Planning a Fall Stewardship Program

“But those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength.”  Isaiah 40:31a

This fall presents a lot of challenges as to how we do ministry during a pandemic. It also causes us to wonder how our fall Stewardship efforts will be received. The reason is that while we say we are in this together, we are not all experiencing the pandemic the same. Some churches are struggling more than ever financially, while others find that giving has increased and finances are fine.

None of us know exactly how it is all going to turn out, and it would be so easy for us to be afraid and hold tightly to what we have in case things get worse. This is ministry that operates out of our perceived scarcity which keeps us from experiencing abundance and gratitude. It is difficult to predict the short and long-term financial implications for the coming months. The one thing we do know is that we must be able to adapt and change as the circumstances around us continue to change.

In the past few months, I have worked with several churches in our Presbytery to think about the way to approach the fall Stewardship program. I encourage Stewardship and Finance teams to consider the current context of your congregation as you plan for the fall. There are lots of resources I can share with you and help you adapt them to your congregation’s circumstances.

Here are some things that might help you as you move forward:

Focus for Pastoral Care

  • Continue to develop and strengthen your online worship presence. Make sure everyone feels connected.
  • Increase communication with members of your congregation and with the community around you. Include many ways of communicating so everyone stays connected.
  • Develop a survey to discover the needs of the people in your congregation. Some may be struggling and feel insecure and desperate for ways to get through this crisis. Depending on what you hear, you may consider offering online classes, workshops, and/or other learning opportunities.
  • Find colleagues who can share in your concerns and consider ways to be in partnership (prayer, worship, online classes)
  • Explore new ways of doing ministry. This is a great opportunity to use the creativity and special gifts of your congregation to think of new ways of being in ministry under these restricted circumstances.
  • Find ways to share the story of how your congregation is engaged and responding to the needs of others during this unusual season in the life of the church. Include this as part of the offering during your online worship.

Focus for Stewardship

  • Center your Stewardship efforts on communicating the church’s purpose, vision, and mission. Communicate to the congregation how the church has continued to be in ministry through the pandemic.
  • Create an environment that focuses less on the budget and more on our faithful response to God.
  • Be more intentional about thanking people for their faithfulness.
  • Find ways to get the congregation to talk about how they see the church at work in these unusual circumstances. This might be small group conversations over Zoom, one-on-one phone calls with the congregation, or socially distanced coffee groups where feasible.
  • Find ways for everyone to serve while remaining safe at home.
  • Celebrate what the church is doing. Let the community know. Hang a banner in the church lawn to show the church is alive and in ministry.

Focus for Finance Team

  • Develop a recovery plan if your congregation is struggling to meet expenses.
  • Do a ministry assessment and create a strategy for how to do ministry now. Prioritize the things your congregation is mostly focused on during this season.
  • Create a financial plan that allows you to fund current needs for doing ministry (technological needs, online classes, food assistance, community outreach).
  • Audit giving for the past 3-6 months. Base your financial plan on current giving.
  • Be flexible and willing to adjust your financial plan every 3-6 months. A year-long budget should exist only as a preliminary guide.
  • Remain positive. It may take several years for you to completely recover.
  • Clearly communicate the status of your church’s finances so the congregation can respond accordingly.

Remember that relationships matter most. Generosity happens when there is trust and a clear vision for the ministry of the church. Disaster and disease isolate. Financial recession and unemployment compound our crisis. The healing ministry role of our congregations has never been greater than it is today.

We are called to be good stewards of all that God has entrusted to us: our congregations, our ministries, our pastoral leadership, our individual gifts, our resources, our creativity, and our openness to where God is calling us to be.

Deborah Rexrode
POJ Associate for Stewardship

The Stewardship of White Privilege

One of my favorite definitions of stewardship, generally attributed to Clarence Stoughton, is “stewardship is everything we do after we say, ‘I believe.’” Stewardship is love in action—it puts feet to our faith.

What does that really look like? It’s easy for those of us who are white to join the crowd in professing “Black Lives Matter,” make a donation, and return to business as usual without doing the learning, listening, and soul searching required to join the movement for lasting systemic change.

Stewardship in a Liminal Time

Recently I have heard the word “liminal” used many times to describe this season we are experiencing in the life of our churches. The word liminal comes from the Latin word limens, which means “limit or threshold.” Author and theologian Richard Rohr defines liminal time in this way:

“It is when you have left, or are about to leave, the tried and true, but have not yet been able to replace it with anything else. It is when you are between your old comfort zone and any possible new answer. If you are not trained in how to hold anxiety, how to live with ambiguity, how to entrust and wait, you will run…anything to flee this terrible cloud of unknowing.”

Stewarding Congregational Wellness

Some stewardship committees focus most of their attention on the fall Stewardship emphasis. Frankly, that’s plenty of work. But our calling as stewardship leaders is not just to the fall “ask.” We are also called to help shape the identity of stewards among our peers and as a community. We are entrusted with many assets, some of which are physical (like buildings and money) and some of which are relational (like our congregational community or our congregational mission). All of these are inflection points where we can invite others to think and act like stewards.

