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FORTH Program Inspires Stewardship Growth

September 1, 2011

The Unitarian Universalist (UU) Church of Asheville, N.C., had been going along from year to year with annual stewardship campaigns that did all right. Well, sort of. “We told ourselves they were OK, that they were successful, but in truth, we never did get as much money as we needed,” said Michael Vavrek, a member of the governing board at Asheville. “We also weren’t happy with the way we were going about it. We decided we wanted a broader understanding of stewardship.”

As a result, the Asheville governing board volunteered the congregation in 2007 to be part of a three-year demonstration project of FORTH (Forward Through the Ages), a new stewardship development program introduced by Dr. Wayne Clark in his 2007 book, Beyond Fundraising: A Complete Guide to Congregational Stewardship ($20 at the UUA Bookstore). In the book, Clark, director of Congregational Stewardship Services for the Unitarian Universalist Association, addresses stewardship as a vital part of ministry and as something more than simply raising money. “Stewardship is the growing, nurturing, promoting, and building of the gifts, call, and spiritual vocation that have been given to us,” says Clark.

For three years congregational leaders at Asheville, which has 609 members, participated in FORTH. As part of it, they engaged in Appreciative Inquiry exercises, exploring what was working well in the congregation, rather than simply focusing on problems. They learned how to talk openly about money, a process that led to more people being willing to be involved in stewardship efforts.

The demonstration project, which involved seven congregations, ended in 2010. This year the program, amended to reflect what was learned during the demonstration period, was made available to all congregations.

FORTH didn’t work any miracles in any of the demonstration sites. It didn’t magically unleash a torrent of giving. But since 2007 there was an increase in the median pledge at Asheville. It went from $840 to $900. Other congregations in the demonstration reported similar results. And that might be considered a miracle, given that the economy dramatically declined during several of those years and still has not fully recovered.

What FORTH did do for Asheville was to begin a process of changing the way leaders and members thought about giving. “Changing the culture of a congregation is a longtime commitment and hard work,” said Vavrek. “You can’t expect to see a dramatic change in three to five years.”

He said that FORTH yielded many other benefits. “A few individuals became absolutely committed to stewardship by doing this work. And we learned that in terms of raising pledge levels the most fruitful place to focus is on newcomers—people without a routine of giving.”

There’s also more enthusiasm in the congregation now for planned giving, and a broader understanding of the meaning of stewardship, he said. FORTH also led the congregation to begin an annual service auction and to create a five-year strategic plan. “We’d never had either of those,” Vavrek said. Last year the auction raised $23,000. “The strategic plan is now an important document that we use again and again as we plan for the future,” he said.

The UU Church of Vancouver, Wash., was also part of the FORTH pilot program. Leaders there were looking for new money-raising ideas as well as a broader perspective toward money, said Chris Smith, stewardship chair. “Our budget drive was something to get through, not celebrate,” she noted, “and our community has been uncomfortable talking about money.”

She said FORTH helped leaders develop a better understanding of stewardship and led to more people becoming involved in stewardship efforts. She said FORTH presented the congregation with an opportunity to expand its thinking about church resources and celebrate its assets. “We came to understand that gratitude is the first step in becoming generous. It also brought home to us the fact that asking people for money face-to-face is the most successful way.”

She added, “Our cadre of stewards understand their work as ministry, and they see it truly as community building.” The median contribution to Vancouver’s annual stewardship campaign increased $4 a month in the years since FORTH started, she noted. “That may not seem impressive, but to us it is definitely positive. I just don’t think that would have happened in this economic climate without FORTH.”

Information on using FORTH is available on UUA.org. The first step in the program is for leaders of a congregation to complete a free web-based stewardship self-assessment, receive feedback from the UUA’s Congregational Stewardship Services staff, and then sign a FORTH covenant. There is no financial cost to congregations.

All Souls Church Unitarian in Washington, D.C., also was part of the pilot program. Board President Mark Ewert, who is also a UUA stewardship consultant, said All Souls had had generally successful annual budget drives prior to FORTH, but it didn’t have comprehensive stewardship resources beyond that.

He said All Souls began FORTH by holding a meeting of all the people who were doing fundraising in the church. It also recruited some high-level lay leaders to attend that meeting. “That meeting, in itself, had value,” he said. “We came to recognize that a lot of entities in the congregation, including people involved with communications, adult education, database management, staff and ministry teams, and lay led committees, needed to work well together for stewardship to be properly supported.”

He added, “We took a long view, focusing on more than just what needed to happen in the next church year.” A Stewardship Team was formed, which now supports the annual stewardship campaign, a program of planned giving, and two individual fundraisers—a bed and breakfast program and an annual auction or dinner and dance.

Ewert said the stewardship team also supports All Souls’ executive team, which has ultimate responsibility for effective stewardship.

He said FORTH was also the impetus for starting a committee to coordinate many aspects of being a large congregation. FORTH put the congregation on a path of improvement, he noted. “Our annual budget drive continues to improve, and our other fundraising generally meets its goals even during these challenging economic times. It is hard to say whether we would have naturally grown and improved without FORTH, yet the FORTH program made us more intentional about addressing broader issues of stewardship.”

Ewert wrote the summary report on the FORTH demonstration project.

For more information contact interconnections @ uua.org.

This work is made possible by the generosity of individual donors and congregations. Please consider making a donation today.

Last updated on Thursday, December 19, 2013.

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