Written by Daniel Burke
February - March 2008
Overcoming the reluctance to talk about money
The Rev. Stephen Gray always considered himself one tough S.O.B. — son of a banker.
Still, when it came time for the minister to talk dollars and cents with his former congregation in Nashville, Tenn., he blanched.
"I wanted nothing to do with money," said Gray, 60, who now leads the UCC's Indiana-Kentucky Conference.
Gray says he was not alone in his reluctance to discuss finances.
Pastors tackle some of society's most troublesome topics — sex, death and God — but many turn sheepish around tithing time.
"Let's just say that for a lot of clergy, when they do their one sermon a year on giving and stewardship, they do so with fear and trepidation," Gray said.
Now, Gray is spearheading an effort to get UCC leaders — from the denomination's general minister and president to local church pastors — comfortable with one of the last modern taboos: soliciting donations.
With assistance from the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University, the UCC has developed three- and four-day courses to help their 1.2 million members deal with the short-term obstacles and sweeping changes biting a chunk out of their budget.
The 20-year-old philanthropy center leads pastors through Bible readings, theological reflections, as well as presentations of sociological and demographic data.
It's the center's first program created specifically for a church group, said Tim Seiler, director of the center's Fund Raising School.
"I think intuitively (pastors) know how to do this work," he said. "There's just a pretty high level of reluctance."
That reluctance will have to be overcome if the UCC is going to continue its myriad social justice and outreach programs, church leaders say.
"There's a new culture around how we fund mission and ministry in the church," said the Rev. John H. Thomas, general minister and president. "We can't simply hope that the way it used to be is going to come back."
The way it used to be was that religious causes and institutions received nearly half of all philanthropic donations in the United States. In 2006, that percentage fell to less than 33 percent, according to the Center on Philanthropy.
The UCC has seen donations to its national office and regional conferences fall from $33.5 million to $28.4 million since 2000. Not a huge dip, leaders say, but enough to illuminate the writing on the wall.
Research demonstrates that the trends cut across denominational lines and affect all faiths, Seiler said.
Reasons for the downturn range from rising energy and health care costs, which means more money stays in the local congregation, to changing attitudes toward large bureaucracies.
While the World War II generation and their immediate successors built large national religious offices, the baby boomers and their offspring are less interested in keeping them going, researchers say.
In years past, churches and other religious bodies could appeal to members' sense of identity and loyalty to tug on their purse strings; now people want to hear about "vision and impact," said Donaldson Hill, who leads the UCC's financial development office.
"The church is just now picking up on that fundamental change in how people give their money," Hill said.
Churches and other religious bodies now turn to nonmembers to kick in large sums for projects with broad ecumenical support, such as relief efforts and social justice advocacy.
But it don't mean a thing if preachers won't talk about the green; surveys say they often won't.
Fifty-four percent of pastors said their members were uncomfortable talking or hearing about money in a spiritual context, and feared some might walk out the door as a result, according to a 2001 study by Indiana's St. Meinrad School of Theology.
"It's probably their least favorite thing to do," Seiler said. "They don't like to talk about money at all, and they especially don't want to talk about it from the pulpit."
Such talk may seem self-serving, as if the pastor is asking for a raise instead of money to fund the church's mission, ministers say.
One of the most important parts of the course, Seiler said, is showing ministers that not everyone has the same hang-ups about discussing money as they do.
"We try to buck up our preachers and say: Go forth, you may get into a little trouble, but that's what you're supposed to do," said Gray.
The Fundraising School