Look Ahead, Not Back


Most churches do not have enough resources to accomplish what the membership says it wants.  The Community Congregation is no exception.  The leaders of TCC believed part of the problem was they had not presented a clear statement about the future in which all could feel compelled by the church’s role in their lives and in the surrounding community.  At the annual retreat the Trustees decided on a long term planning effort in the following sequence:

1)         Determine the program services to bring the current church community into bloom, simultaneously outlining a budget adequate to that vision (neither austere nor excessive) and setting in place the programmatic seedlings for the vision of five years in the future.

2)         Estimate the congregation’s financial “carrying capacity” — financial support levels that could be attained with a minimal expectation of 3% in average pledging with a goal for average pledging of 5%.

3)         If there is unused carrying capacity, assist the congregation in identifying priorities for moving toward the vision.

Healthy Program Services

What is required at TCC initially is guidance for the congregation on what a state of sufficiency would look like within the context of current congregational services.  It is not difficult to substantiate some general parameters.

TCC is a congregation with 187 supporting individuals or families, including 243 adult members, and 105 children in the religious education program.  Programs are ongoing, but there is general agreement that they operate at an unappealing and constricted level.  The current annual budget is $251,000 with stewardship gifts running at about $215,000.  The Board asked the Finance Committee to help determine how much would be required to meet the current expectations of staff and committees.

TCC Sufficiency Budget[1]

Minister                                                 $  85,000                                                      Administrator                                       $  35,000                                                                Director, RE (part time)                     $  40,000                                                                      Choir Director (part time)                  $  14,000                                                               Custodian (part time)                          $  14,000                                                                                                 Total, Personnel                                               $188,000                                                                Program Expenses                                           $  38,000                                                        Denominational Support                                 $  20,000                                                                    Building & Grounds                                          $  23,000                                                                       Total                                                                   $269,000

This budget is for the current congregation with its current array of programs.  It does not move the congregation into the programmatic areas many members have long talked of.  It reduces annoying shortcomings but does not inspire a commitment to greater gifts.

Based upon discussions with the staff and committees during the prior year budget process, the Program Council suggested to the Board that there are three major needs being unaddressed currently:  1)  the religious education program, particularly for teens and young adults is staffed sporadically by volunteers and is inadequate; 2)  the congregation is not actively involved in any community service programs, though individuals are of course; and, 3) the office space is crowded, cluttered and unwelcoming and the equipment is old and inefficient.  What this congregation needs is an increase in gifts of 50% or more.

Determining Financial Capacity

The next step in financial planning at TCC is to determine how much money is available within the congregational community, with generous but not unrealistic giving expectations.  Even approaching the question made some of the leaders nervous.  They were concerned that by openly talking about increasing the level of giving significantly both existing members and visitors would be scared away.  The Treasurer noted however that the US population constitutes 4% of all humans on earth, yet consumes about 40% of the resources.  Within the United States, research shows Unitarian Universalists have the highest per capita income levels of major denominational groups, and the lowest level of charitable giving.

“The issue” she went on “is not about being able to afford making gifts to the church or some other charitable cause, but rather about being willing (or not) to do it.  It’s a question of choice, of what one wants, not what is imposed.  There are lots of people with the same income level facing the same high expenses and the same family circumstances as our members.  But most of those who spend 3%, 5%, or even 10% of their income on their philanthropic interests are, apparently, in other denominations.  But in any case, they choose to spend money on their church (or other charities) — and spend less on cars, plasma TV’s and dining out.

“On a scale either within the US and Canada or measured against the rest of the world,” she noted, “we are not poor.  Rather than pandering to a sense of scarcity, we need to show the impact of sharing what we have.  If we want to bring forth generosity we need to be willing to point to it when it occurs, and then talk directly about how generous attitudes change the lives of those who respond in knowing they have changed the lives of others.”

Some of the Trustees continued to be nervous in discussing higher commitment levels for the future.  They spoke of a desire to protect members who are less well off from feeling they don’t belong in the church.  The Minister, however, suggested that the leadership think about an approach to pledging in which everybody will understand and be receptive to a message about their values and the ability of the church to help bring them to fruition.  Then, within a general conceptual approach to stewardship expectations, it would be easier to decide whether further discussion of exceptions is necessary.

After a second evening of discussion the leadership decided that the best and fairest way to approach the membership about gifts would be to adopt a percentage of income as the standard expectation for voting membership.  They agreed further that the standard of giving should be stated as a percentage range beginning at 1% of a family’s monthly take-home income.  The lower percentage levels would be available to those living in lower economic levels; families with more disposable income would be encouraged to move to the higher giving levels over time.  (The “Giving Table” adopted by TCC is offered in Appendix 7.)

Having a standard to use, the Finance Committee and two long term  leaders who know the members well proceeded to obtain a rough estimate of the congregation’s financial capacity.  They made conservative estimates of family income, in $10,000  step increments.  Having gone through all the pledging families and sorted them into stacks by income level, they were counted out.  These family and individual units were multiplied by the mid-point of the income range.  (Thus, the 23 families with incomes in the $50,000 to $60,000 range have total expected income of 23 times $55,000, or $1,265,000.)  The total income for all families was multiplied by 3%.  This very low percentage was used because it seemed a conservative average commitment level attainable in a church which recognized that many members already made much higher gifts.  When the leadership completed the exercise, they found that they had a stewardship commitment capacity of over $375,000 — nearly 75% higher than current levels.

Gauging Unmet Needs

Armed with this knowledge, the leadership could talk with the members about supporting the core congregational program through stewardship gifts, leaving all money from fundraisers, endowment income and so on for special projects and services.  In fact, the long-talked about $200,000 remodel for desperately needed office and meeting spaces could be undertaken.  The congregation could fully pay a 15 year loan at current interest rates and leave a great deal of money for expansion of long sought for programs reaching into the larger community.

Some of the members objected, of course, to borrowing this money and wanted to launch a “capital campaign” to pay for the remodel immediately.  Others pointed out however that getting members to agree to commit 3%, 4%, or 5% of their monthly take-home, they must push the congregation pretty hard and could not in good faith launch a special “capital campaign” on top of their newly increased commitment.  They argued that such an expectation would surely drive away many members.

The Treasurer pointed out that the 15 year financing plan was clearly possible and did not endanger the congregation financially.  Even if no large gifts came in during the first years of the mortgage and even if there was no congregational growth, the mortgage could be absorbed if gifts from members increased to the desired level.  She added that some members who were able to make large gifts initially should be welcomed to do so and such gifts would make the project even less risky.  There appeared to be no need to pursue a special “capital campaign” or a higher stewardship standard than that already being discussed for the operating budget.

With that clarification the Board was relieved and thankful.  It appeared that the full financing of the current church program as well as the remodel could be accomplished immediately with a generous but not unattainable stewardship expectation.  It also appeared that the congregation could begin to move into an inspirational mode of thinking about its future.

            [1]  These numbers are not unrealistic, but they are clearly only for illustrative purposes.  They can be, and should be, modified by the assumptions local church leadership can make.  Most church boards would probably find, as this one did, that with a 10% increase in income the current service program would be reasonably healthy.  Use this approach to talk with the congregation about “where we are now, and where we would like to be now”.

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