Last Posts

  • Thanking people

    In the last posting we considered what gratitude can do for us — that is the experience of gratitude when we are on the receiving end of a gift.  But there is a different experience of gratitude that occurs when we are on the giving end.  To put it another way, in the first case it is our own gratitude we experience but in the second case it is another’s.

    What is it like to be thanked for a gift we have given?  I’d say it’s . . . gratifying.  It feels good to be thanked, to be acknowledged, to be recognized for what we have done.  We don’t always give a gift with the expectation of being thanked (for example, anonymous gifts).  But in the majority of cases there is a normal and entirely legitimate expectation that the recipient of our gift will say “thank you”.  When thanks are not expressed, there is something incomplete about the experience of giving.

    As children we are taught to say “please” and “thank you”.  My mother tried valiantly to train me to sit down immediately after Christmas and my birthday and write thank-you notes to my distant aunts and uncles who had sent me a gift.  It was simply good manners, she would say (even if I didn’t care much for the gift).

    Cygnus Applied Research Inc., founded by an Ontario woman named Penelope Burk, has developed a philosophy it calls Donor-Centered Fundraising®.  In the company’s landmark study on donor motivation, they found that “87% of Cygnus’ study respondents said they would give again the next time they were asked, 64% would make a larger gift, and 74% would continue to give indefinitely, if they received the following every time they made a gift:

    1. prompt, meaningful acknowledgment of their gifts
    2. reassurance that their gifts will be directed as donors intend
    3. meaningful results on their gifts at work, before they are asked for another contribution”

    “This basic gesture automatically transforms fundraising from transactional, which values only the narrow activity of asking for money, to relational which expresses how much you appreciate your donors and demonstrates your willingness to be accountable to them for the contributions they have made.”

    http://www.cygresearch.com/about/dcfphil.php

    How often do we thank people in the church for their gifts of money, or service, or even their presence?

    In my experience, it is a minority of congregations that even include a thank-you letter with the annual donation receipt handed out or mailed to donors each February.  We should be looking for opportunities to thank people, beyond this bare minimum, for what they give .  How many different ways could we find to express our gratitude to them if we started looking?

    There are two barriers that might account for our reluctance to thank church members for their giving.

    One is possibly a deep-seated attitude, resulting from years of exposure to the stewardship paradigm, that when people give they are just doing their job as stewards.  Why should we thank people for doing what they have an obligation to do?

    The other is a conundrum about who should do the thanking.  It can feel awkward to thank each other, particularly in a small congregation.

    In my view thanking donors is one of the responsibilities of the formal leadership — and that means Council chair and pastor(s).  Why not have both of them sign letters, or jointly make public expressions of appreciation?

    I know an Anglican priest, rector of a fairly large parish, who hand-writes a personal note on every thank-you letter that accompanies the annual donation receipt.  The larger the donation, the longer the note (of course, he knows who gives how much).  It takes time, yes, but he considers it a crucial part of his job.

    Is there someone at your church who has made thanking people an important part of their job?

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  • What Gratitude Can Do For Us

    This book appeared a few years ago in a reading list published by the Globe and Mail on the Saturday before Thanksgiving Day.  The author is a professor of psychology at the University of California Davis and a leading scholar in the positive psychology movement.  More than that, he is probably a Lutheran — after all, who else would quote from the LBW in a book on psychology?

    Emmons reports on a series of experiments designed to measure whether the experience of gratitude had any observable effects.

    “We discovered scientific proof that when people regularly engage in the systematic cultivation of gratitude, they experience a variety of measurable benefits: psychological, physical and interpersonal.”

    Robert A Emmons, Thanks!

    Remarkably, the experimental group still enjoyed the benefits of their directed behaviour six months after the experiment ended.

    What was it that the scientists had the subjects do?  Once a week, for ten weeks, they kept a gratitude journal in which they listed five things they were grateful for that had happened the previous week.

