Adventures in Generosity

The occasionally coherent ramblings of a Stewardship Advisor in the Church of England

Archive for stewardship

Entering the debate.

I was asked two questions this week at PCC’s that stuck out for me:

The first; “but there’s only a few of us, even if we give much more we can’t keep this place going – what we really need is bums on seats – so how do we get that ?”

The second; “how can we possibly talk about giving money away in a recession ?”

The two might not seem all that closely related, but actually I think they might be – and I think, watching current developments in and around St Paul’s Cathedral this week – it’s time we put two and two together.

You see, I think that now is the perfect time to be talking about giving.  The current recession/depression/economic meltdown – whatever you call it, is final, concrete, proof of what happens when we place our faith in the material.  Easy credit, pensions, life savings, stuff – it promises so very very much security – and can deliver none of it.  So, isn’t now the time to declare our independence – to put money back in it’s place and say – thanks, but no thanks.  And a good place to start is by taking some of that cold, unfeeling cash – and giving it away – to those who need it more than we do.

This week, with the eyes of the worlds media focused upon it, the Church establishment had an opportunity to widen the debate and offer another possibility.  That we might have got it horribly wrong.  That the answer is neither anti-capitalism, anarchy, free sandals for all (as the protesters might have it) nor is it more quantitative easing, austerity measures and the IMF as the politicians want us to believe, nor is it more capitalism, freedom from regulation and bigger better hedge funds, as the City claims – the answer is, in fact, in where we place our trust – in the fickle hands of Mammon or in the loving embrace of God ?

Perhaps, if we were less timid, and less willing to hang on to our own establishment credentials, we might actually have something positive to bring to this debate – and perhaps then we might see a few more bums on seats; not in our churches, but in the Kingdom we so badly need to bring to our world.

Stewardship Soundings

To blog or not to blog – actually, I’d like to ask a question.

On Tuesday of this week I had a meeting, which could best be described as ‘possibly the most depressing conversation of my career’.

I have now moved on however and, ever the optimist, have chosen to take from it a selection of possible ways forward with regards to how we approach this whole giving thing here in the Jolly old Diocese of Wakefield ™.

OPTION 1

My initial suggestion was that in the 12 months leading to our 125 Anniversay we ought to have a focus on Stewardship, or more broadly on Generosity; based on recent years of Mission Action Planning, which have borne much fruit but which have now begun to wane a little (due to lack of resources amongst other things) .  Our year would not simply focus on the ‘paying the bills’ ‘getting more cash’ approach but would look at what it means to be a generous Christian, the theme could be looked at through the lense of our work in the community, our links with Africa, through building up and developing our volunteer force, through thanksgiving, through liturgy and study and, yes, through campaigns to help parishes find the resources to fulfil their dreams, it would bring together the mission team, finance, communications, liturgy, prayer and spirituality and the lovely volunteer PGO’s  -and underpinning it all would be a year of prayer for growing Generosity in all aspects of our discipleship.

Knowing that ‘Diocesan Initiative Fatigue’ is an ailment virulent on my patch I did however recognise that in order to be of any use the theme would have to be broad and the options for engagement many so as to meet each parish on its own terms. A challenging year lay ahead to pull these threads together – or so I thought.

However, for some, in these depressing and negative times, even this was at risk of being dismissed as overburdensome and centralised – and another way forward was requested.

So lets look at option 2 –  what if I shift focus away from ‘the Big Diocesan Picture’ and instead focus energy on specific parishes, spending most of my time working one to one on campaigns.  To be honest, I like this idea because such campaigns always have an impact, the planning process is great fun (I love meeting parishes) and when it’s all over I can point to a tick in a box as evidence of a job well done.  The major problem with the approach is the average campaign requires 6 visits, often more, from me, I still have other elements of the day job todo and in most cases, colleagues in other Diocese  reckon on a comforable maximum of 25 – 30 such campaigns in a year.  The campaigns have an impact in the parish, but barely scratch the surface at a Diocesan level and can only really happen once every 5 years or so if I am to cover the whole patch and still see the bigger picture.

Option 3 came from a most unexpected quarter, and appeals greatly to me – what if, it was suggested, I book a WHOLE WEEK in one parish ? spending time with clergy,wardens,pcc,volunteers, maybe a Sunday sermon slot – pulling together mission, vision, budget and communication (and a selection of other goodies) – I could really ‘get along side’ the parish ‘make them feel loved’ – and the often daunting thought of 6 months of planning a campaign could be condensed into an enticing fortnight of focus.  Again, bonus for me, time in the parishes, measurable results, boxes ticked – but again, lets say, 20 parishes a year (I do need to see my desk occasionally, not to mention my family).

