Generosity in Action: Unitarian Church in Harrisburg

The Unitarian Church in Harrisburg provides a great example of generosity in action; volunteers helped to work on Ida Lee Brown’s home, where she has lived for over 59 years. This group of volunteers, part of a team called “Rebuilding Together,” has helped repair homes for individuals facing significant barriers for over 24 years.


Read more about The Unitarian Church of Harrisburg and “Rebuilding Together” and share with us some stories you may have that are other great examples of generosity in action in your congregation!


Stewardship and Transforming Us

Since I belong to a large congregation that is known to be more racially diverse, people I work with in other congregations often ask me what the keys are to growing their own diversity. This is especially challenging to people who are in predominantly white communities. I am not a diversity consultant or expert (and I am a middle aged white guy!), yet I do think the one thing we can all do, everywhere, is to work on changing ourselves first. That means learning about and practicing anti-racism.

I think this is also true with stewardship. Those frustrated volunteers (and sometimes staff members!) who cannot understand why pledging levels do not change – no matter what they do – can work on themselves first. If they have not done so already, they might examine their own giving and find a level which they feel is generous and honors their engagement in the congregation’s mission. After that, they might be supported with fresh energy through guidance, education, and inspiration from new and positive sources of stewardship ideas. And coming to appreciate that the rest of the congregation has very different levels of economic capacity, motivation, and knowledge about financial giving will help shift the concern from:

  • Getting them to change, to
  • Transforming us

Some people may feel that not pressuring, provoking guilt, leveraging cultural pressure or a specific prophet’s teachings, nor forcing – is weak. That is taking the easy way out, isn’t practical, feels good but won’t work, allows people to avoid the inevitable (they have to give a lot more money), and will leave “money on the table.”

Yet transforming us around stewardship is ultimately more challenging. First of all there is the challenge of how you actually do that. What does it look like? How do you measure change (aside from with raw numbers)? Then if there is a change how can you attribute it to something so subtle? Let’s start with this: We have to be more caring, trusting, inspiring, and inviting. We have to raise our heads up from the budget or the pledge numbers and be willing to be in relationship.

This will require us, as leaders, to embody a different approach to stewardship. What we do may look similar; we might still have testimonials, and one-on-one conversations, publish a brochure, do mailings, provide financial information, and put out a financial commitment form. Yet our changed underlying approach will suffuse the annual budget drive with collective concern and not create divisions between parts of the congregation. This is our shared endeavor, not we few trying to get you all to respond. In fact, we may have even more of a congregational focus on stewardship; have a greater sense of urgency about it. Yet it will build trust and ownership of the congregation. This takes a new discipline, self-awareness, and sensitivity.

And it requires us to look at our congregations more holistically. As people I have worked with are used to me saying, “Stewardship affects everything and everything affects stewardship.” If your board is in conflict or there are serious problems in other areas of the congregation, a pledge drive uses pressure and trying to corner people into giving may be enable you to muscle your way through the drive. However, if you are going to embrace stewardship in relationship, in community, then things will need to be well-aligned, or at least honestly worked-on. Without that, the inspiration to give and boldness in giving cannot grow.

This is a vision of sustainability in stewardship, where the leaders do not burn out or become cynical. This is a chance for us all to grow together – individually and collectively. And with this opening and invitation, more people will want to participate, so our capacity to implement our congregational missions may grow as well.

Is the Fair Share Giving Guide Fair for Fixed Income Retirees?

In Beyond Fundraising, Wayne Clark introduced a revised Suggested Fair Share Giving Guide. (SFSGG). The guide is an adaptation and expansion of a model used at the Henry David Thoreau Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Stafford, TX.

In my consultations with congregations, I often hear that the SFSGG is unfair to congregants who are retired and living on a fixed income. My response is that it’s pretty normal for these fixed income congregants to be among the highest annual donors.

Congregants have two pockets to give from: annual income and secured assets. For those with only annual giving pockets, I suggest that they make their financial commitment based on their adjusted gross income from their IRS forms. Once they have done that, I ask them to consider using the SFSGG to make a Fair Share commitment based on the percent that is suggested for that income level.

I have found that these UUs are smart enough to do just that and the good news is that one of two things occur: they look at the chart and decide that with just a little extra level of giving they can be a Fair Share donor. This is particularly true where the dollar value of the gifts is not that high.