    The author lists a number of other techniques we can use to help us experience a sense of gratitude for what we have.  One of them is called “going through the motions”.

    “By living the gratefulness we don’t feel, we begin to feel the gratefulness we live.”

    Brother David Steindl-Rast

    What would people be willing to pay for a drug that made them feel happier and more optimistic; that reduced their health complaints and helped them sleep longer and awake more refreshed; that improved their relationships and made them feel less lonely?  Those are the experimental results Dr. Emmons attributed to a few minutes of drug-free gratitude journalling per week.

    After reading the book, I conducted an experiment of my own.

    A congregation had invited me to speak during sermon time at the 8:15 a.m. service on a cold, snowy January morning in Northern Ontario.  The group that faced me as I stood in the pulpit consisted of about 25 hardy souls scattered throughout a sanctuary that could hold several times that number.  Few people made eye contact with me as I began to speak; many people had tightly folded arms and wore the characteristic scowl of “God’s frozen people”.  With some trepidation I invited them to turn to their neighbour and take turns describing one thing in their life that they were grateful for.

    Within moments the sanctuary came alive with the buzz of conversation.  When I called “time” to end the exercise, the people who turned back to face me had been transformed.  Their eyes were bright and attentive, smiles had replaced frowns and bodies were relaxed.  It was a minor miracle.  Just to be sure that it wasn’t a fluke, I tried the same experiment at the 10:30 service and observed similar results.

    If people knew that gratitude was good for them – in body, mind and soul – would they pursue it out of sheer self-interest?  How might we be changed by cultivating an attitude of gratitude?  How might our congregations be transformed if a growing number of members started experiencing gratitude and enjoying its benefits?

    My guess is that cultivating gratitude is a way of beginning to nurture a culture of generosity in our congregations.

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  • T is for Thanksgiving

    Outside of churchland, the word “thanksgiving” is primarily used as the name of an autumn holiday.  Most people in Canadian society probably associate Thanksgiving with a meal of turkey, root vegetables and pumpkin pie.  If they bother to think of its origin and meaning, the best they might come up with is a hazy image of our country’s agrarian past.

    In the context of how we can nurture generous giving, I draw your attention to two separate, but related, senses of thanksgiving:

    • being thankful for what we have;
    • thanking people for what they give.

    Each of the next two posts will treat one of those aspects of thanksgiving.  In this post I will begin a general exploration of the relationship between gratitude and generosity.

    My general hypothesis is that generosity can be influenced by the experience of gratitude.   In one case it is the gratitude we experience for what we have received, while in the other case it is the gratitude we experience for what we have given.  In the next post I will lay out the scientific case for what gratitude can do for people, but as yet I have not seen any empirical evidence connecting increased gratitude with increased generosity.  So it will have to remain a hunch for now.

    “Gratitude” comes from the Latin word gratia meaning “favour”.  Gratia is the root of our words “grace” and its relatives (gracious, graceful), as well as “gratis”, “gratuity” and “gratuitous”.  The Latin gratus means “pleasing”, and gives us our words “gratify” and “congratulate”.

    “Gratitude as a discipline involves conscious choice.  I can choose to be grateful even when my emotions and feelings are steep and hurt and resentful.”

    Henri Nouwen

    While “gratitude” shows up only twice in the NRSV translation of the Bible, “thank” and its derivatives appear more than 150 times.  The imperative “give thanks” occurs 33 times.

    In the next two posts we will look at what it might mean to give thanks in a more deliberate and mindful way.

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  • The Pastor’s Example

    I wasn’t planning to write on this subject.  However, the other day I received an email from a congregational leader I’ve known over the years.  It is reproduced below, edited only to protect the identity of the author, congregation and pastor concerned.

    I have been given the uncomfortable task of trying to organize a stewardship committee in a dysfunctional congregation.  Like so many Eastern Synod churches, our congregation is going through a difficult time financially and trying to start an effective committee probably will not be possible until our current crisis has been resolved.  But I do have a lingering question which I would like to see addressed by Synod,  if possible, regarding pastoral stewardship.

