Written by Carol L. Pavlik
Despite the current economic climate, UCC congregations are finding creative ways to promote faithful giving. From planting flowers to listening to children, churches are heeding God's call to be good stewards of our resources.
Shepherd of the Hills Congregational UCC in Phoenix uses visual themes to keep stewardship real for pledgers.
A few years ago, each pledging unit received a packet of seeds in the mail, with instructions to sow the seeds as a reminder of how stewardship makes the spiritual life of a church grow.
Skits during worship continued the gardening theme as actors actually planted flowers while drawing parallels between gardening and cultivating the life of the church.
Missy Shackelford, former stewardship committee chair, says centering the campaign around a tangible theme has proven to be effective. But in the wake of September 11 last year, the stewardship committee knew the people of the church needed something different.
Skits and other worship activities help keep stewardship real for members of Shepherd of the Hills Congregational UCC in Phoenix. Shepherd of the Hills Congregational UCC photo.
"At that point," says Shackelford, "people just wanted the facts."
Shackelford says a profile was prepared of the church, showing exactly how the church had grown, and which aspects of the church's ministries needed more financial support in order to continue.
Abandoning their "flowery" approach, the stewardship committee came up with a visual "hook" to make the congregation see the larger picture.
"I took a photograph of the congregation during one of the services," explains Shackelford.
She then mounted the enlarged shot on poster board and turned it into a giant puzzle. Each piece represented one pledging unit. As the pledges came in, the puzzle reached completion.
"It showed us building towards one congregation and how important every piece is," says Shackelford, "no matter how insignificant we might think it is. It's not complete until every piece is in place."
The puzzle theme was emphasized in skits, and random puzzle pieces were even included in stewardship mailings.
A three-dimensional puzzle in the shape of a church strategically placed in the midst of fellowship time created a challenging spectacle for all ages.
Shackelford empathizes with stewardship committees across the nation who may need to stretch their imaginations in light of this year's slowing economy.
"People's dollars are pulled every which way," says Shackelford. "When the economy goes down, [church is] usually one of the first places where people get a little bit shy about sending their money."
Monthly mailing brings success
No more boxes containing a year's supply of offering envelopes for Kent (Ohio) UCC. For this congregation, a solution was found for lost envelopes and decreased giving as the year wears on, especially during summer months. Each month, envelopes are mailed out directly to churchgoers, a gentle reminder that operating expenses continue even when giving doesn't.
Some givers feel the added cost of postage is money wasted; others who give monthly or even yearly have complained of being deluged with unneeded mail. Financial Assistant Carrie Martin accommodates as best she can by removing names from the mailing list by request. Research from the envelope company claims that mailing out a monthly supply of envelopes can result in at least a 10 percent increase in giving, and Martin says the church is anxious to calculate their results at the end of this fiscal year.
But so far so good.
Under the new system, Martin has noticed giving is more consistent and a bit higher than previous years when the standard boxes of envelopes were passed out. And, though summer giving did dip as it typically does, the drop was not as drastic, says Martin.
To cut back on the added postage costs, Martin says other means of communication like newsletters or announcements are doubled up with the monthly mailings whenever possible.
Martin feels the overall result has been positive. Most members don't mind finding their envelopes in the mailbox alongside utility bills and bank statements, she says.
"It serves as a reminder to people who might not have it at the top of their list of priorities each month," says Martin.
What's stopping you from giving?
When it comes to stewardship, Susanne Walker Wilson of First Congregational UCC in Asheville, N.C., is a firm believer that people want to be generous and give more fully. When she and her husband, Greg, co-chaired First Congregational's Stewardship Committee, giving increased by 20 percent. The annual pledge drive began with a few weeks to pray and meditate. "It was a time to really listen inside ourselves and ask God, 'What is it that prevents me from giving the way I want to give?'" says Walker Wilson.
At the end of the meditation time, just one week before Pledge Sunday, morning worship included an unusual offering: while singing a hymn, worshippers approached the altar, bringing symbols of whatever was holding them back from saying "yes" to generosity. The result was a pile on the altar of such symbolic barriers as baby booties, decals of colleges where parents were sending their children, medical bill stubs, fixed income documents, watches, brand-name clothing labels and other symbols.
The pile was then carried to the new land recently purchased by the church. Says Walker Wilson, "We took these objects that represented our barriers to giving our fullest—giving what God would ask us to give of ourselves—and burned them, and scattered the ashes on our new land, on a mountaintop."
The following week, worshippers brought forth their tithes and pledges for the coming year in the same manner, while singing the same hymn.
Walker Wilson feels the symbolism of identifying a barrier, then handing it over to God's care, effectively frees individuals from the very things that make giving difficult. "The premise is to give out of gratitude and abundance instead of scarcity and fear," explains Walker Wilson.
Cellphone stewards yield good results
Good stewardship is just a phone call away at First Congregational UCC in Boise, Idaho.
For the past several years, nearly 25 volunteers show up at church on a late summer weeknight for a cellphone-a-thon. A call goes out to each family or friend of the church, inviting them to the upcoming Stewardship Sunday brunch and festivities.
"The calls get people in the right frame of mind for the festivities, and it's a great way to remind pledgers to bring their commitment cards," says Debbie Olson, administrator.
Volunteer callers bring their own cellphone and donate their minutes. Members are almost always glad to receive the call (except for one year, recalls Olson, when calls coincided with the presidential debates—busy signals and answering machine messages abounded), and it greatly improves attendance on Stewardship Sunday.
Olson says it's the personal touch of the phone calls that gets each Stewardship Sunday off to a positive start.
"Whenever you have personal contact with people," she says, "there's a sense of community."
Teaching children stewardship
The Rev. Deborah Payden, associate pastor of First Congregational UCC in South Milwaukee, Wis., has included children in the yearly pledge drive for as long as she can remember.
"Unless we start with children, they are not going to be stewards as adults," Payden says emphatically.
When yearly pledge cards are mailed to families, children receive a pledge card of their own. The sheet includes an explanation of the meaning of stewardship, then a checklist of ways children can give time and talents to the church.
Oh, yes—and money.
"I don't care specifically how much money that, say, a five-year-old child gives to the church," says Payden, "but I do care that they give something every week."
If possible, as the child gets older, she suggests that the offering come from either the child's own allowance or from doing a job, so the child learns to budget for church giving.
Payden hopes the pledge cards spark an ongoing discussion between parent and child about the meaning and importance of stewardship.
For that reason, Payden designs the card so children understand that stewardship is more than just giving to the church. It's also about caring beyond the church steps.
The last item on each pledge card is a space for a child to come up with ways he or she can be a steward of God's earth.
Payden confides that she hopes one day to receive children's stewardship materials from the national church, but for now she's content designing her own.
Each Consecration Sunday, Payden is touched when—side by side—children and adults come forward with their pledge cards.
Payden makes a point of thanking the children specifically.
"We try to set that off as something really special," she says. "We want to make sure they know how important their contributions are."
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