By G. Jeffrey MacDonald

Signs of vitality abound these days at St. George’s Church in Maplewood, New Jersey. Attendance is up more than 10 percent in the past five years to 135. Each Sunday, newcomer parents and their young kids add to the laughter, banter, and joyful songs that fill the space.

But when Monday arrives and budgetary constraints come to bear, St. George’s has less to sing about. While more are worshiping, fewer are pledging — 20 percent fewer than five years ago. Traditional stewardship messages are not resonating with a younger generation. The task of coming up with more than $300,000 yearly to run the church now falls to fewer than 100 pledging families.

“We have to figure out what’s going on here,” said Dan Austin, co-chair of St. George’s stewardship committee. “A lot of the new families are coming from other faith traditions, so this whole stewardship thing has them wondering: what is that?”

To meet the challenge, St. George’s is doing like some of its peers in the Diocese of Newark and pulling pages from secular fundraising playbooks. They’ve seen the philanthropic trends: schools are gobbling up 41 percent more donations than at the turn of the 21st century, while giving to religious organizations has been flat in inflation-adjusted dollars. If churches are going to compete effectively for charity dollars, they will need to embrace strategies that are working for colleges, hospitals, and nonprofit agencies, according to fundraising experts.

“The biggest problem that organized religion in this country faces is not in techniques of asking for money,” said George Ruotolo, a New Jersey-based fundraising consultant who’s been helping congregations for 40 years. “It’s in evangelism. It’s in reaching out, communicating with your members, and telling them why you need their support.”

St. George’s is learning from another church in the Diocese of Newark, St. Andrew’s in Harrington Park, where parishioners now receive stewardship letters designed for their generation. It’s segmentation: a secular technique that’s growing among the faithful. In these invitations, baby boomers read about their duty to provide for the future, but not Gen Xers. Theirs detail how initiatives at St. Andrew’s are changing lives right now.

“I’m a baby boomer, so I communicate more easily with my generation and older ones because we use the same words, like commitment and sacrifice,” said Paul Shackford, stewardship chair for St. Andrew’s and chief financial officer for the diocese. “I’m sure the 30-year-old who writes the letter for her age group isn’t going to use words like commitment. That’s just not how they were trained.”

St. George’s is experimenting, too. This year’s stewardship campaign included web videos. On camera, parishioners tell how they live their faith, how they find strength in Christ to stay sober, and how they help mothers who struggle to feed their kids. It’s a tool used by many a secular nonprofit. Now it’s helping a congregation reach Millennials who would rather watch a video at home than sit through a stewardship dinner.

For many Episcopal congregations, this is no time to sit back and watch donations dwindle or drift to other good causes. According to Episcopal Church data, financial problems have stubbornly plagued more than 20 percent of congregations for the past decade. Though the average pledge climbed gradually from $2,314 in 2009 to $2,553 in 2013, yearly increases haven’t kept pace with inflation in any year since the Great Recession. The days of leaving stewardship on autopilot and hoping for the best are fading fast.

The situation is not unique to Episcopal institutions. Data show all faith groups face common challenges, as well as some advantages. With 31.5 percent of all charitable donations going to religion in the United States, the faith sector remains Americans’ favorite cause. But its slice of the charitable pie continues to shrink annually, down from 47 percent in 1995, according to Giving USA reports.

Such data raise questions: why are secular groups getting more of the pie? Are their fundraising strategies and tools better? Are they replicable in the churches? Or do they rely on premises that contradict the ethos of the Church and are therefore unusable?

More people of faith are testing out secular strategies. In one telling sign, 50 clergy and laypeople traveled to New York in October from as far away as Louisiana, Illinois, and Belize for a two-day symposium on “Sacred Fundraising, Secular Tools.” The Episcopal Church’s development office organized the event as a venue for picking the brains of secular fundraisers.

The gathering builds on a sensibility within the church that questions a rigid line between sacred and secular, emphasizing instead that the entire world is God’s.

“The idea of sacred versus secular fundraising is not a helpful dichotomy,” said Teresa Mathes, senior program director at the Episcopal Church Foundation. “If you are dedicating your life to serving the kingdom, then everything you do should be a sacred act of some sort. What’s culturally appropriate in a particular congregation is what you’re looking for.”

Downplaying the sacred-secular divide can open the door to practices that some say are essential for every nonprofit entity. Examples include planning and reporting. Most congregations do not have a three- or five-year plan, but they should develop one and report frequently to donors on progress because it’s their money the church is spending, according to Simon Jeynes, senior consultant with Independent School Management in Wilmington, Delaware.

“Just because we’re sacred doesn’t let us off the hook around performance,” Jeynes told symposium participants. “Today’s donor is interested in performance more than ever. … We have to be able measure performance even in spiritual matters. If you think your church is above measurement, then you are above money. And you will go bankrupt.”