    The question involves ongoing giving to a congregation by their pastor.  This has been troubling be me for a while since I became financial secretary of our congregation.  Perusing our records, I have noticed that our pastor and spouse have given next to nothing back to the congregation to help meet the operational requirements of the church. This trend has continued to the present.

    While consulting our previous financial secretary to ascertain his experiences with the current pastor and previous pastors regarding donations, I was told that previous pastors had been generous in their givings to the congregation’s financial health.  But he noted that he had not recorded any operational funds given by our pastor.  So there is a consistency in the pastor’s giving habits since being called to our congregation.

    To finally get to my question(s), what can a congregation expect in the way of donations from their pastor to the financial health of his or her congregation?  Does Synod set down any financial expectations or guidelines for pastors to try to meet in their call?  Does the Seminary teach prospective ministers about sustaining stewardship support from pastors towards their congregations?  I have noted that there is nothing about pastoral stewardship in any of the missives which you have composed for your Stewardship and Resource Development blog.  Perhaps it is assumed that pastors are giving as they are able.  Perhaps this is a subject upon which you could do some research and consultation, and post an article in your blog.

    When I see the generous level of compensation which our pastor has received from us and the perceived lack of respect and support for the congregation it makes me ill.  I am sorry to lay this on you but this subject, as you have mentioned in one of your blogs, is not being discussed in congregations any more.  As a matter of fact, other than myself, no one in our congregation knows who gives what to the church and our current pastor has never asked me for any information on this subject.  So addressing financial stewardship as an obligation of both those in the pews and those in the pulpit should be a more common topic of interest within the church as a whole.

    What is your reaction to this email?  Does it describe a unique situation?  Or is it common enough that it needs to be addressed by . . .  whom?

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  • The Congregation’s Example

    In the ELCIC, the ministries of the wider church beyond the local level are financed by a system we call “benevolence”.  The system is voluntary; each congregation decides for itself how much it will contribute to synodical, national and international expressions and ministries.

    It wasn’t always this way.  Prior to the 1970s, we used an apportionment system.  The total spending budget of the synod (which also includes contributions to the national church) was apportioned out to congregations.  Each congregation was assigned an amount which it was expected to contribute.  The apportionment was based on membership, so of course there was much debate on how to count members, which membership category to use, and why membership by itself was too crude a measure on which to base such an important decision.  These arguments were largely about fairness, about an equitable distribution of the burden of financial support.  When debate didn’t work, some congregations resorted to playing games with their membership numbers in order to reduce their share of the burden.

    After years of complaining, debating and creative accounting the Eastern Synod decided that a voluntary system would be better for a variety of reasons.  One of those reasons was consistency.  Congregations would be expected to contribute to the ministry of the wider church in exactly the same way as they expected their own members to contribute to local ministry.

    I don’t know if it was pointed out at the time, but one of the consequences of adopting a voluntary benevolence system is that congregations now model behaviour for their members.   The congregation’s relationship with the synod is analagous to the member’s relationship with the congregation.  The way a congregation decides how much to give as its benevolence offering, and the spirit in which the decision is made and carried out, speaks volumes about the culture of giving in the congregation.  And for that matter, synods — which make voluntary contributions to the ELCIC — model behaviour for congregations.

    “We follow the first fruits principle.  In other words, we establish our goal for ELCIC benevolence first and shape the rest of the budget around this, rather than the approach of ‘sending the ELCIC whatever is leftover’ after our other programs are funded . . . Our practice in recent years has been to increase the $ amount we give to the ELCIC by 1% each year . . . Although the % increase has not been steep, it has increased from 17.8% in 2004 to 18.5% in 2008 to the 19.6% [of revenue] that is budgeted for 2012.”

