By Neva Rae Fox

The pandemic has prompted new and alternative ways for congregations to worship, gather, learn, and continue ministries. Now, as the traditional fall stewardship season nears, some churches are incorporating websites, social media, apps, YouTube, digital dinners, videos, Zoom, and other new tools.

The Rev. Diana Wilcox, rector of Christ Church in Bloomfield & Glen Ridge, New Jersey, is looking to Zoom this year for virtual cottage gatherings. “This is vastly different than our previous stewardship campaigns, but I am hoping that in these smaller groups we can look at what has happened to us in the pandemic, to talk about who we are as a people of Christ, and discuss what this means to each person as part of this faithful community, in perhaps a more intimate way.”

“This fall, the St. John the Divine (Houston) generosity campaign, ‘Love the Lord, Love Your Neighbor,’ continues to focus on engaging parishioners through life-changing stories shared through video interviews, social media, email, and a mailed brochure,” said Andrea Meier, director of communications. “New this year is moving our second annual celebration dinner to a completely online format. We are still figuring out the details of how the online ‘dinner’ (large online presentation) will work and are looking forward to seeing our friends’ faces at our ‘tables’ (breakout rooms).”

Sarah Martinez is readying a campaign at Trinity, Fort Worth that melds traditional and new methods for outreach.  The Communications Director said, “We will have a mailing but will focus on digital outreach, social media, some videos. We launched text to give and better online giving tools late last year. We are actually on track with giving for 2020.”

At St. Paul’s in Kansas City, Associate of Ministry Heidi J. A. Carter explained, “We’re doing the same structure for year-round … and employing many of the images and some of the words from SALT’s Together for Joy campaign. This week will hopefully bring a full re-do of our Stewardship & Giving web page to include very good updates recommended by Realm, since we also started allowing for text donations through that app.” SALT is a social media and communications consultancy, and Realm is a church-management software platform.

The Rev. Caroline Kramer of Redeemer in Shelby, North Carolina, called the upcoming effort “a digitized traditional campaign. We are monetizing YouTube and Facebook so the way we do stewardship will change anyway, or at least have an addition.”

“I think that the theme, really, is going to be the pandemic in some form or another,” said the Rev. Ian C. Burch, rector of St. Mark’s in Milwaukee. “We will proceed with video appeals. Put another way, our entire campaign is smaller and more directed than in past years. Rather than focus on a financial goal greater than the previous year, we are instead putting our goal at the exact same level as last year – knowing that some people in the parish will have experienced hardship, and some people in the parish will have been able to keep at the same income level or even experience a windfall.”

Burch stressed, “What is vital to keep is the sense of abundance. It’ll be tempting to think of ourselves in a moment of scarcity, but a scarcity campaign never works. People want to make wise decisions for their families and their finances and want to be generous to the church. So, let them do that in a spirit of fun and abundant giving rather than browbeat about percentages and tithing and anticipated shortfalls.”

Many dioceses, such as New Jersey and Milwaukee, have Zoom-gathered to share info and methods on stewardship campaigns. Episcopal institutions offer resources and sponsor webinars to help churches quickly re-do a traditional stewardship campaign.

Charis Bhagianathan, Episcopal Church Foundation (ECF) director of communications, reported that the current issue of Vestry Papers focuses on stewardship “even when it feels like there is nothing to give.”

This topic, she said, “comes out of the conversations we have been having. How do you talk about giving when you feel like everything has been taken from you?”

ECF offers a COVID-19 resource page, an effort kicked off in March. “We had a lot of questions at the start about ‘what do I do now,’” Bhagianathan said.

Davey Gerhard, Executive Director of The Episcopal Network for Stewardship (TENS) pointed out that churches are facing not only the pandemic but also an economic downswing and unemployment. Having heard of many issues churches are facing, he believes there is a “need for teaching on theology about how we talk about money in difficult times.”

He explained, “How do we talk about church budgets when our churches are facing layoffs, program cuts, staff fewer?  How do we communicate joy hope and promise in our budget?”

Calling stewardship “ a long-term plan,” Gerhard said, “We want people to make prayerful, thoughtful pledges. Stewardship is a relationship with your church, and what your church can and will do in the community and the wider church.”

Early on in the pandemic, the Diocese of New Jersey started posting COVID-19 Guidance and resources on the website for congregations and clergy. This included weekly seminars on Stewardship, Stability and Sustainability.

“If the pandemic lasts years, I think we will have to completely reimagine stewardship, said Burch, of St. Marks in Milwaukee. “Since this is just the first year, I think we can count on the memory of our people and their love of our community as it was and will be again. I’d recommend a pared-down campaign with video appeals, benchmarks, a great phone-a-thon, and an excellent online form to fill out your pledge card coupled with a mail-in option. People have enough stress. I think they want to support the church, but I think they have less bandwidth with which to do so (consider parents worried about grandparents and young children, unemployment, school etc.). People need a campaign that is pointed, fun, short, and easy.”

The Rev. Bob Fitzpatrick, chair of the Diocese of New Jersey Stewardship Commission, offered his hope that “people would live in the spiritual foundation of stewardship.  It’s not just fundraising, not just finance. COVID stripped away so much, but it revealed that God is alive in our lives.”

The Rev. Marjorie Gerbracht, Manchester, New Hampshire http://gracechurchmanchester.org summed up the feelings of many. “God bless us all as we are all pioneers in new-found territory.”