At the other end of the scale are congregants who have a significant nest egg but haven’t been giving much to their congregation. By checking the SFSGG and their financial capabilities, many congregants are motivated to increase their giving levels.

I have found that the SFSGG helps many UUs consider a variety of ways in which they can become more generous to their congregations and feel better about themselves at the same time. Give it a try.

Stewardship and Community Building

Congregational community building and asking for money are an uneasy mix. That does not seem to be as true when trying to combine community building efforts with soliciting other congregant resources: skills, intelligence, time, and physical effort. On the other hand, asking for money (sometimes called fundraising or resource development) in the context of creating the “beloved community” for many folks would seem to be and oil-and-water endeavor.  Yet, this might provide the basis for a good definition of stewardship: a combination of community building and resource development.

In my work with congregations, I often find people who are working to gain financial contributions are frustrated, burned out, sometimes with little support from the congregation, valiantly trying different approaches – yet are dissatisfied with the results. This can sometimes lead to an “us vs. them” framing of the challenge:

  • We have to get them to give money (increase their giving, fill out a pledge card, respond more quickly, etc)
  • There are people here with money who are not giving (giving enough, giving the way we need them to, etc)
  • People are having a hard time financially now, we can’t ask them for money (to increase, to fill out a pledge card, etc), or we need to give them a “special exemption”
  • We need to tell them how much it costs (per family, member, per attendee on Sunday, per year, etc.) to run this place
  • We need them to understand the value they are getting here

Whether you are concerned about “them” giving enough or not being able to give, you have set up a distinction between who we are and who they are. As a long time lay leader, I can understand how this perspective arises.

This dualistic thinking can also be seen when people want to compare Unitarian Universalism to other denominations or faiths – and sometimes try to hold UUs to the same ways of giving (although the whole rest of the belief/values system is different):

  • If we were like Baptists (Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, etc.) they would know exactly how much to give and cultural pressure would make sure they gave at that level.
  • People in other religions give a lot more than we UUs do.
  • If we were all Christians, we could hold up Jesus’ teachings and they would give at the levels we need. We could even talk about heaven and hell!

And yet as congregants this will be our spiritual home, for many of us or core community, for a very long time – sometimes a lifetime. We will know each other and grow in relationship for many years. For that reason, setting up a program to gather the financial fuel for the community’ mission based on these dualities (us vs. them, comparing UUs vs. other denominations) can divide the community and be counterproductive.

In fact, the dangers of “us vs. them” frames for stewardship in congregations can be profound. In some congregations, people “grin and bear it” through the annual pledge drive, or worse know to avoid Sundays during the period of the drive. Some will probably still contribute and come back because these people value other parts of congregational life enough to figure out a way to live with or work-around the pains of the annual drive. However, if we are not careful, we can break the very community-building that we say is our goal. If people get hurt, offended, or confused because of the way we act or communicate – or because it does not match the rest of our UU values – we are breaking the bonds of beloved community. Over time these small injuries become scars and we run the danger of those people never feeling like they belong in the congregation, or fully engaging in a stewardship relationship there.

Stepping into stewardship is challenging. It can be an act of faith and can help us develop along a spiritual path. It calls us to align our values, beliefs, and loves with our financial (and other!) resources. It can create a bridge to belonging so that our congregation truly feels like it is “ours.” And it can provide opportunities for community-building and meaningful conversations. With all of this rich potential, let’s find a way to do stewardship that is enlivening, spirit-filled, and caring for everyone.

Worship Space: Kingston Unitarian Fellowship

UU buildings come in many shapes and sizes and there are many alternatives to the proverbial white steepled church on the green in the middle of town. The Kingston Unitarian Fellowship is a good example of having taken a different approach to creating a worship space.

You can read the full article about the unique worship space of Kingston Unitarian Fellowship and what the congregation is doing the celebrate the renovated building.


Stewardship, Welcoming, And Economic Justice: Part II

We want our congregations to be welcoming to people of all ages, genders, races, sexual orientation, and economic levels. Our congregations may be Welcoming of LBGT people and handicapped accessible. Yet if we are giving people either specific financial amounts or no guidance about that we expect them to contribute, we are excluding people. They either cannot give at that specific level, or if they are not told something may fear they will not be able to afford whatever the expectation turns out to be.