    Keith Myra, Eastern Synod Treasurer

    An informal poll a few years ago revealed that there are three methods used in congregation for determining the amount it will contribute to benevolence:

    • Offering envelopes are printed with a line labelled “benevolence”, along with lines for “current”, “capital” and other categories.  Members apportion their offering among the categories as they see fit.  Whatever members designate to benevolence, that’s what the congregation remits.  Roughly 40% of congregations follow this method. [I remember from my days counting the offering in my church that an awful lot of people either don’t split up their offering at all, or else they put the entire amount in the “current” line.  And my congregation had a policy that if an envelope doesn’t specify otherwise, everything goes into current.]
    • Offering envelopes have only one line.  The decision on how much to spend on benevolence is made when the annual budget is approved.  In some congregations the amount is sacred and the commitment is met no matter how much income is received.  In other cases it’s the percentage that is applied. Another 40% of congregations follow this method.
    • Offering envelopes have multiple lines, and the congregation remits whatever people designate.  But if the total received is less than the amount approved in the budget, Council may decide to “top it up”.   The top-up decision may depend on any number of factors; there are almost endless variations.  Roughly 20% of congregations use some version of this hybrid method.

    Often a member will stand up in a congregational meeting and argue that the annual budget can be balanced only if the benevolence contribution is reduced.  While such people usually claim to be representing the voice of fiscal reason (“the church needs to be run just like a business”), perhaps they are just trying to quiet their own conscience.  If the budget total is increased, I may feel some obligation to increase my giving.  But if I don’t want to increase my giving or feel guilty, the natural solution is to argue for a reduction in congregational spending on “non-essentials” like benevolence.

    Over the past 25 years total congregational income in the ELCIC  has increased while benevolence giving has declined.  The proportion of congregational income allocated to benevolence offerings has fallen from around 10% to just over 6%.  With a small number of notable and praiseworthy  exceptions, congregations seem to be sacrificing the ministries of the wider church in order to cover local expenses.

    We will never establish a culture of generosity in this church until synods set a good example for congregations and congregations set a good example for individual members.  A congregation cannot claim any integrity if it asks its members to increase their giving while cutting its benevolence offering to the wider church.

    What kind of example is your congregation setting for its members?

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  • Preaching and Fund-Raising

    It is inappropriate and even dishonest to pull a kind of bait and switch and replace what people expect in a sermon—the promise of God’s unconditional love, forgiveness, justice, and participation in God’s own life revealed in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ—with a fund-raising appeal.

    Craig A. Satterlee

    Last week the Alban Institute released a provocative article on preaching by Craig A. Satterlee, titled “Preaching is Not Fund-Raising From the Pulpit”.  Here is the link to the article.

    The author argues that we must “distinguish the proclamation of the gospel from an appeal about the financial needs of the congregation”.

    I agree — but would point out that the church in mission serves the needs of others, but does not have any of its own.  And how do we separate serving the needs of others from the message of the Gospel?

    What do you think?  Is it possible to proclaim the Gospel while talking about money and giving?

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  • The Perils of PAR

    PAR is the name our church gives to a system of automatic giving.  The name is an acronym which stands for “pre-authorized remittances”, not a very romantic or worshipful expression.  The system allows an individual to give a banking institution authorization to remit to the congregation a specified amount from his/her bank account on a monthly basis.

    Treasurers love PAR, and well they should.  Because remittances are more or less certain, there is a reliable, year-round cash flow that is unaffected by church attendance or lack thereof.  The cost of administration is low, and paperwork is minimized.  A friend of mine calls PAR “the ultimate pledge”, because a commitment to give is accompanied by the combination to the vault.

    Donors love PAR.  There’s no last-minute Sunday scramble to find a cheque or the right amount of cash.  Once I’ve signed up I can forget about my donations.  It doesn’t matter if I sleep in, take the kids to soccer practice or go on vacation — my donation will be at church even if I am not.  And because the amount comes out of my account automatically, giving is painless.  I don’t miss money I never had.  My offering becomes just like my telephone, cable, insurance or any other bill I pay in the same way.