Giving to God

Stewardship is not just a way of life; it is a good way of life. In fact, for many, it is a way to a better life. Stewardship means belonging to God. It means allowing God to rule our lives, putting God in charge of everything, including our time and our money. Surrendering control does not come easily to any of us. But God is good at ruling people’s lives. If we really do belong to God and if we really do put God in charge of everything, we will not be the worse for it.

A Season of Numbers

Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect.
Romans 12:2

September is only a couple of days away and signals many things…vacation is over, children return to school, fall church programming kicks off, and congregations hear about Stewardship (hopefully not for the first time of the year). It’s a season of numbers! Sessions, Finance Committees, Stewardship and Generosity Teams, Pastors and members of the congregations look at all kinds of statistics: 

Is the Church a Business

Recently Minner Serovy, one of the Ministry Relations Officers for the Presbyterian Foundation, shared an interesting experience she encountered while participating in a panel for an adult education class. The opening question was, “Is the church a business?” All the other panelists were members of the church where the panel was taking place, and all were businesspeople. They explained their reasons for thinking of the church as business. With some discomfort, Minner said, “I could not find my way to agreement.” 

Telling Our Story

What is the importance of telling our congregation’s story? First, and foremost, we tell our story so that others can hear the message of God’s love. We are called to “Go, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.” This is the mission God calls us to in our congregations.

Ask, Thank, Tell

December is just around the corner. From a stewardship perspective, December is typically the biggest giving month of the year in churches and also for many non-profits. So, what can we do as church leaders to provide an opportunity for our members to give to the ministries of our churches as part of their end-of-the-year giving?

Charles Lane, in his book, “Ask, Thank, Tell: Improving Stewardship Ministry in Your Congregation” reminds us that the focus of biblical stewardship is on the fact that generous giving is one of the basic acts of discipleship. Charles suggests that there are three foundational verbs that help us to focus on this aspect of stewardship:

  1. Ask. If you want people to give more as year-end approaches, you need to ask them. You can communicate this message in whatever way works for your people: letter, from the pulpit, video, whatever social media platform works for you. We are often far too hesitant to ask people to give. The message can, and should, come from the pastor as well as from leaders of the congregation.
  2. Thank. As you ask, be sure you clearly thank people for their giving so far this year and for their commitments to give next year. If you didn’t send out thank you letters or notes for pledges, do it now. You can’t thank people too much. Most churches do it far too little.
  3. Tell. There are two ways you called to tell the story.

Tell the story of your ministry this year and your vision for the next year. Hopefully you already did this as part of your fall stewardship emphasis. Don’t worry about repeating it. And if you didn’t, do it now! Share with people the difference their giving has made. Whether or not they make an additional gift, it further reinforces their commitment to give to your ministry in 2019.

Tell the truth about your financial situation. If you are facing a real shortfall, be honest about it. Do it clearly and calmly, without a “sky is falling” panicky message. It’s not helpful for leaders to protect the congregation from financial challenges. They can’t step up to help if they don’t know about it.

If you have an abundance of resources, be honest about that. Some leaders think, “We don’t want to let people know because then they will stop giving.” People will keep giving if you give them a reason to give. Make your Christmas offering something significant that will benefit the wider community, and invite people to give generously.

Charles concludes his book with this wonderful vision of Stewardship ministry:

“One of my favorite novels is A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. Each year at Christmas I try to see either a play or movie version of A Christmas Carol, or to read the original. A big part of the appeal of the story is the incredible contrast between Ebenezer Scrooge at the beginning of the story and Ebenezer Scrooge at the end of the story.

Notice Dickens’ description of Scrooge from the first pages of his novel, ‘Oh! But he was a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone, Scrooge! A squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner! He was hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire.’ Many, many pages and three Christmas ghosts later, Scrooge wakes up on Christmas morning. To say the least, he is a changed man. He sends a Christmas turkey to the Cratchit’s that is twice the size of Tiny Tim.

And then Dickens writes, “The chuckle with which he said this, and the chuckle with which he paid the cab, and the chuckle with which he recompensed the boy, were only to be exceeded by the chuckle with which he sat down breathless in his chair again, and chuckled till he cried.”

I don’t wish for any of God’s children to be scared to their senses by night visits from past, present, or future ghosts. However,

  • I do have a vision of people in your congregation so enjoying their generous giving that they chuckle until they cry.
  • I do have a vision of people in your congregation who discover the radical truth of Jesus’ words, ‘Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.’
  • I do have a vision of people in your congregation whose generosity grows by leaps and bounds, and who discover that this generosity has indeed led their heart to Jesus.
  • I do have a vision of people chuckling, or at least smiling as they drop their offering into the plate on Sunday morning.”

If you have a special story to share about your fall Stewardship program, I would love to hear it! What’s been special about your celebration of stewardship this year? You can contact me at deborah@presbyteryofthejames.org or 434-996-6032.

Deborah Rexrode
Associate for Stewardship for the Presbytery of the James