When I took on this job it was with a remit to provide resources to enable the whole Diocese to grow in its giving – Parish Giving Officers Networks, training seminars and conferences, newsletters, website, deliberatly fewer campaigns – all focused up to now on a Diocese wide, strategic approach – this week was the first time that I’ve heard that remit challenged – and it’s interesting because it chimes with something that came up last week at the National Stewardship Conference – perhaps the time has come to take stock and reflect a little …

So, I’m putting it out there – I know fellow Stewardship types occasionally pass this way, and I always value the opinion of the punters in the pews (and, ok, I admit it, the clergy often come out with some sense) what would you say was your favourite option of the 3 ? do you have any other suggestions to offer ?

Please bear in mind that if the answer is ‘all of the above’ (as it was here at CH towers ) then I would truly appreciate the blueprints to the TARDIS which I will assume must be in your possession.

I look forward to hearing from you.

 

 

 

 

Help ! send money now !

I read a letter today that made me angry and sad in equal measure.

The letter was from a vicar, writing to a Parish in another Diocese  as a plea for financial support.

The problem was, the first page of the letter outlined all the heartfelt frustrations of the parochial share system.  This system was in turn characterised as unjust, cumbersome, un democratic and impossibly demanding.  It then went on to outline the ever rising costs of the staff team and the endless need to pay the bills of the church and set these in opposition to the paying of the dreaded ‘Diocesan Tax’. The letter finally invited congregation members to contribute to the church on the basis that this was a distasteful reality that nevertheless had to be faced.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I understand frustrations around the share system, I am no wholehearted apologist and I do believe that too many Diocese communicate the share principle appalingly badly and provide an inadequate vision of what being a Diocese is.  But at the same time I passionatly believe that the underlying message of mutual support  is a positive one that we should spend serious time and concerted effort reviewing and improving.

To publicly air essentially political frustrations to church members, some of whom may be new to the church, or blissfully unaware of the administrative arrangements of the Church  is in my view deeply damaging for the church concerned and can only lead to disillusionment with the Church as an institution.

But this wasn’t really what upset me, or even surprised me.  What I found so tragic was that here was a letter from a member of the clergy that equated giving to the church wholly and entirely with paying the bills.

It reduced the offeratory to an exercise in taxation.

Lets be clear.  Christian Stewardship has nothing whatsoever to do with ‘keeping the show on the road’.  If Bill Gates turned up tomorrow and agreed carte blanch to pay the entire running costs of every parish church in the country forever more, not one member of the church would be absolved of the responsibility to give, and give sacrificially.

Stewardship is about partnership.  It isn’t just about an occasional donation of cash, it’s about offering all that we are into a relationship with God.

In Genesis 12  Abraham is told by God ‘I will bless you’  that ‘all peoples on earth will be blessed through you’.  Our gifts, be they financial, spiritual or practical are given to us for a purpose.  That purpose is to live out the life that God has called us to and to use our gifts to bring about the transformation in our world that we receive for free through Grace.

When a letter goes out to a congregation that leaves them with the idea that giving is an exercise in paying the bills or is brought about by external demands for tax, it diminishes the discipleship of everyone who reads it.  It is a call, not just to financial disaster, but also to missional mediocrity – in ‘giving to need, rather than needing to give’ we refuse the offer of partnership in the Kingdom that is offered us.

So I have a plea – to any clergy currently pondering an ‘ask’ letter.  Please,  share your frustrations, air them at the deanery, shout at the Archdeacon, bring your concerns to Synod and fight for change, even call your friendly Stewardship Advisor for a good moan and a bit of support.

But please, when you communicate the call to generous living to your congregation, make it about life, make it about love and make it about bringing Gods Kingdom to every corner of His creation.

Investing or Giving ?

I’m in a quandry.

Other Half is a local councillor and as such is approached from time to time to get involved in all sorts of community action.  It’s one of the great priviledges of the job..

He’s just been sent some information on a new local charity that’s wanting to set up to support the education of children in the care of our local authority.  Starting with the little ones being provided with additional books and pre school support, the fund will aim to provide opportunities to keep cared for children in education as they grow up, and ultimatly support them with bursarys for university. A worthy cause indeed given that less than 4% of looked after children go on to higher education.

