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.

About the Author
Mark Ewert

Mark Ewert is a congregational stewardship consultant for the Unitarian Universalist Association; his focus is on helping congregations to grow their cultures of generosity. In addition to 10 years as a fundraising professional, Mark has been a fundraising consultant, facilitator, and teacher for nonprofit organizations. He has a practice as a leadership coach in the tradition of the Georgetown University Leadership Coaching program. Mark has been a lay leader at All Souls Church Unitarian in Washington, DC since 2002. He formed and led their Development Ministry Team (now called the Stewardship Committee) and has served the Generosity Campaign (Annual Budget Drive) as the co-chair, as a committee member, and as a sub-committee chair coordinating all messages and communications pieces. He writes regularly on generosity for his blog, www.generositypath.com/blog, and is writing a book about generosity.

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