Let me ask a metaphorical question about your congregation. Does your church building have windows through which parishioners see and engage the world? Or are those proverbial windows more like mirrors, focusing on the needs of parishioners themselves?*
The answer to this question will determine how great a challenge you face in raising money for social action. This simple metaphor is one of a number of issues we will discuss in this brief guide.
I believe social action is the true measure of a congregation. Making the world a better place is what religious communities are called to do. I encourage you to pursue mission or outreach goals with great enthusiasm and confidence.
However, clergy and lay leaders engaged in social action often face significant obstacles. Let's take a look at some of the issues that will determine whether your fellow congregants will open their pocketbooks—or not.
People engaged in mission or outreach efforts have to believe fervently that the money is always out there; and that the more people give, the better off they will be in their hearts and souls. This is not language heard very often in Unitarian Universalist (UU) churches, but it is true.
Victor Claman, a Congregational minister, wrote a wonderful book titled Acting on Your Faith: Churches Making a Difference.** This book is like a catalog, with photographs on each page featuring a different church, and the social action project taken on. Examples of projects range from a small farm in a rural church to a multi-million dollar nonprofit agency in New York City. Some inner city churches have even started banks.
While written in the Christian context, the message in Claman's book is nevertheless instructive for UU's—to a person, those involved in social action projects stated with certainty that if the Lord calls, the Lord provides.
God, however defined, loves a cheerful giver. You will need cheerfulness and enthusiasm in great measure. Be relentless. You can't talk about money in church without making someone mad, but in my experience it is not the generous souls who get angry, but the most miserly. Don't let your project be stalled by those who give the least, and often are the ones who complain the most.
In any given congregation, less than 10 percent of members may be truly interested in social action. Parishioners may write checks for small amounts or participate in minor ways. But most people don't come to church for social action. You'll need to find people of adequate means who will support your cause. It is much more effective to ask a few people for $1,000, $5,000, or $10,000 than trying to get a lot of people to give $25 or $50.
UU's pride themselves on being democratic, and we may all be equal in the sight of God. But raising money is very different. Some people have more money than others, and some people have significantly more money than others. Don't be afraid to ask people for larger amounts. Generous people derive great pleasure from charitable giving. People give to people they know and trust, and will give when asked. Donors will also take great pride in what their church has accomplished.
Plus, on a purely practical note, some social action issues are costly, and rightly so. It is just not possible to build a solid, long-term program on checks for $10 and $15.
In affluent areas where UU churches are often located, social action may not be fashionable. For some, the term social action is reminiscent of the 1960s, with a connotation of unruly crowds in the streets.
Some congregations have done away with the term "social action," and have begun using terms like "Church in Community" instead. This term conveys a very different, and more inclusive approach. In your own congregation, you may wish to consider whether using a different name might make your efforts more appealing to a larger segment of the congregation, especially younger members.
An recent article by a group of economists indicated that during prosperous times, people are less likely to get involved in social action. As people become more comfortable financially, they tend to believe that everyone else is, too.
This attitude of universal plenty may seem irrational given the need all around us. However, there is also evidence that the longer people are comfortably middle-class, the less concern they have for those who are not as fortunate. These are powerful forces which may impede your ability to rally parishioners to the cause.
The opposite is also true. When times are bad, people believe others are struggling, too. Per capita charitable giving was the highest in the United States during the early 1930s, during the Great Depression. As we have become more affluent, charitable giving has declined per capita. Sadly, the more we have, the less we give.
In many congregations, social action committees have a kind of vague approval from the leadership to pursue their goals. After that, committee leaders and members are pretty much on their own. This is not acceptable.
Social action should be a congregational initiative, not a committee initiative. The minister, members of the governing body, and key leaders need to espouse the cause as a core goal of the congregation itself. If the attitude of key leaders is "go ahead and do that if you want and let us know how it turned out", you're likely to get lukewarm support at best. Your efforts may go unappreciated, and the potential for becoming disheartened is high. Enlist the support of your congregation's leadership early on.
