October 7, 2015

Living Within Our Giving

In my head I really believe this, and I’ve long thought it’s absolutely fundamental to effective ministry. I trace the origin of the concept back to my time in the Diocese of Chicago’s intentional curacy program, and my introduction to the thinking – and the person – of Kennon Callahan, author of The Twelve Keys of an Effective Church, among other volumes. I think Callahan said this, or at least he planted the seeds in my mind and, like I said, it seems very, very basic to me. 

But then I attend meetings with clergy and diocesan leaders and it seems that I’m the only one who thinks this. And then I start to think that I might be wrong or misguided. But, still, I can’t shake it from my mind. And, still, I think it’s a downright bedrock truth of effective ministry.

The concept is simple, or at least I think so: Congregations need to fit their basic expenses into their baseline – let’s call it pledge and plate – giving. That is, congregations need to live within what people give.

The point is about making the institution called ‘church’ speak clearly the message of Christian discipleship. A congregation’s baseline giving, most notably plate and pledge giving, is perhaps the most significant numerical indicator of how well that congregation is engaging the work of Christian ministry. Pledge and plate giving is the fruit, so to speak, of everything a church does which is readily identifiable as Christian ministry: worship, formation, preaching, pastoral care, outreach, engaging the neighborhood – all of these streams of activities flow back into whether and how well the local congregation is a vibrant missionary center. And all of those streams of activities reflect themselves in certain numbers, financial giving among them.

I’m not calling for austerity measures; by no means! In fact, St. George’s in Valley Lee, Maryland – the congregation I have the pleasure to serve – lives with a deficit budget, and we have lived that way for a long time. Our giving is increasing, and we have set for ourselves a goal to increase baseline giving every year. We’re doing this by increasing our congregational habits and practices around building disciples. Over the past eight years, as St. George’s has stopped acting like a staid institution and started talking about Jesus and discipleship and generosity, total dollars given via pledge and plate have gone up 54% whereas expenses have gone up less than 4%. We’re getting closer and closer, year after year, to bringing the two ends of baseline expenses and baseline giving together. We have used Endowment funds and, simply, the grace of the Holy Spirit to help move us in the larger direction of sustainability.

But our goal is to fit our baseline expenses into our baseline giving. And we’re closer than we’ve ever been.

Adhering to this goal has four consequences, three of which are things over which the local congregation has direct control; the fourth is a bigger matter. First, we have to work especially hard to raise baseline giving. At St. George’s, we are doing this and it means having honest and hard conversations with people about membership, discipleship, and the future of the church. Second, we have to work to maintain and keep trim baseline expenses. St. George’s budget fits on one sheet of paper, and it’s barely 60 line items. It’s trim and lean and simple. Third, we have to find other ways to raise awareness (and, in turn, money) for those ministries which hold promise but are not on our baseline budget. That’s why we have lively and quite substantial financial activity reflected on St. George’s restricted funds balance sheet, representing the work and awareness that’s being raised when the People of God go about the Work of God. These three consequences represent very significant shifts in thinking, and they are challenges to the status quo operational mindset of the average local parish church. At the same time, these are challenges which are incredibly healthy for a congregation.

The fourth consequence is something over which the local parish church has little to no control. Fourth, then, if all of the above does not work – if after raising giving, trimming expenses, and allowing fundraising to go ‘off budget’, baseline giving and baseline expenses still don’t meet – the only thing left to change is nothing less than the very model of church. For us in southern Maryland, our current model is something we’ve adapted only as recently as the past few decades. That model is the idea that each congregation, each parish is a separate entity and it has its own separate priest: what we’ve taken to calling the ‘one-parish/one-priest’ model. Given that a significant portion of the congregations in southern Maryland in the Diocese of Washington are having to resort to part-time clergy leadership or extended supply clergy, it’s already proven that the ‘one-parish/one-priest’ model is largely unsustainable, even down here, even in this diocese. Meanwhile, the wider historical fact gives us comfort and pause, for these nearly 400-year-old congregations only adopted the ‘one-parish/one-priest’ model no earlier than, say, fifty years ago, when babies were booming and an influx of federal spending came down to this peninsula. Changing the model of church is something that old churches, such as ours, know very well how to do. It’s never easy, I suppose, but it’s been done time and time again.

More and more, I think we need to stop looking for “alternative streams of income” – that was the buzz-word I heard at a clergy meeting last week – or fundraisers or, frankly, any other activities which are not fundamentally and readily identifiable Christian ministries to help ‘plug the gap’ between baseline giving and baseline expenses. I guess I’m just downright tired of ‘plugging the gap’ and the kind of thinking that leads to these limitations. I’m looking forward to this church, my church turning headlong into the struggle and facing it with the grace and power of Good News!

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