Two decades ago, you could be pretty sure that people in your church would carry a checkbook, cash, or at least a spare check or two in their wallet. Today, it’s becoming less and less likely that people carry cash or checkbooks. Yet, the ritual of the offering plate continues, and it is less likely to be filled with spontaneous gifts.
Some congregations have been paying attention to this trend, but has yours? Here are some technical ways to make it easier for people to give to your congregation: (Please note that the services mentioned are not meant to be an endorsement!)
Members and supporting friends may already have their banks set up automatic transfers for their pledge payments. But you can make it easier for them by enrolling in a turnkey electronic payment service such as VANCO.
One small congregation has created special “I give electronically” cards that members and friends who pay electronically can put in the offering basket.
Other congregations have set up PayPal, Square, or similar e-giving accounts, and make tablets available for people to give using their credit or debit cards.
Still other congregations (especially those with online streaming) have subscribed to a “text-to-give” service where participants can use their cell/smart phones to send their financial gifts. Here is a partial listing of popular services:
Crowdfunding apps such as GoFundMe, Kickstarter and Indiegogo seem to be quick and easy ways to raise money for a project or concern. But they also have significant fees that reduce the amount of funds that actually go to your campaign. There is an alternate UU crowdfunding app called Faithify that has a much smaller financial transaction fee that means that more money goes to your campaign!
-Rev. Renee Ruchotzke, Central East Region, UUA Congregational Life
Social media is a great outreach tool for today’s congregations, but congregational leaders need to be savvy about how to balance the open-source nature of today’s interactive internet with the need to articulate a consistent message in alignment with your congregation’s mission and vision (and — dare I say — “brand”).
Social media expert Lori Stone Sirtosky offers some tips on best practices for congregations to ensure consistency for your congregational Twitter and Facebook accounts during times of transition:
If your congregation has paid staff, make sure at least one staff member has the manager role on your congregation’s page. They can then remove and add volunteers as new people relinquish/assume this role.
For congregations with no paid staff, make sure more than one volunteer has the manager role for your Facebook page (and provide training to all managers on how to avoid posting “as the page” accidentally, especially from their phone).
To ensure continuity, the email address (e.g., email@example.com) associated with the organization’s twitter account should be controlled by church staff (if you have them). Then even if the social media person walks, the domain admin can reset the password to the email account. This will allow you to use the Twitter lost password feature to get in.
For groups that rely on volunteers, building redundancy can be more of a challenge, but it is possible! You can set up the email address as an alias and redirect it to more than one person. This way multiple people are notified when a password reset attempt is made. This builds in a measure of security. It also allows more than one person to reset the password and regain access to the account if needed.
Building redundancy into the system before someone vacates these key tech and social media roles for your congregation is vital.
Good planning now will save you a lot of headache later.
Many of our “solid” congregations noticed a drop-off in giving that was not a result of a drop-off of membership during the past two or three years. We don’t have much data (the trend is too new) but we do have some anecdotal information that seems to align with greater generational shifts.
The good news is that most hold steady on their pledges and have more time to serve in volunteer roles. The bad news that many of them are moving away from their congregations to be near their grandchildren, resulting in the congregation losing substantial (1st quartile–see below) donors.
There also seems to be a trend where Boomers are not dipping into their nest eggs for their daily living expenses, but instead use that money to splurge on big ticket items or vacations with their children and grandchildren. This may mean they might be more likely to give to a capital campaign rather than raise their pledge to the yearly operating budget.
Generation X Can’t Possibly Fill the Gap
Nationally, the 76 million Baby Boom was followed by only 55 million babies born who are known as Generation X. That means that there are around 1/3 fewer Gen Xers than there are Baby boomers. We don’t have hard data, but I suspect that the ratio of Gen X (roughly age 40-54) to Baby Boomers (55-70) is even smaller in our congregations, if we reflect national trends.
Gen Xers also did not have the financial advantages of previous generations. Those who went to college often graduated with high levels of student debt. Limited job opportunities, cost-saving employment practices, the reduction of employer benefits, the volatility of the stock market, and the bursting of the housing bubble have all contributed to a sense of financial insecurity that is not always acknowledged in our congregations.
Also, Gen Xers are known as a generation of hackers and slackers (stay with me!). Their small numbers kept them from having an impact on “stuck” institutions–including our congregations–so they either gave up on the institution (which labeled them as slackers) or found work-arounds within the system (acting as hackers). Their experiences probably affected their sense of loyalty to the institutions. (Again, this observation is anecdotal.)
Millennials Have a Different Mindset About Giving
The number of Millennials is eclipsing the number Baby Boomers. Their job opportunities are a mixed bag, with some Millennials finding great jobs and others struggling.
They are suspicious of institutions, but–at the same time–they appreciate that institutions can be used “for good.” And yet–they can be generous givers. They want to know where the money that they donate is going, and that it is changing lives. If your congregation’s message and actions reflect solid core values, you can invite Millennials to support your work with integrity.
