uncharted waters. Once you realize, like we have, that we’re really just talking about money this time of year you also realize that the institution called ‘church’ doesn’t necessarily need to be and, in fact, is poorly equipped to be the broker that translates people’s financial giving to God’s mission.

In our own budget-making process, we’ve freed congregational ministries from congregational operations. Now, ministries which struggled to get a few thousand dollars under the comprehensive, centralized operating budget earn three, four times as much as they once did. This is because their members are energized and authorized to go forth and be a blessing to the world. And money really does follow ministry-focused mission.

At the same time, giving to St. George’s lean, centralized operating budget has gone up significantly. We fund only a few things in our annual budget: mostly salaries, utilities, insurance costs and modest office and altar guild expenses; the slim skeleton of church operations, that is. But note that this cutting is only done in relationship to the freeing up of ministries.

What it actually does is allow our ministries to be a leading voice. Parishioners and friends of the parish who regularly give seem to have learned and, wonderfully, show in their financial giving that they appreciate the ways in which church operations do not serve themselves but, rather, give life to a decentralized, ministry-driven model in which the staff and utilities and other ‘things’ are actually coordinating vehicles and, at times, sources of inspiration and celebration for those ministry groups. Money also flows to operations, and the reality is that it flows a lot more readily to those which clearly exist to support, not micro-manage or compete with, ministry.

This year, then, we’re embarking on a new experiment. We’re ditching the pledge drive. Instead, in early December, we’ll send every member a box of donation envelopes with a letter. The letter will be marked by gratitude. It’ll also invite generosity. We’ll describe the work we’ve done this past year and give thanks to all those who support that work with their prayers, time, and gifts.

We will also share some real numbers and tell them how much our annual operating expenses are projected to be for 2014, how many households are receiving boxes of envelopes, and what a helpful average annual donation would be. And in sweeping terms we’ll tell those who, obviously, give more than that average that their gifts are appreciated and those who have never, to date, made a pledge or just cannot meet that average that any gift they give is welcome and equally appreciated. I’m willing to offer that total giving will not necessarily go up significantly but, at the same time, it will not decrease and, perhaps, it will show a modest improvement.

All of this is to say that a lot of groundwork has gone into this, so I’m not offering this new approach as something every church should do or even consider. But I am arguing that what we’ve done at St. George’s, Valley Lee is create a culture which not only speaks the good news but uses it to organize ourselves in new ways. Our vastly decentralized system has led to marked health and spiritual growth in our membership. We are becoming a church that practices what we preach: both asking people to give, and give freely with no strings attached, and becoming what we seek: not the owners nor the controllers but, indeed, the stewards of these gifts.