Economy: Better, but Still Room for Improvement
Dr. Wayne Clark, the Unitarian Universalist Association’s (UUA's) director of Congregational Stewardship Services, is busier this winter than he’s been in several years—and he sees that as a sign of an improving economy.
Congregations are seeking consulting help, he said, in many cases for projects they put on hold during the darkest times of the economic downswing and that they now believe they can pursue. “The projects range from building additions, to deferred maintenance and accessibility projects,” he said.
He added that congregational leaders that he’s talking with don’t base any optimism they might have on an improvement in the overall economy. They’re looking within their own congregations. “It’s more of a comfortableness within their congregation,” he said. “Some congregations seem to be better able to think about generosity and abundance than they could maybe a couple years ago.”
Clark acknowledged that the congregations that are coming to him for advice tend to be those that were pretty healthy to begin with. “Those congregations that are pretty fiscally healthy are the ones that can talk openly about money, ask for it in a direct way. Those folks have held their own through this period.”
“There’s no question that things are better overall,” he added. “They’re still not great. We’re coming out of the woods, but we’re still in high brush. We’re not back to a place where there’s no concern about the economy.”
He believes that spring stewardship drives will do better than in the past couple of years. He offers some advice. “There is no magic bullet, no one thing that will transform a congregation’s fundraising. I still get calls from people who want that. The best advice I can give is to just be direct about money. Look at it as a means to an end. Think in terms of stewardship rather than the annual budget drive.”
And don’t make the mistake in these times, he said, of assuming that some people won’t be able to give. “It’s a mistake to not ask everyone, even someone who is out of work. It makes the assumption the person is not able to make a contribution. That should be the donor’s decision. For some people the church still remains at the top of their giving list, even if they’ve cut other donations.”
Nancy Bowen is district executive for the UUA’s Mountain Desert District, which extends from Montana to New Mexico. “Some budgets are down a little, but for the most part congregations are holding at least even and are doing super jobs of managing expenses,” she said.
She added that service auctions seem to be a bright spot this year. “The ones I’ve heard about have all gone well, and that may be a sign of a rising economy.” There’s a high level of attentiveness toward friends and members who have lost jobs, said Bowen. “They know who is struggling and they’re helping, I’m hearing from leaders there’s also a marked increase in signups for adult religious education and small group ministry. People are seeking help on their own.”
The 170-member UU Church of Spartanburg, S.C., came up $24,000 short in its stewardship campaign last spring. Undeterred, the board, the congregation’s financial team, and interim minister the Rev. Donald Rollins put together a budget based on the full amount.
In a second appeal, congregants raised $34,000. That solved the annual budget problem, but there was another. The congregation owed $320,000 to two people who had made personal loans to help finance a new sanctuary after banks had declined to loan the full amount. When a bequest came in recently, the congregation paid off $50,000 of that debt, reducing its total to around $270,000. With the loans past due, and with the new space attracting fewer new members than anticipated, the congregation’s financial team worked with the two loan holders, creating a plan to pay off the loans in 30 years, making payments of $50,000 to $56,000 every five years.
“That won’t be easy,” said Rollins, “but this plan is the least of the evils. And now the congregation is going to focus on planned giving and put a lot of emphasis on stewardship. This congregation does not want to saddle the next generation of leaders with these tough decisions.” He noted that borrowing from members is seldom recommended, but in this case there was no other source for funds.
The Fox Valley UU Fellowship in Appleton, Wisc., drew up plans in 2008 for a $2.75 million campaign to build a 500-seat sanctuary, plus classrooms and other meeting space. By 2009 that didn’t seem like such a good idea, so the plan was scaled back to a 350-seat sanctuary (the current space has room for 175) at a cost of $1.25 million. This winter the congregation set out to raise $750,000 and ended up with $900,000. It expects to borrow the rest.
“The downsizing was momentarily disappointing, but not shocking,” said senior minister the Rev. Roger Bertschausen. “The congregation wanted to proceed with at least part of the plan. Even the smaller campaign felt like a leap of faith, but people really wanted the new space. We did a good job of communicating the need.” Images of a goldfish in a too-small bowl helped.
He said the Fox Valley area has been “somewhat less impacted” by the recession than other regions of the country. “We never had the inflated housing market although we have had some foreclosures, and people have been laid off. But overall, this year seems better than a year ago. A year ago we could not have done this campaign.” It also helped that the congregation grew from 618 members in May 2009 to 671.
The Rev. Jonalu Johnstone, program minister at First Unitarian Church in Oklahoma City, said, “We still have people struggling, but overall the economic situation here is improving and never was as bleak as some places. Our annual (December) collections for the Minister’s Discretionary Fund were well above average, and we have seen only minor increases in demand on it. We anticipate a good canvass this spring.”
The Rev. Theresa Novak, minister of the UU Church of Ogden, Utah, said the economy seems little changed from a year ago. “We have a couple members who were homeless when they joined us and still are. Others are unemployed and at risk of losing their homes. The church itself is doing just fine. Those who are able to are responding generously knowing that others are hurting. We budget $500 for the minister’s discretionary fund, which is used very sparingly when one of our members has a need that I hear about. If I used it for people who knock on our door it would be gone in a couple of days.”
The church also has a small food pantry, and Novak said her sense is that more people are using it. “It’s kind of in a corner so that people won’t be embarrassed. People bring items for it, and other people take items, and that’s working pretty well. We’re taking care of each other.”