By G. Jeffrey MacDonald

The Rev. Wayne Nicholson donates 10 percent of his income, but not all of that 10 percent goes to the church. It’s a fact he explains regularly when encouraging his flock at St. John’s Church in Mount Pleasant, Michigan, to work toward tithing as a spiritual discipline. “Someone will inevitably ask, Do you tithe?” Nicholson said. “I’ll say, ‘I don’t tithe to the church, but I do tithe to charitable giving.’ I give 5 percent of my income to the church and 5 percent to various charities.”

Since 1982, General Convention has repeatedly affirmed tithing as “the minimum standard of giving for Episcopalians.”

In spreading his donations around, Nicholson reflects a long-term national trend with major implications for churches. Three decades ago, 53 percent of Americans’ charitable giving went to religious organizations. In 2014, that percentage has dropped to 32 percent and continues to decline annually, according to the 2015 edition of Giving USA, an annual report compiled by the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy.

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ERD’s Evolving Priorities

The cries of refugees streaming across European borders this year ring eerily familiar to Episcopal Relief & Development, which traces its roots to 1940, when the church rallied to help World War II refugees in the same region.

True to its origins as the Presiding Bishop’s Fund for World Relief, ERD now works with Episcopal Migration Ministries and supports congregations as they tend to migrants’ immediate needs in Europe and the Middle East. The Presiding Bishop’s Fund became Episcopal Relief and Development in 2000.

But in a reflection of how ERD has evolved over time, the organization is also taking new proactive steps that could help prevent more refugee crises in the future. Programs aimed at building economic security for the vulnerable in developing nations rank among the priorities.

“After moving from making small-targeted grants to focusing on long-term development, we are now better able to leverage our resources and deliver results for those we seek to serve,” ERD president Robert Radtke said via email.

In the past year, ERD has been celebrating its
75th anniversary by recalling responses to many a difficult or disastrous situation and inviting fresh engagement from supporters. Thirty-five venues have stepped up to host a traveling exhibit of more than 30 iconic photos from the group’s history. Donors have given $6.3 million toward ERD’s $7.5 million goal for the milestone year. Presiding Bishop Michael Curry is scheduled to preach at ERD’s anniversary Eucharist on Nov. 11 at St. James’ Church in Manhattan.

As the anniversary year winds down, the agency is charting new paths to shape a world with more financial security for children and adults on society’s margins. Such a world would have fewer refugees. Microfinance is evolving from a lending enterprise into one that helps beneficiaries keep more of what they earn.

“This means that people are being encouraged to save, instead of taking out loans and incurring more debt,” Radtke said.

ERD is also exploring possibilities associated with social-impact investing. The practice channels capital into projects with dual goals of fixing social problems (poor education systems, lack of access to capital, and so on) and delivering financial returns for investors.

And the group hopes to build on past successes. With a $20 million annual budget that comes mostly from individual Episcopalians’ donations, ERD wants to be strategic with its influence. One model: NetsforLife, a joint program that uses nets, insecticide, education, and monitoring to protect children and others from the spread of malaria. Pioneered by ERD and its partners, the program has become policy in several African countries.

“That’s huge,” Radtke said. “Where can we do this again?”

At this milestone in its history, ERD focuses on providing disaster relief, alleviating hunger, supporting health, and encouraging economic opportunity. If the mission succeeds, refugees might not be as much in the news when the next big anniversary rolls around.

G. Jeffrey MacDonald

The good news for church groups is that Americans still give more to houses of worship than anything else. They set a record in 2014 with $114.9 billion in religious giving. The second-largest beneficiary, education, was still a distant second with $54.6 billion.

But religion’s year-to-year increases lag behind those in nearly every other sector, from the arts to animals and the environment. Religious giving and international affairs, which saw gross donations fall, are the only ones not keeping pace with inflation.

Relying on an ever-smaller slice of the philanthropy pie means congregations have their work cut out for them. Among the chief tasks: explaining why their missions deserve priority at check-writing time.

“It becomes even more important than ever for religious charities to be able to make their case and sell the vision,” said Rick Dunham, a Dallas fundraising consultant to faith-based organizations and member of the Giving Institute’s board. “A lot of the challenge within the church in particular is that it’s often relegated to taking up the offering on a Sunday. There’s very little selling of the vision of what your charitable giving is helping to support other than keeping the operation going.”

Across the country, shifts away from religious identification and church attendance are hampering religious giving, according to Giving USA. But another dynamic is also at play: donors, including people of faith, are looking for organizations that resonate with them. Values and results, more than organizational format, are what matter to those holding the purse strings.

“People are giving more to organizations with religious values that match their own, instead of, or in addition to, congregations,” Giving USA 2015 says. These can be schools, hospitals, environmental groups, or human service organizations, among others, according to Dunham.

But showcasing effectiveness and championing the church above other causes can be inherently awkward for congregations. Spiritual transformation is central to church life, yet a changed heart is hard to quantify or measure. That which can be measured, such as baptism numbers or meals served at a soup kitchen, is not always trumpeted in communities that strive to be humble. What’s more, rectors often want to encourage giving to a range of worthy causes. Some especially enjoy touting enterprises that have no connection to their own paychecks (unlike the parish).

But Episcopal organizations are learning to adapt to competition for dollars once earmarked for the offering plate. Organizational cultures are emerging in which tracking and reporting results feel normal and necessary, not boastful or excessively worldly. And congregations are learning to articulate what makes the local church worthy of disproportionate support.