We’re being approached as ‘prominent local people’ (sorry, it makes me cringe too!) to become ‘founder donors’ of the new fund.

And there’s the rub.

When we decided to commit to planned regular giving we set up an account, some of the money goes every month to the same causes but we decided to keep some back so that we could give to special appeals when they happened, and we could support this, in fact would love to.

But.

It has to be said that being a ‘founder donor’ of a charity that’s targetting the local great and the good would do no harm at all to OH’s political profile, especially when the basis of the appeal is that founder donors ‘will be invited to a special gala launch’.

SO …

Is is really a charitable gift? should we be using part of our Tithe, which after all is supposed to be sacrificial, or is it in fact an investment for us as much as for the charity ?

We could give anonymously.  There’s a thought, problem solved.

But.

As a fundraiser I understand that for the charity, the fact that we are supporting it is as important (in fact probably more important) as the gift, and I know how I would feel as a fundraiser if an opportunity for raising the profile of my cause was lost because of pompous and abstract moralising.

I’m pretty much sold on the fund being a good idea, and I’m certain that I’d want to support it regardless of it’s political benefits for OH – am I deluding myself ? Am I just being a pompous arse ?  I just can’t shake the image of the rich bloke rattling up to the temple with trumpet fanfares, silently followed by that widow ….

Would really appreciate your thoughts.

All things come from you …

I was wondering what would move me to blog – having got well and truly out of the habit I was resigned to the fact that this little corner would sit forever collecting cyberdust and cobwebs, a neglected relic of more inspired times.  But at last ! a glimmer of inspiration.

The Church of England has revamped its website.  Hurrah ! in fact, bugs and teething problems last week aside, it’s a good looking site. Integrated well with a church near you , like the prayer stuff, think ‘being a Christian’ could be a bit more inspiring but maybe that will come.  On first pass the site is, if not awe inspiring, at least navigable, intelligible and pleasing on the eye (and browser).

But then I begin to look a little closer, with the eye of a professional employed by the CofE to ‘Support, encourage and inspire a spirit of giving and generosity’ in the members of this church.

Let me set you a challenge – whether you are an old hand or a new broom – spend 5 minutes perusing the site and then come back and tell me everything you have learned about Stewardship.

Have you, perhaps, learned that as Christians we are called to give of our ‘First Fruits’ to further the Kingdom of God, that what we do with our time, our talents and our treasures are as much an act of worship as Prayer or Praise ?  That Stewardship is fundamental to our Discipleship, that sacrificially serving others with all that we have is what being a Christian is all about ?

Should you be lucky enough to stumble across the single page which deals with such issues you would find this paragraph:

with regard to Christian Stewardship. Too many still regard it as a means of extricating a parish from its financial problems, as a “crash diet” for a week or two, and not as a way of life in response to God, a steady programme of growth in Christian discipleship.

I cannot argue with one syllable, absolutely 100% agree that Stewardship is catagorically not about funding the church, it is first and foremost about an individuals committment to and trust in God.  Our Journey deeper into faith must be accompanied by a journey away from reliance on our own wits and skills to maintain us.  If we cling to our material wealth as a life raft, if we squander our talents on accumulating endless shiny trinkets like over grown magpies, if we hang on to donations for dear life and spend every penny on maintaining the roof when outside people cry out in despair we can never lay claim to be living Life in Abundance.

So, if this paragraph is correct, if all of that is true and Stewardship is “a way of life in response to God, a steady programme of growth in Christian Discipleship” WHY is the single page dealing with the issue buried deep, under About Us, Under Facts and Stats (yawn), Under Research and Statistics (won’t be reading that) and, finally, under FUNDING THE CHURCH OF ENGLAND ????????

Exit Poll

Well it’s taken a while but I’ve finally finished crunching numbers.  There’s quite a few stragglers left to mop up but I’ve been through every Parish Return I can get my sticky mits on and can reveal some enlightening facts and figures:

Our average weekly gift is £8

83% of the electoral roll take part in planned giving of some sort and 74% of those give tax efficiently

64.5% of donated income to our churches comes via planned giving, 23% from Fundraising and 12% from plate collections

54% of total church income comes direct from the people in the pews.

It seems common these days for there to be much hand wringing about levels of giving in the church and this Diocese is no exception  – average giving is down (again) and as a percentage of income giving now stands at 3% (as opposed to the ‘First to the Lord’ target of 5%). 