Enlisting the leadership for financial support is also critical. The author Lyle Schaller writes that in some churches "the leadership views its role not as expanding ministry, but limiting expenses." If the board of your church takes a nickel and dime attitude toward social action initiatives, you're likely to struggle in securing the money you need to move ahead.
Many congregations fill leadership positions from the top down. For example, the board chair is chosen first, then the vice-chair, treasurer, etc. It is common sense to select the best people for these key positions.
But some churches are looking at leadership from a different perspective—filling mission and outreach positions first, those ministries that are external and the most visible in the community. Instead of having the most effective leaders around the conference table, many congregations now want these people on the "front lines."
In any church program, leadership is the key ingredient. Those in your congregation who have credibility and enjoy wide respect are your best bet.
The UU church in Rochester, Minnesota, provides an excellent example of how leaders might be cultivated. Each quarter, new members are invited to attend a pot-luck dinner with the board. Board members introduce themselves and speak briefly about their roles in church. The board chair then says a very important thing: "during your time with us, we hope you will aspire to a position of leadership."
This important statement provides new members permission and encouragement to take on new ministries when opportunities arise—and not feel they have to be part of the church for years before being empowered to act.
Let's return for a moment to the question of whether your church has windows or mirrors, and the congregation's attitude toward social action. If you would like to make social action a more significant part of the day-to-day life of your congregation, I recommend beginning with the Membership Committee.
In many UU congregations, expectations of membership are very low. In some, expectations are literally non-existent, as the belief is that if you ask people to do things or give money, they will be offended. This is nonsense. The secular literature of today is replete with articles about people searching for meaning in their lives. People today are looking for deeper commitments—they already have plenty of fleeting ones.
Also, the excuse of these times is that people are too busy to take on significant roles. I believe that people will become involved in issues that are important to them, have meaning in their lives, and that have effective leadership. You can, without doubt, ask someone to make your project their primary volunteer commitment.
A model of church membership that I find particularly engaging is "three level ministry."
People are more open to new ideas and suggestions when they first join a church than at any other time. Seize this moment! If new members are expected to become involved in social action from day one, this will go a long way toward changing the overall culture in the congregation as a whole.
In most congregations, one-third of the members give two-thirds or more of the money. The generous souls in the top one-third will also give money to social action efforts when asked. Many volunteers are hesitant to ask for money from those who already give the most, but this is where the money is.
Keep in mind that you are not guardians of parishioners' pocketbooks. Your goal is to fund the work that needs to be done. As mentioned, many people are charitably inclined, and enjoy giving away money. Provide them the opportunity to do the right thing.
Alas, for many parishioners, low-level and same-level giving is a law of nature. These people usually do not respond to appeals for money, no matter how compelling the cause. It is often said that UU's give little to the church because they give so much to other causes. This is just not true. People who are miserly to the church are likely to be miserly in other areas of their lives.
Accept the fact that many people in your congregation, sadly, have little interest in charitable giving.
Giving is the nature of God, however defined. The best way to raise money in your congregation is for you and those involved to make your own generous gifts first. The word will get around.
I knew a Jewish woman who, in the 1950's, was looking for a house for herself and her family. She realized the Realtor was showing her houses only in certain neighborhoods, and not others, because of her religion. She vowed that she would start a synagogue in that town, no matter what the obstacles.
She became one of the temple's founding members, and her family gave up their annual vacation and stayed home during the summer FOR TEN YEARS because of the size of their initial pledge. She and her family were highly respected members of that synagogue for decades, and she never regretted for a minute the sacrifices, financial and otherwise, that they made.
On a scale of 1 to 10, where might your church lie on the adventuresome scale? Are parishioners provided opportunities to serve? Does the leadership of the congregation encourage people to get involved in community efforts? Or is the congregation more complacent, "a place of comfort and convenience for middle class members," as author Lyle Schaller describes many churches as being.