The Suggested Fair Share Giving Guide (SFSGG) allows people to find their own capacity to give and to determine what level of giving they want to reach for. This means that a very low income person can find themselves on the chart and know that they are being just as generous, with their own level of financial resources, as the wealthiest person in the congregation. There is perhaps nowhere else in America where a very low income person and a very wealthy person can give at the same level. The Guide can allow your congregation to be such a place.

Let me give you a concrete example. If you were going to have a “Leadership Givers Event” next month, how would you know who to invite? Most congregations would take a list of members, sorted by financial contribution, and invite the top dollar amount givers. That is not a bad thing to do, because you know who those people are – you can identify them easily. And based on the amount they give, you can presume a fairly high level of dedication to the congregation and its mission. Those are folks you want to gather and talk to. However, you are missing an opportunity to invite people who may be just as dedicated to the congregation, and are giving just as generously, yet their resources are more limited. Some of those lower income people may actually be stretching themselves more – and feeling it more strongly – than the higher income folks.

If a good number of people in the congregation use the Guide, and are willing to indicate that they do by their own self-report, you will have a better idea of who is being generous to the congregation. And in this instance, their level of financial resources will not divide out people who have more resources from people who have less.

Using the Suggested Fair Share Giving Guide, you can provide an environment where congregants can stand together – low, median, and high income. All are welcome, all can feel that they contribute their share, all can feel generous for their own financial contributions. Imagine a leadership givers’ event that includes more than the usual members; it might include people from all socio-economic levels, yet who are dedicated and generous in relation to their own capacity. Now that is economic justice lived in our own congregation!

Stewardship, Welcoming, And Economic Justice: Part I of II

If you have worked with me as a consultant to your congregation, or you have been in a workshop with me at General Assembly, you probably know that I am quite fond of the Suggested Fair Share Giving Guide (SFSGG). In fact I consider it an important economic justice and welcoming document.

Many congregations struggle with getting people to use the SFSGG. They hand it out, include it in mailings, add it to their brochures (usually in very small print) – yet people do not seem to use it. Or they use it for a yearly cycle or two and then let it fall into disuse.

I often find that in some congregations only part of the Guide is used, usually the part that is a grid-chart. And congregations sometimes edit the SFSGG so that the income amounts are lower, or they do not include the highest percentage levels. They do this because they assume that people do not have those resources, or that they would never give at those percentage levels, or that they would be offended at even the suggestion that they would give that much. Perhaps they personally object to some piece of language on the chart. Or they may think that someone is trying to impose specific giving levels on them – i.e. the Guide is designed to get more money out of unsuspecting people. Some people may even think (incorrectly!) that they are revealing personal financial information if they use the Guide. Actually it is a personal tool and no one else need ever see it, nor can deduce what was on it.

I find all of this to be sad – and a missed opportunity because, if used well, the SFSGG is wonderful. Here is what I have learned about its use:

  • People will not use the Guide unless someone walks them through how it is used, with an actual example. Usually the person explaining it has used it and tells something about how they use it themselves. Generally no one wants to be told what to do, yet people are usually interested in someone else’s authentic story.
  • There are two parts to the Guide – the grid chart part and the “Determining Your Income” part. Without both parts, it is not really “fair.” If you just include the chart, people may balk at it, and may have good reason to. When you use the “Determining Your Income”, you can account for resources and challenges that make the chart section of the Guide more reasonable.
  • Editing the chart to protect your members, adapt to what you consider local levels of poverty or wealth, or because you do not think people are already giving at those levels will not help. In most cases this indicates that the SFSGG is not well enough understood.


Planned Giving Programs: Authority and Responsibility

In the past couple of weeks, I have received several questions about planned giving. Most of the questions have come from lay leaders who want to begin a planned giving program in their congregation. More specifically, I have been asked about the parameters of authority and responsibility.

Here’s my take on the issue.

The size of a congregation determines how planned giving is approached. Ideally, two standing committees are formed. The planned giving committee establishes planned giving guidelines and seeks donations. The endowment fund committee develops and manages the endowment fund by:

  • Encouraging, accepting, and acknowledging gifts (if there is no planned giving committee).
  • Ensuring that restricted gifts are honored and properly recorded.
  • Arranging for professional accounting of the funds.
  • Reporting on fund activities to the governing body.
  • Making prudent investment decisions.
  • Administering the distribution of funds.
  • Ensuring appropriate checks and balances regarding control of the funds.

Small congregations may not have enough human resources to create two committees. In that case, the planned giving committee is responsible for all the tasks identified above. In a congregation of seventy-five members, for example, a few committed and knowledgeable volunteers may be able to both create and implement a planned giving program and manage an endowment fund.