But as faith leaders consider secular approaches, some are not comfortable with the underlying premises. The Reformed Church in America, for instance, has “impact goals” but focuses on preparedness for an uncertain future. The RCA eschews strategic planning because it puts human beings in charge. It leaves no expectation that God might act to open eyes and hearts to a previously unforeseen agenda, said Ken Eriks, director of transformational engagement at the RCA.

Some Episcopal clergy share the view that the church must be distinct — in fundraising as elsewhere. Planning every outcome and timetable is too presumptuous for a Spirit-led people, according to the Rev. Kathy Guin, rector of St. Margaret’s Church in Woodbridge, Virginia.

“If we get so stuck in a specific plan, that means we are not responding to the Spirit,” Guin said. She also said measuring and reporting are needed, but for different reasons than those Jeynes cited.

“Everything belongs to God,” Guin said. “Nothing belongs to us, from dust to dust. We don’t own it. We’re not reporting back to stockholders. That is not part of church life. … In the church, we’re one body. We report back because we’re in partnership.”

As parishes vie to reinvigorate giving, some are not looking entirely to the secular world for models. Some are recovering traditions that had been neglected.

Consider St. Margaret’s. The congregation is managing debt after borrowing $200,000 in 2012 to rehabilitate its new property, which had been sitting vacant for eight years and needed lots of work. As a first step, members mounted the first stewardship campaign since anyone can remember in 2013. Efforts paid off. Pledges doubled. They had a campaign again in 2014. St. Margaret’s recently attained parish status — a sign of growing stability — and topped 100 in average Sunday attendance, a threefold increase from three years ago.

At St. James Church in Ormond Beach, Florida, unexpected debt gave rise to a type of hybrid. When its school closed, the parish found itself owing $1 million. Undaunted, parishioners did as many faith communities do: they held fundraiser events. But they did so under the auspices of Friends of St. James, a new organization dedicated solely to fundraising and operating independently of the parish. That structure, more common in the secular world than the church world, has unleashed a philanthropic entrepreneurism.

“It’s definitely given us flexibility,” said Ruth Dodson, a founder of Friends of St. James. “It has allowed us to be very focused.”

Since September, Friends of St. James has proven it can stage fun events that draw crowds who want to help the church retire its debt. First a fish fry generated $1,000. Then came a $5,000 haul from a rummage sale, followed by $2,000 from a holiday tea at a country club. The group aims to build on past successes with larger-scale events in 2015.

Some secular disciplines, like thank-you notes, seem rather easy to embrace. When a person makes a pledge or significant gift, a congregation should send a written thank you within a week, according to Jeynes. Even better: call the giver to say thank you. The caller does not ask for anything but simply says thank you. The effort required is small, yet the effect is huge.

Or consider the hallmark secular technique of year-round fundraising through building relationships. While congregations are constantly deepening relationships, many tend to wait until November stewardship campaigns to tell the story of “what this congregation means to me and our community.” But that’s changing.

At St. Andrew’s in Harrington Park, parishioners increasingly hear these stories all year: from the parish’s food pantry, its homeless-sheltering project, and its worship service for families with children who have special needs. When November arrives, asking for a pledge simply takes year-long awareness and relationship to the next logical level.

Other practices might take more time to catch on. In secular circles, prospect research is commonplace. It involves building files on potential donors as the organization becomes aware of their passions and capacities for giving. Congregations that follow the model might amass news clippings, data from public records, and notes from personal conversations. But it’s imperative to heed ethics guidelines.

“Where’s the line,” asked the Rev. Charles LaFond of St. John’s Cathedral in Denver, “between that which you write down so that you can be a good pastor and that which you write down so that other people after you can maintain a relationship that’s intelligent in prospect research and fundraising?”

“It goes back to the motivation,” said Lisa Bellamy, research analyst for the Episcopal Church’s development office. She said it’s OK to keep a development file if the purpose is to help a parishioner feed her treasure down the line, perhaps by inviting her to support something she has said she loves, like gardening. Otherwise, information shared in private conversations should not become part of church development records for future fundraising campaigns.

And while top staffers routinely ask for money in secular settings, the norm is far more varied in churches. LaFond, who has written on stewardship in his book Fearless Church Fundraising (Morehouse, 2013), and others believe rectors can be justified in asking for money as part of their pastoral roles. They see helping people find joy in giving as a ministry.

But others insist it’s wrong for rectors to know how much individual parishioners give. They worry clergy might pander to big givers, or appear self-serving, if raising money becomes part of their job descriptions. In practice, some rectors ask for financial gifts to the church. Others leave the task entirely to laity.

As congregations dabble in the secular fundraising toolkit, questions about what fits and what’s proper are taking them back to the heart of church life. They’re asking: what makes a church like and unlike other organizations? From this comes a fresh articulation of why giving matters — and why asking Christ’s followers to give might be part of caring for their souls.

“The people of the flock come to us because they want to give,” LaFond told those gathered in New York, “and they want to make meaning out of their gift.”

Learning to Ask

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