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Day of Celebration Makes Stewardship Drive Fun

The annual stewardship drive is a lot of fun at Arlington Street Church (ASC), Boston (301 members). For starters there’s the gold spray-painted “ark of the covenant” that is carried down front on Covenant Renewal Sunday. There’s a celebratory mood, with lots of music and a rousing sermon by the Rev. Kim Crawford Harvie and people trouping down to place their financial commitment cards in the ark. The ark is carried out, the commitments are tallied and the total announced with much fanfare, and then everyone goes down to the basement for a big lunch.

ASC has been doing its stewardship drive this way for the past five years, and Paul Dakin, who has chaired it for four years, says it works. Two years ago the drive netted $202,000 on a goal of $200,000. Last year it raised $254,000 on a goal of $220,000. (The marriage equality issue added a degree of pride and enthusiasm.) This spring it raised $250,000, and it expects to make that $275,000 by the time the last pledges come in this fall. The membership has increased from 266 three years ago to 286 last year and 301 currently. The median pledge has been in the $600 to $650 range. That means the first year the pledge dollars increased about 26 percent while membership rose 8 percent. The second year pledge dollars increased by 8 percent while membership rose 5 percent.

The method of doing the annual stewardship drive by collecting financial commitments at a Sunday service is known by different names—Covenant Renewal Sunday, Commitment Sunday, Celebration Sunday. It’s one of several methods that congregations can use for annual fundraising.

Here’s how it works at ASC: Two months before Covenant Renewal Sunday there is extensive information on the campaign in the newsletter. A chart lists the number of pledges the previous year, grouped by dollar amount brackets (but no names), letting people see where they are in relation to others. Another chart shows what a quarter, half, and full tithe of 10 percent would be for various income levels.

A few weeks before the stewardship drive, members recieve an eight-page brochure in the mail. There are three-to-five-minute pulpit editorials for a month before Covenant Renewal Sunday, and on the day itself Rev. Crawford Harvie preaches her stewardship sermon.

The “ask” has changed at ASC. “We used to be really needy, and we talked about needing money for the operating budget and about how much it cost to heat this place,” said Dakin. “Now we talk more about inspiration and about our hopes and goals as a faith community. That’s been very helpful.”

The last year the congregation did a personal visit stewardship drive was 1999. When only 45 percent of members pledged and a second canvass had to be done, church leaders decided to place fundraising into the worship service and make it a celebration and a bit of theater.

By making a financial commitment, members at ASC also renew their membership. Church bylaws require an annual financial commitment. About 80 percent of commitments are turned in on Covenant Renewal Sunday. Those who do not turn in a card get gentle reminders, then are made nonvoting “associate” members and still later become friends. Covenant Renewal Sunday is also when friends and members commit to serve the church. There’s a place on the pledge form to sign up for volunteer opportunities and about 80 percent do so.

The congregation has decreased a little in membership from a decade ago, but gone up “remarkably” in terms of commitment, says Dakin. “Those of us who are here are really here.”

Arlington Street’s Covenant Renewal Sunday brochure is on their site.

This year, for the first time, the Unitarian Society of New Haven, in Hamden, CT (415), held a pledge event it called Commitment Sunday. About 60 percent of all financial commitments were turned in at the two services, which featured former Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) Moderator Denise Davidoff and her husband Jerry Davidoff. There was a brunch after each service. The rest of the commitments were collected through telephone call reminders over the next two weeks. “Since we’ve gotten as large as we are, a face-to-face stewardship drive has gotten harder for us,” said Greg Seaman, society treasurer.

In the past three years (fiscal years 2003-2005) the congregation used a combination of small group events and one-on-one stewardship. The amount of financial commitments actually paid in those years went from $292,998 to $342,475 to $391,190. The estimated stewardship total for this year (05-06) is $420,000 (not yet completed as of this writing in June). The increases in stewardship drive income of 17, 14, and 7 percent (estimated) for this year and the two previous years correspond to increases in the number of pledgers from 232 to 257 to 273 pledging units (increases of 11 and 6 percent for 2003-04 and 2004-05, respectively). Financial commitments are being sought for 2005-06 from 293 households. As a percent, the stewardship drive this year went up less than in previous years, but volunteers were more willing to do it than one-on-one visits.

Campaigners learned a few things from the first go-round and will make some changes next year––lengthening the educational period from two weeks to six weeks and reminding people in advance what their current financial commitments were. “We didn’t have that this year and some people had to go home and look it up,” said Seaman. He advises, “When you do something new, do it two years in a row. People understand it better the second time.” The Society adapted its Commitment Sunday program from a book by Herb Miller called New Consecration Sunday, which uses Christian language.

Wayne Clark, the UUA’s director of Congregational Fundraising Services (congstewardship [at] uua [dot] org), says Commitment Sunday is a fundraising methodology that can be used successfully every few years. He recommends that in most years congregations use a personal visit methodology. Such drives deepen commitment and build community in ways that other drives may not, he says. “We know that, when asking for money, the more personal the better. Personal visits (not necessarily in the donor’s home) allow for exchanging stories, deepening commitment, and building community.”

At the Unitarian Universalist (UU) Church of Bloomington, IN (365), the recent tradition has been to hold a Commitment Sunday and make a music celebration out of it.

“One year we did an opera written by one of our ministers,”said Jackie Hall, current chair of the event. Another year we celebrated Bob Marley’s birthday with reggae music.”

“We tend to do the ‘sermon on the amount’ the week before and then have less of a sermon on the day itself,” Hall said. “Fifty to 60 percent of commitments come in on the day itself and the rest are collected by phone and personal reminders. We think Commitment Sunday creates a spirit of giving as a community. And it seems to work. We have generally increased our commitments by 10 percent each year.”

About the Author

  • Donald E. Skinner was the founding editor of the InterConnections newsletter for congregational leaders and a senior editor of UU World from 1998 until his retirement in 2014. He is a member of the Shawnee Mission Unitarian Universalist Church in Lenexa, Kansas.

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