    But therein lies one of the problems with PAR.  The structure of our liturgy makes the point that giving is an act of worship.  It was never intended to be just like paying any other bill.  When I am at church, as a PAR donor I can just give the ushers a cheery little wave to say “Don’t bother passing the plate to me; I gave at the office.”  When I do that I am missing out on something very important.

    The other difficulty I see is that the power of example can be lost.  My wife and I were early and enthusiastic adopters when PAR was first offered in our congregation.  We used the system all through the years when our daughters were growing up.  It dawned on me much later that they had probably never seen their parents put an offering on the plate.  I have strong memories of my parents putting bills into the offering envelope every Sunday, and then placing the envelope on the plate as it was passed down the pew.  But my children never even saw me write a cheque to the church.  What had we taught them?

    Some congregations have addressed these problems by printing (and sometimes laminating in plastic) re-usable cards that are given to PAR donors.  The cards often have a message indicating that the user has already made his/her offering through PAR, and sometimes contain an appropriate verse from the Bible.  For this to be effective, there must be a system that returns the cards to PAR givers for their use every Sunday.  More important, there must be something that reminds people that when they use the card they are participating in an act of worship, an act of generous giving.

    Another possible solution was offered to me some years ago by a devout Lutheran who said, “The Bible talks about tithes and offerings.  I use PAR for my tithes, but every week I use money in an envelope as my offering to God.”  Talk about the power of example!

    One final comment on the mechanics of giving.  I know of several congregations who have abandoned the practice of passing offering plates during worship.  Instead they have plates in the narthex, and people put their offering in the plate as they enter or leave worship.  The rationale is hospitality; they don’t want visitors to be made uncomfortable by a plate-passing ritual that may be completely unfamiliar to them.  “We don’t ask guests to our home to help pay for the dinner, so why do we ask guests at worship for an offering?”

    It seems to me that this practice, as much as it is a sincere effort to extend hospitality (and for which it should be praised), takes the offering right out of the liturgy and deprives both member and guest alike of the opportunity to participate in a key part of worship.

    What do you think?

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  • Holy Communion and Generosity

    Professor Carol Johnston has written a paper entitled “Do This, Remembering Me: The Lord’s Supper as Pattern of the Practice of Receiving and Giving: Foundation of Generosity in the Church”.  The lengthy title captures the essence of her argument.  In her research project she set out to discover how giving and faith relate to each other.  When she interviewed church members, “Their testimony made it clear to me that their generosity had been learned from the teaching and practice of generosity in these churches . . . People cannot learn how to give until and unless they have learned to receive . . . the Lord’s Supper is no less than the central paradigm for the practice of Receiving and Giving for Christians.”

    Johnston suggests that “giving is part of a larger Christian practice that has been worked out in the churches and in the lives of Christians for generations, a ‘practice’ that I call ‘Receiving and Giving’ . . . Receiving and Giving is a transformational process that is fundamental to all life, initiated and sustained by the steadfast generosity of God.”

    “I set out to find how giving and faith relate to each other, and I felt that the best course was to ask ‘saints’ of the churches who are living it out with integrity. . . At the heart of the matter, in every church, was the experience of being loved by God.”

    Prof. Carol Johnston

    She points out that “From the beginning of Christianity, the offertory has been integral to the Eucharist or Lord’s supper.”  Her paper goes on to argue for paying careful attention to how the offertory is done.  Johnston notes that bringing forward money and communion elements in an offertory procession helps to keep the fruits of human labour connected to the process of transformation that occurs in Holy Communion.   In one of the parishes she studied, the lay people who bring forward the bread, wine and offering also remain at the altar for the eucharistic prayers.