What you can do:
If possible, do an analysis of the distribution of pledges by quartile (i.e. look at your total amount pledged, divide it by 4, and see how many of your pledge units are in each quartile. According to Wayne Clark:
The first 25% of total dollars should be coming from the first 10% of the household donors
The second 25% of total dollars should be coming from 15% of the donors
The third 25%of total dollars should be coming from 35% of the donors
The final 25% of total dollars should be coming from the last 40% of household donors
If you have less than 30% of your members in the top two quartiles, you may be at risk.
Make sure your leaders are transparent, trustworthy and act with integrity. Your donors want to know that your congregation will be a good steward of their financial gifts.
Be crystal clear when it comes to your mission and vision. Let people know how your congregation makes the world a better places and transform lives.
-Rev. Renee Ruchotzke, Congregational Life Staff
The Bountiful Heart: Finding Your Best Stewardship Strategy (online course)
It usually starts with one person with the beginning of an audacious idea. It has enough form so that others can visualize the possibilities. It also has enough open possibilities that others can see where they can bring their creativity and energy to help co-create it. And woven fine within the interactions and planning that lead to the actual “product” is a feeling of there being some mysterious additional energy that enables the group to create something that feels almost magical.
It happened at my home congregation. One woman, after reading the first couple of Harry Potter books, imagined creating a “vacation church school” based on the books. Adult teachers would take on Hogwarts alter egos and create a version of Hogwarts where they emphasized liberal religious values. Each teacher used their creativity and skills to create a unique experience in their classes. “Defense against the Dark Arts” helped the students respond to bullying. The “Potions” class encouraged the love of science through chemistry. Children who aged out of the program could become prefects or even professors. Over ten years after its inception, the program is still filled to capacity.
Something similar happened at the congregation in Annapolis, Maryland. A group of UU parents wanted to offer the children of their congregation and the community their own version of a Vacation School, with liberal religious values. Because their church sits on 7 acres of woodland, they developed a nature camp. Their mission was to encourage questioning, active exploration, a respect for interconnectedness of all the earth, a sense of adventure, and—most importantly— a sense of awe!
They named it Camp Beagle, after the H.M.S. Beagle, the ship that took Charles Darwin on the voyage that changed the course of how we view our place in the world.
The adults planning the activities used their creative energy to serve the camp’s mission of exploration and awe. To explore the idea of evolution, children tried out different size binder clips to pick up seed and beans of various shapes and sizes. To see the effect of meteors hitting the earth, they dropped various rocks into a pan of flour. Teams of campers competed to come up with ways to recycle and reuse items in a pile of trash. The camp has become so popular that they fill up soon after they open registration.
I think of these stories as examples of Creative Interchange, as described by UU process theologian Henry Nelson Wieman. He described it as a sacred inspiration that encourages us to deepen and widen our connections with the rest of creation in service of goodness and love. When we come together with openness to including diverse gifts, the result can be transformative – for the participant and those around them — and even the world!
Our congregations are natural places to nurture opportunities for people to bring their gifts. The savvy leader can spot where energy is flowing and help turn that into synergy with Creative Interchange.
-Rev. Renee Ruchotzke, Congregational Life Staff, Central East Region
Your congregation is committed to growth and understands that growth in numbers results from other kinds of growth. You also know it is important to set goals and measure how well you are doing. But you are wise enough to know that it is impossible to link attendance numbers to any one “cause” from your growth initiatives. What should you measure?
When facing adaptive challenges, it can often be counterproductive to use old measurements.
On this Thanksgiving Day, I wish to extend my own gratitude to all of those committed members who bless their congregations with their steadfast support. As you read this, many of them are probably in the church basement, washing up after the community Thanksgiving dinner for those who don’t have a family dinner to attend.
I recently read a wonderful description of such members in Skinner House’s new meditation manual for congregational leaders, Bless the Imperfect. I hope you see yourself here, and know that you, too, are a blessing.
You find them in churches
when you’re lucky;
other places too, though I mostly
only know ecclesiastical varieties.
Long haul people
upon whose shoulders
(and pocketbooks and casseroles
and daylight/nighttime hours)
a church is built and maintained
after the brass is tarnished and
cushions need re-stitching.
They pay their pledges full and on time
even when the music’s modern;
support each canvass though the sermons aren’t always short;
mow lawns and come to suppers;
teach Sunday School when
there’s no one else and they’ll miss the service.
Asked what they think of the minister,
or plans for the kitchen renovation,
or the choral anthem, or Christmas pageant,
or color of the bathroom paint,
they’ll reply: individuals and fashions
arrive and pass.
The church—their church—will be here, steady and hale.|
For a long, long time.
For long haul people bless a church
with a very special blessing.
So the leaders of the UUA have identified the “nones” as a possible growth area for UU congregations. Now what? What is the UUA doing to reach out to the “nones?”
The first thing to realize is that this is an emerging challenge that doesn’t have any ready solutions, and all religious denominations are in the same boat. The population of the “nones” has a lot of variety (from new-age spiritual to atheist) so no one answer could be the answer. There is no “program” that will “fix” this challenge.