“The message becomes: Won’t you prioritize our parish over other giving opportunities?” said Erin Weber-Johnson, program director for strategic resources at the Episcopal Church Foundation. “The ‘why’ is different depending on who you speak to.”

At St. John’s in Mount Pleasant, the congregation’s 140 members hear often (not just in the fall stewardship season) how their dollars are making a difference. They are reminded, for example, how giving helps parishioners take turns providing shelter for homeless families, to help struggling neighbors with basic needs, and to sustain a vibrant worship life.

The descriptions can be quite specific. They hear about individuals and families who get by with help from the John H. Goodrow Fund, which gives $1,500 per week to people falling through the cracks. The fund recently bought three tires for a woman who could only afford one. For a man who works at Walmart but supports family members and cannot make ends meet, St. John’s provides $40 once a month to fill his car with gas.

“We fill in the blanks,” Nicholson said. “We help people who nobody else is helping.”

To keep ministries in the forefront of parishioners’ minds, leaders at St. John’s use the practice of habitually giving thanks. For instance, when the choir sings a moving piece, Nicholson thanks not only the singers but also the congregation.

That’s because donations pay for both a part-time choirmaster and eight choral scholars, who sing in the choir while they work toward music degrees at nearby Central Michigan University. Their $40 weekly stipends help students on tight budgets make ends meet, Nicholson says. By routinely thanking the congregation, St. John’s makes sure benefactors never forget what they support and why it matters.

At St. George’s Church in Maplewood, New Jersey, this fall’s stewardship brochure reflects the tensions of the times. A pledging chart shows how much a tithing person would give to the congregation weekly based on annual income. But the next page defines tithing as giving 10 percent of income “to the parish and other charitable institutions.”

St. George’s revamped its appeal this year to provide more detail on where the money goes. Building expenses, salaries, and church programs consume 77 percent of the $400,000 budget. The remaining 23 percent goes to justice and relief work in Maplewood, the Diocese of Newark, and the world. This mission category is increasingly emphasized in an effort to connect with a rising generation that values signs of success, according to member Dan Austin, who has led stewardship campaigns at St. George’s.

“Our members, including — and maybe especially — newer ones, are very interested in what the parish does for others, inside and outside the church walls,” Austin said via email. “So we’re trying to respond, and are seeking to put those efforts in a Christian context.”

What motivates givers to give the church priority can vary a lot from person to person, Weber-Johnson says. Nicholson agrees: no one gives just to keep the lights on. Even a visible result is not always the ultimate driving factor for an individual.

“We give because this has an opportunity to transform you [the giver] in the process,” Weber-Johnson said. “We give because you are in relationship with people who are leading these ministries. … These are all ways in which a story can be adapted.”

Still, documenting results matters more than ever across the philanthropic landscape, and congregations are not exempt. Observers say they can learn from Christian aid organizations, which must distinguish themselves every day among a sea of alternatives.

“The charitable giving space is competitive and increasingly more focused on delivering results,” said Robert Radtke, president of Episcopal Relief & Development, via email.

Tracking results helps organizations tell their stories. For the past decade, Episcopal Relief & Development has been making sure donors know how their dollars are taking the sting out of malaria. Since 2006, the NetsforLife program has distributed 22 million malaria nets, which protects people from disease-carrying mosquitos. More than 111,000 trained malaria control agents monitor the program.

With independent verification of results in hand, Episcopal Relief & Development has numbers to share when describing the agency’s effectiveness. Donors receive assurance that the nets, combined with education and monitoring, have saved more than 112,000 young children’s lives and reduced malaria rates by 45 percent in participating communities. Equally rigorous monitoring and evaluation criteria are now in the works for all ERD programs.

“It is about moving the discussion from What are we putting into the program? to What kind of impact is the program having? and then telling that story,” Radtke said.

Even in today’s competitive charity landscape, some still make the local church their top priority. Retired engineer Bruce Pollock and his wife, Alice, give 10 percent of their income to St. Aidan’s Church in Hartford, Wisconsin, a suburb of Milwaukee. Even 10 percent of a family inheritance went to establish a church endowment. They spread an additional 4-5 percent of yearly income among other nonprofits such as Milwaukee Public Television, the Hartford Lion’s Club, and Bruce’s alma mater, the University of Wisconsin.

“I do the church the first; it’s an automatic,” Pollock said. “I’ve backed off on other things. We were up to 15 or 20 percent that we were giving away. But 10 percent still goes to the church. That’s off the top.”

That spirit from a stewardship leader in the congregation has helped St. Aidan’s climb out from under a $320,000 debt that lingered after a fire in the mid-2000s. Pledges from members, coupled with matching funds from the Diocese of Milwaukee, have put the church on track to pay off the debt as soon as recent pledges are fulfilled. No one gave large gifts to the campaign, Pollock said. The key instead was to generate 100 percent participation from the congregation.

Pollock says he’s motivated by all the church does within and beyond its own walls, from a free monthly lunch that draws 100-plus to Bible study and Sunday school. He encourages fellow parishioners to be daily stewards of all they have: not just money, but also time, energy, and other resources.

“I give to things first, and then if I don’t have money for a vacation or a new TV set, then I don’t do it,” Pollock said. “I’ve had my tax man say, ‘That’s a bunch. You’re giving more away than most people.’ And I’d say, ‘Well, that’s fine. I’ve been blessed. So that’s okay.’ That’s just how I’m cooked, I guess.”

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