    By conducting the offertory with careful attention, we communicate that giving is — or can become — a powerful spiritual practice.  When people see the connection between their giving and the ministries of the church, givers become reconnected with both God and neighbour.  The practice of Receiving and Giving has the power to transform us in ways we may not expect.

    Do we communicate this in our worship practices?  Or do we keep worship in a silo labelled “holy”, and money in another labelled  “profane”?  Do we help people make the available connections in their worship and their living?

    Can you provide examples of other ways worship communicates (or could communicate) something about giving?

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  • L is for Liturgy

    In fairness, it might be more accurate to talk about the strategic opportunity to nurture generosity in worship, but MEWT would make a lousy acronym.  So L is for Liturgy.

    I will begin with what should be obvious, but perhaps isn’t.  Worship attendance is the factor that has the greatest impact on giving to the church.  The reason is regrettable but no less true: people are more likely to give when they come to church than when they don’t.  In spite of automatic methods of giving (our system is called PAR), in spite of the occasional exhortation to make up for missed Sundays, most people’s giving is firmly connected to their participation in worship.  If you want to increase giving, increase attendance at worship.

    Many of us think of ourselves as belonging to a certain level of weekly giving.  When my wife and I first started attending our church we were $10 per week givers.  It therefore came as a great shock when our first annual donation receipt was for an amount considerably less than $520.   Our first step in more generous giving didn’t involve changing our self-perception, it meant a simple change in behaviour.  We could afford $10 a week; the behaviour we had to change was our church attendance.

    Worship is also one of our best opportunities to communicate with people.  When they come to church, we have them for an hour.  They have made a commitment to be there and participate, at least to some degree.  What do we do with that opportunity?

    Let’s begin with the offering itself.

    • Do we say anything before the ushers come forward to begin gathering the gifts?  The United Church of Canada website has weekly “offering invitations“.
    • Does your congregation use the same offertory prayer week after week?  Why not try changing things up from time to time with a “prayer of dedication” from that same United Church site?
    • Who passes around the offering plates and brings them forward — is it the same roster of people throughout the year?  Ever think of inviting school-aged children and youth to take on this role?  What would their participation communicate to the rest of the congregation?
    • Are the people’s gifts of money brought to the altar along with God’s gifts of bread and wine?  And what happens to the full offering plates after that — do they remain on the altar or are they moved off to the side (or, heaven forbid, right out of the sanctuary to be counted while the service continues)?  We honour our gifts to God (and the givers) if we treat them with the same respect as God’s gifts to us.
    • The offering is at the geographic and symbolic centre of our liturgy.  The tone that is established for the offering may communicate what we really believe about generosity.  Is the mood matter-of-fact?  solemn?  hurried?  celebratory?
    • Are hymns sung during the offering?  Evangelical Lutheran Worship contains dozens of hymns listed under the Topical Index headings of Creation, Offering, Justice, Peace and Stewardship.  How many of them does your congregation sing?

    In my next post I will take a critical look at the use of pre-authorized giving, for it has both advantages and drawbacks.

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  • 8 Ideas for a Better Newsletter

    In a previous post I mentioned how some charities make effective use of their newsletter to tell their mission story.  Here’s a link to a great article with eight specific ideas on how you can improve own publication.  Not all of them may be relevant to a congregation, but don’t be too quick to reject an idea that may take you away from “same-old”.  Even though I’m unlikely to purchase the software that this company sells, I subscribe to their newsletter because its style and content are both compelling.

    And while we’re on the subject, why not have a look at the Winter 2012 edition of the Eastern Synod Lutheran?  An article on page 3 highlights the conclusion of their recent readership survey.  My guess is that some of their findings could be applied to congregational newsletters as well:

    • the dilemma of print vs. electronic distribution;
    • the need to continue to connect with an older readership while addressing the concerns and issues of younger people;
    • the desire among readers for “broad-reaching, ‘heavier-spirited’, issues-based news content”;
    • the criticism that there’s too much emphasis on the past and not enough on the future.
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