We do know that congregations need to re-think aspects of how they “do church.” We do have some bits and pieces of information from current studies. In other words, this is a classic adaptive challenge where we need to function as a learning community, with high-learning, low-risk experiments.
That’s why the Congregations and Beyond initiative may be disappointing, maybe even confusing. We are expecting a program. We are hoping for a program. Instead we have a framework and tools that are helping us to creatively address the challenge with innovation and cross-pollination.
The 2014 General Assembly theme of “Love Reaches Out” will provide an opportunity to continue the conversation. The GA Program Application (Due November 1) instructions specifically asks for innovation:
Because this is an adaptive challenge, there is an understanding that there are no easy or sure answers, so we encourage the spirit of experimentation, e.g. learning from mistakes as well as from successes. Workshops that share examples of something that you are currently trying are encouraged—even if your experiment doesn’t feel “ready for prime time.”
If you don’t want to wait for General Assembly, here are some tools that you can use immediately:
From the information gleaned from the Pew and Barna research (mentioned in the first two parts of this series) we understand there are two areas of young adult ministry that we need to pay attention to. One is facilitating opportunities for developing relationships with other people in the congregation. The other is innovating to provide the engagement and depth in addressing the questions and needs of young adults in today’s context. The UUA Young Adult office has created a handy self-assessment and other resources to help your congregation, especially in the relationship-building area.
The descriptions of the values of many “spiritual but not religious” people line up pretty nicely with what our UU religious communities could be, or at least what they should at least aspire to be. We have young adult UUs living out UU values in newly-formed “beyond congregation” communities such as the Lucy Stone Cooperative and Beloved Café. But we are have hundreds of traditional congregations–communities of people with checkered histories and institutional baggage.
Another study, by the Barna Group has discovered what is working–at least with Millennials–to enable young adults to stay connected to church. Here are some highlights from the article (translated for UU theology) that can help inform our existing congregations of ways to help our congregations be relevant for younger generations (though the Barna study focused on Millennials, many of these are also true for younger Gen Xers):
Making room for meaningful relationships. …Seven out of 10 Millennials who dropped out of church did not have a close friendship with an adult and nearly nine out of ten never had a mentor at the church.
Cultural Discernment. …Millennials need help learning how to apply their hearts and minds to today’s cultural realities. In many ways, pop culture has become the driver of religion for Millennials, so helping them think and respond rightly to culture should be a priority.
Shared Ministry. “Effective ministry to Millennials means helping these young adults discover their own mission in the world, not merely asking them to wait their turn.”
Vocational Discipleship. Taking shared ministry a step further, today’s young adults are more interested in making their faith a part of their daily lives. (See the “beyond congregations” examples above)
Faith Formation. Provide opportunities for young adults to “go deep” within the church’s own faith development programming. Many large congregations (such as First Unitarian Rochester) have created programs that are available by subscription.
Young Adult ministry has been a challenge for congregations of all liberal protestant denominations for decades but the game is changing in ways we couldn’t have imagined back in the post WWII church building boom. There has been a lively conversation on the UU-Leaders email list about how to address the rise of the “nones,” i.e. people who do not identify with any religious denomination. Many of our leaders believe that this is a fertile ground for UU evangelism. In this blog series I will share why I agree.
The UUA does not have the financial resources to do our own research. However there are plenty of other organizations that do have the resources, and we pay close attention to their findings.
The latest research from the Pew Institute shows that close to 20% of the population and 30% of the Millennial generation (born after 1985) state “no religious preference” i.e. “none.” 40% of those who identify as politically liberal also can be labeled as “nones.”
This is not to imply that these rising number of “no religious preference” means there is a corresponding rise in atheism or even in humanism. Indeed, a year ago, in research published by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life, conducted jointly with the PBS television program Religion & Ethics Newsweekly, they found that:
that many of the country’s 46 million unaffiliated adults are religious or spiritual in some way. Two-thirds of them say they believe in God (68%). More than half say they often feel a deep connection with nature and the earth (58%), while more than a third classify themselves as “spiritual” but not “religious” (37%), and one-in-five (21%) say they pray every day. In addition, most religiously unaffiliated Americans think that churches and other religious institutions benefit society by strengthening community bonds and aiding the poor.
With few exceptions, though, the unaffiliated say they are not looking for a religion that would be right for them. Overwhelmingly, they think that religious organizations are too concerned with money and power, too focused on rules and too involved in politics.
(The study elaborates that many of the social political issues, such as protesting gay marriage and reproductive rights, are the ones that most concern this group.)
Churches have potential to meet the spiritual needs of this group, but they have developed a bad reputation. Conservative churches are too restrictive. And the liberal churches have not been all that compelling (What is the “there” there?) as an alternative. This is changing. Books such as Liberating Hope: Daring to Renew the Mainline Church by Michael Piazza help congregational leaders to imagine frameworks for liberal religion that allow for transformational ministry, not institutional maintenance.