There are new – more faithful, more joyful – ways to reimagine sustainability.
You can quit stewardship.
I’m getting right to the point, because I believe that everything around it – pledge drives, pledge cards, stewardship campaigns, and nervously counting how many pledges are ‘still out there’ – is sucking the energy out of congregational ministry, and it’s not helping.
We’re still losing many more pledgers than we’re gaining (because of the decline in church membership and because the generation most likely to fill out a pledge card is also the oldest).
We’re still trying to gear ourselves up for all the work – physical and emotional – that goes into yet another round of carefully inviting members to prayerfully consider financially supporting the church.
And frankly, if we’re honest with ourselves, we know that the faithfully pledging members of our congregations are going to keep giving money whether we launch a new ‘time, talent, and treasure’ campaign or not.
There’s also lots of guilt and fear wrapped up in trying to convince members with not a lot of discretionary income to give 10% of it for church operations.
I’m not even sure I believe that the concept of stewardship is faithful anymore.
Not in the sense that we usually use it in congregational ministry today. Sort of like calling it ‘bi-vocational’ when what we really mean is ‘you’re not getting paid for your ministry‘. Tithing is absolutely a biblical concept. So is the idea of stewardship as being careful and generous with resources we manage. But stewardship as church fundraising was an idea born at the dawn of the 20th century, to replace ‘pew rental’ as the major way to sustain church operations.
It seems to me that this far into the 21st century, there has to be a better way to imagine sustainability.
There are better ways today.
1. Let pledgers pledge (with celebration, but without campaigns).
First of all, as part of doing less, we can trust people who have been pledging to keep pledging. These are the converted – they love the church, they give sacrificially to support it, and they should be thanked and celebrated for what they do. AND … they’re not the ones we put in all the effort of a stewardship campaign for.
Theoretically, campaigns designed to encourage the joy of giving are designed for those who are not pledging yet. Or who could be giving more. It won’t be hard to test whether this is successful – simply tally the cost (people hours plus supplies) of creating and activating a stewardship campaign, and weigh it against the amount of new or increased pledges. When I’ve done this myself, I’ve never found that it nets out to greater value.
Instead, we can offer pledge cards (in person or online) and let those who prefer to give money to the church this way offer what they like.
2. Think about subscription.
Figure out the average yearly pledge, then make it monthly (and continuously). The average pledge in the Episcopal Church is just under $3,000, so the subscription would be about $240 a month. Subscription rates could be tiered according to ability, or those who want to give more to the church could sponsor subscriptions for those who would find it a hardship.
This model is not only more efficient, it leads to two other possibilities for thriving ministry…
3. Create real online community
Using the subscription model for church fundraising gives congregations a real opportunity to create online community. New platforms – like Circle, pictured below – create fully online spaces for gathering, formation, group meetings, and communications (one of my favorite features is an automatic weekly ‘digest’ of the most popular posts – your newsletter done for you!).
We now have the ability to have fully online members, and a subscription fee (even a small one) can create an income stream for the church while offering engaging spiritual space to those who are geographically far, or for whatever reason don’t want (or can’t) come to church. In-person church members can also be part of the online community, of course!
Those who are already members can skip the subscription fee – or, the subscription can be for online access only, with no expectation of payment for those who do come to church in person. Or many different combinations of these concepts.
One really exciting – and challenging – thing about online community is the creation of content. People coming to the community space are coming to engage with the faith. They want to grow in their relationship with Jesus. Online community spaces need to offer a discipleship path.
Bu not every congregation feels equipped to produce faith-based content or set up an online community. What to do?
4. Partner with Creative Ministers.
Luckily, there are more and more Creative Ministers out there!
One way to set up online content and community is to partner with someone who already knows how to do it. For less than you’re probably spending on a stewardship campaign right now, you can contract with a minister – lay or ordained – who already has a formation program, a spiritual development practice, or a way to create online religious community.
This can lead to all kinds of creative partnerships – including a subscription program that benefits both the contracted Creative Minister and the congregation.
But the really great thing about this is that it comes back to joy.
Instead of thinking about the financial side of church as a burden that must be met, we can reimagine how we engage with our own and others’ spiritual journeys. The value that this brings – both to our own community and to those who we haven’t met yet – can be reflected in the financial support for the work.
Instead of giving to the church in the traditional stewardship campaign, we can see the financial commitment of members as a sign of their engagement with the community, and with their spiritual health and growth.
And we can reach more people with the Gospel. Which of course, is our business.