If your congregation has a history of social action, you may have inherited some excellent institutionalized habits. If not, you may want to discuss with the leadership of the congregation and your fellow parishioners what the legacy of your congregation will be—to children, youth, to those who will follow in the years to come, and to the larger community.
In many Christian churches, the Gospels are considered to be profoundly counter-cultural. Parishioners are encouraged to lead lives that go against the grain of the consumer society in which we live, including helping those who are less fortunate. This requires a certain amount of courage, and sometimes taking some risks. Is your congregation up to the task?
Rick Warren is the founding minister of the Saddleback Community Church in Southern California, one the so-called nondenominational "mega-churches." This church has a membership of 15,000.
While this Bible-based church is not our theology, Warren is masterful at organizing an effective church. He writes, "we have no interest in getting people involved in programs and activities. The sending capacity of a church [and its capacity for social action] is more important than the seating capacity."
"We do four things, and only four things here," Warren continued. "We bring people into membership, help them gain spiritual maturity, train them for ministry, and send them out as missionaries."
I believe Warren's process represents very closely the ways we need to involve people in social action initiatives. For this mega-church, outreach and mission, and the opportunity to serve, is not an "add on" program—it is the core of why the church exists.
In some churches, the belief is that for people to worship together in a meaningful context, they have to do something else, too. Your social action project should be that "something else."
In his lively book Sacred Cows Make Gourmet Burgers,*** William Easum writes that "Most congregations worship at the altar of control. Parishioners who have good ideas often find themselves filling out forms and waiting for approval from standing committees."
Easum continues by saying, "churches should strive to become permission-granting, by empowering people to do new ministries. Like-minded people should be encouraged to pursue ministries that are important to them."
In my experience, the Transylvania Partner Church committees in many UU churches are excellent examples of dedicated, like-minded parishioners gathering together and feeling empowered to make a significant difference in the world. This model could well be applicable to other social action issues, as well.
Many Protestant churches have a line item in the budget for outreach or mission—often 10 percent (the tithe) or more. Many congregations try to increase that percentage each year. This is an idea that I believe should be introduced into UU congregations. Do we raise money only to spend on ourselves?
My experience with volunteers is that they work in fits and starts—bursts of energy, followed by periods of being out of touch. Play to people's strengths—but do try to put the most effective parishioners on the front lines of a ministry that reaches out to the community and puts your congregation in the most favorable light.
The author Loren Mead once wrote, "stewardship is not asking for money—it is people having life-transforming conversations with one another." I believe that being part of a religious community should change our lives in some fundamental way. We change our lives, so those less fortunate can change theirs, as well.
Sometimes I think UU churches are too hesitant, too cautious about social action. We want to make sure that we do not offend anyone in the congregation. We worry about whether this or that program might cost too much. We worry about asking parishioners for money too often. Perhaps we create obstacles that are really not there.
I believe the true measure of a church is when people who are not members drive by and say to themselves or to their out-of-town visitors, "There's the Unitarian Universalist church. It is well known for its many good works, and its members are not afraid to take a stand on significant social issues. That church is a real asset to this community."
That's the kind of church I want to be a part of.
*I am indebted to Rev. Silvio Nardoni for the metaphor about windows and mirrors in church buildings.
**Acting on Your Faith: Churches Making a Difference. By Victor Claman. Insights Press, Boston, MA. 194 pp. Single copy, $25. Discounts of 40-70% for multiple copies. 1-800-323-6809.
***Sacred Cows Make Gourmet Burgers. By William Easum. Abingdon Press, Nashville, TN. 166 pages. $14.95. (615) 749-6000.
Michael Durall is a member of the First Church, UU, in Belmont, MA, and the author of Creating Congregations of Generous People, published by the Alban Institute, 1999.
For more information contact socialjustice @ uua.org.
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Last updated on Wednesday, August 24, 2011.
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