When the offering plate comes around on Sunday morning at First Universalist Church of Denver, Colo., many nonprofit groups in the community feel the earth move just a little. This is the third year that the congregation has given its entire offering—every Sunday—to local groups or to support the work of the congregation’s own Social Justice Council task forces.
Associate Minister the Rev. Jeannie Shero said nearly $150,000 has been collected so far through the program, called Compassion in Action. “The first year we collected $44,000, then $56,000,” she said. “This year, which ends in June, will be close to $60,000. Prior to the program the offering would bring in around $25,000, much of which was largely used to support the operating budget.”
“This program represented a major shift for us,” Shero noted. “Was it a hard sell to the congregation? No. Did it make the board of trustees nervous? Yes. Giving up $20,000 for the operating budget was no small thing since the board has fiduciary responsibility.”
Most of the money is distributed to nonprofit groups that have a longstanding connection to the church or are nominated by a church member or the Social Justice task force. Each summer a form is made available to congregants to nominate groups, which are then vetted by the congregation’s Social Justice Council leadership. Seventy-nine outside groups have benefited from Compassion in Action. Money has also gone to each of the church's seven social justice task forces that focus on human rights, gay rights, immigration, Habitat for Humanity, ethical eating, and aspects of environmental responsibility.
Shero said the annual stewardship campaign has also continued to do well, showing a nine percent increase last year. This year’s campaign is underway, but figures are not yet available.
“The energy of the congregation and our community life remain very positive,” she said. “People have said they increased their annual pledges because the congregation showed it was willing to engage in prophetic witness outside our walls.”
Shero said a representative of each of the recipient groups makes a three- to four-minute presentation during worship, before the offering is taken. In some cases Shero or someone else speaks for the group. She said the strength of the presentation makes a difference in how much is raised.
“I ask to read each presentation a week in advance,” she said. “We’ve learned what a compelling presentation is. I may ask someone to remove a sentence because it will be distracting or to expand another one. That also helps us to connect the organization with our UU values.” The presentation is completed well before the offering plates start around, she said, to give people time to decide on their contributions.
Each group also has the opportunity to have a table in coffee hour to present further information and to sign up volunteers. “We encourage people, if they find the presentation compelling, to find out how to volunteer,” she said. “Groups have gotten a number of volunteers this way. We want this to be about more than money.”
The congregation has developed strong partnerships with more than 25 of the groups. One of these is One Colorado, a group advocating for marriage equality. Many First Universalist members are also members of One Colorado.
Shero said more people give cash than checks—this in an age when fewer people carry checkbooks. Sometimes people send checks or money during the week. They considered accepting credit cards, but decided against it because of the percentage the card company would take.