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.
Consider this: Many people come to our congregations from other denominations or have never belonged to any community that is not fee-based – so they have no idea what the “deal” is, what the expectations are. When these people want to join the congregation, they are told about financial giving only in passing or in an indirect way. I find few congregations where there are basic and usable explanations of the annual commitment process, budget-building and approval, the pledge fulfillment timeline, what documents are used and reports they can expect, and how this relates to the rest of the congregational functioning. Also usually missing from that explanation is any guidance for the expectation of financial contribution levels. We do not require a tithe (as some Christian denominations do), tzedakah (as some Jewish congregations do), or Zakat (in some Islamic congregations), which are specific proscribed amounts. Whatever your attitude to this level of specificity or requirement – people know what they are getting into when they join these denominations. Do new UUs know what they are signing up for when they become members?
If we are going to really welcome new people into our congregations, we have to tell them what we expect from them, before they join. Otherwise, they sign the book, or whatever that process entails – then perhaps 6 months or a year later they are asked to pledge and have to basically “shoot in the dark” for what they should be giving. I have known people who for years have been basically guessing at what they should give to their congregation annually. How can anyone ever feel fully settled in a congregation if they have lingering doubt about their fulfillment of this basic aspect of membership? This lack of forthrightness at the outset can also set up a tension for some people about financial contributions, which begins at joining and never resolves.
The Suggested Fair Share Giving Guide (SFSGG) can help with this! It actually gives a tool for people to use so they can understand the range of expectation for giving. It does not tell them specifically what to do, yet it is a framework, a guide. Most people’s financial resources and responsibilities change through different phases of their lives. A member’s commitment level to the congregation will probably also change over time. This Guide gives new people valuable information and accommodates for these changes in their resources and commitment as they grow with the congregation.