When forming a planned giving committee, five to seven volunteers are sufficient. Ideally, each volunteer serves a three-year term, using a staggered appointment schedule that guarantees continuity from one year to the next. Good candidates are those who have been active congregants long enough to know potential donors. They also need a working knowledge of planned giving.

Planned giving is a form of stewardship. The planned giving committee is a group of three congregants who are the fiscal agents for assuring a healthy long-term financial future. These volunteers are obligated to develop a plan that will protect the financial rights of the next generation of congregational members. It is also imperative that all planned giving committee members lead by example and make their own planned giving donation to the endowment fund.

Whatever organizational structure is created, using one committee or two, develop specific lines of responsibility and accountability. Provide for a clear and simple separation of power. Institute controls that demand more than one set of eyes and hands for accepting gifts, managing investments, recording donations, and spending endowment funds.

Define the interaction of the planned giving committee (and endowment fund committee, if there is one) with the governing body, the treasurer, the finance committee, the annual budget drive committee, and any other relevant standing committees of the church. It would be wonderful if congenial relationships could be guaranteed among these groups. But at some point, conflicts are almost certain to arise. The most common situations are ones in which the governing body wants the endowment fund committee to release funds to balance the annual operating budget or to solve a pressing facility-related, deferred-maintenance need. Personal relationships can be strained when the endowment fund committee objects to or even refuses the request.

Ultimately, the congregation controls the endowment fund. Create bylaws to clearly indicate that control. Create enabling resolutions indicating that endowment funds can be used only as designated by donors. Any exceptions are subject to a congregational vote, with a significant majority required to approve any exception.

Ask the planned giving committee and endowment fund committee to report once each quarter to the finance committee, the governing body, or both. They should also report to the congregation at least once a year.

Is Your Congregation Ready for a Stewardship Assessment Visit?

UUA stewardship consultants provide assessment visits to congregations to help determine a congregation’s readiness to begin a strategic planning process, launch an annual budget drive or a capital campaign. There are three outcomes of an assessment visit.

First, an assessment visit provides an opportunity for your congregation to get an objective assessment from a UUA stewardship consultant. Prior to the visit, congregational leaders send many documents to the consultant. Once on site, the consultant gathers more information in a series of meetings with key constituents, often including the following professional and lay leaders.

  • Minister(s)
  • Annual budget drive chair
  • Director of religious education
  • Strategic planning committee chair
  • Any other professional staff members
  • Building/grounds committee chair
  • Finance committee chair
  • Members of the governing body
  • Person responsible for nurturing new members
  • Person responsible for coordinating volunteers

Second, an assessment visit provides your congregation with specific recommendations to get “from here to there.”  Based on all the gathered information, the consultant lists several steps necessary to allow your congregation to reach its long-term goals.  These recommendations are given verbally at the end of the assessment visit, and are then followed by a written summary.  The recommendations may address the following issues.

  • Five-year strategic plan
  • Capital campaign
  • Planned giving program
  • Facilities planning
  • Annual budget drive
  • Commercial loans|
  • UUA loans, loan guarantees, grants and awards

Third, an assessment visit clarifies how the Congregational Stewardship Services program can be helpful to your congregation.  The program has provided consulting services to hundreds of congregations since 1985 and each consultant brings special skills, as well as the combined skills and experience of the other consultants. Each is prepared to guide and coach your congregation through all aspects of your comprehensive stewardship needs.

Welcoming Congregations and Conversations about Money

It’s been almost a year since we’ve launched FORTH: A Stewardship Development program, and we now have over 50 partner congregations. If your congregation doesn’t know about the FORTH Program, please take a look at our website and learn more about it. Below you will see some data from FORTH Partners who have taken our Congregational Stewardship Self Assessment.

Each bar represents the average scores for each question in Section 1 of the assessment.  The highest possible score for any question is 25. As you can see in the middle bar, the average FORTH Partner believes that their congregation is welcoming to people from varying socio-economic situations. Do you think that your congregation is welcoming to all? What techniques have been especially helpful?

While scoring for welcoming is relatively high, many Partners indicate there is a hesitancy to talk about money in their congregation (see the third column from the left). How does your congregation approach conversations about money? Do you have any gems to share?

Let’s start a dialogue about the two issues of welcoming and money.

Click the Graph for a clearer image