And don’t get me wrong – we could and should do a whole lot better. But….

According to the latest national report on giving http://www.cafonline.org/pdf/UK_Giving_2009.pdf  national figures should give us some cause for  hope, if not out right celebration.

Nationally, giving is down by a little over 11% – according to my stats our giving is down by 1% – Church giving is very resilient even in times of economic meltdown.

54% of the general population give to charity in any given month and only 37% give regularly – makes our 83% of regular givers look fairly amazing really. 

The fact is, most charities would give their eye teeth for the opportunity given to our Churches –  direct, face to face contact with the majority of our regular, committed and engaged donors – a chance to speak to them on issues that matter to our cause for 20 minutes every single Sunday.   Most donors get news on what their chosen charity is up to once or twice a year, our supporters get to hear about, and engage in, our work once or twice A WEEK. 

God presents his Church with a golden opportunity – to present His case, to share His plan and to inspire His people to open up and respond in generosity. 

 If we let ourselves lose Hope because our reality doesn’t quite meet our aspirations, we dishonour the many people in our Church who give regularly and sacrifically, we also miss an opportunity to grow in our own faith – God never said this was going to be easy;   the instruction ‘do not be afraid’ appears 366 times in the Bible – being disheartened when things don’t go according to our plan ? Really ?  

Yes, giving is down. Yes, people aren’t as generous as they could be.  Yes, the recession is a bit of a handy excuse for some. 

The question is, what are you going to do about it ?

An awesome week closes with a rude awakening

So clearly the week was a great success – I’ve not had chance to put digit to keyboard since Tuesday, and I was certainly looking forward to getting home and reflecting on some of the inspiring, insightful and challenging topics that have been filling my week.

I was particularly excited to share with you  my new favourite phrase – Reckless  Generosity and tell you how moved and inspired I was hearing about the experience of Christians working in Africa – with people who have little in the way of material wealth but are truly and joyfully, some might say insanely generous with everything they have.

I was also inspired to hear about the mission of churches in this country and challenged to take the message of mission focused stewardship back to my parishes.

But instead I find myself sat before you unable to express any of this joy, in fact unable to write about anything but deep unease and outright distress having discovered just how shallow my own generosity really is.

Our Careforce worker, Beth, is leaving after a year with us and I attended a family bring and share supper down at Church last night.  As you will know, Bring and Share always produces a table heaving with more food than any of us could hope to finish and we were just beginning to tuck into the banquet when we were joined be an unexpected guest.

I could tell you that my (our) response was down to genuine fear – the Vicar informed me quietly that he had been involved with the gentleman in the past and that he had just had a short term in prison as a result of a fight.  I could tell you that I feared that engaging with him as he sat at our table would place my children and those of my friends in danger.  But lets face it, if anyone had genuinly felt a real threat, with all those children present, we would have acted.

So no, we allowed the man (who’s name I maynever know) to help himself (gosh aren’t we gracious Christians) and we allowed him to take a seat.  We also allowed him to return to the table and leave with half a quiche after he’d emptied his plate.

But no – one, not one person, the whole time he was with us, spoke to him, acknowledged him, offered him a smile or even eye contact to recognise that here was a man clearly in need.

In need of food yes, in need of warmth and shelter on a wet night, in need, no doubt, of the warm cuppa that no-one offered him. But above all else, in need of acknowledgment of his humanity.  In need of someone to smile and say hello and offer him fellowship despite his grubby clothes, grizzled beard and hair and eyes that spoke of several hard lives lived.

But there he sat, and there he went, out into the night. unacknowledged, spiritually unfed and unwelcome.

Could we have been a worse example of a community living the gospel ?  Well, in fact yes.  As well as our church friends, several teens from the local high school, kids who Beth has been working with and who have not yet found a faith were there.  They saw what we saw, they saw what we didn’t say or do, they saw this from a merry and well fed group of shoddy Christians that should have done much much better – and they saw it from me.

Reckless Generosity ? More like Spineless.  Never again will I sit merrily bemoaning the lack of true Christian Generosity in some parishes I visit, never again will I throw the stone that ‘they just don’t get it’ – because I now know that I live in a very fragile glasshouse.

I just thank God that Sunday is coming and that The One who has shown so much faith in me will never turn away, no matter that I spent last night ignoring His Son.  Can I be better than this – please God tell me I can.