Three Stories

Story 1

Calvin Hobbes had recently been elected Chair of the Board of Trustees at a large church in suburban Cedar Falls.  He was a professional mediator and labor dispute negotiator.  He had spent the last 20 years dealing with group dynamics and settling conflicts.  Everyone thought he would make a good congregational president.

He was concerned that his church lacked a coherent vision of its mission however.  It was a comfortable place to worship, and the people who attended were warm and engaging.  He was happy to have found the church when settling here after the bar exam.  What was troubling however, was the comfortable, complacent routine of the congregation.  Meanwhile, the roof was deteriorating and the religious education wing needed lots of attention, possibly even expansion.  There was no thought being given to how the church might be able to do more in the community.  The community service component of the budget was less than 3% of the total, including denominational requirements.

Calvin met with his minister one day to share these concerns, carefully guiding the discussion away from blaming anyone for the situation.  Calvin knew it was a failure of the community, the entire leadership group, not specific individuals.

“We need to move the congregation into a new sense of itself over the next few years.  The expansion of the university campus and the new high tech employment center means there will be new people in the area looking for a place to worship and serve.  I’d like our congregation to be the place they choose.”

“I’ve been feeling that way too,” said Rev. Thom Katz.  “Yet, I have been unable to stir up planning for a future you and I see so clearly.  I’m interested in hearing your ideas and those of a few others who are looking ahead.  More importantly, I’d like to figure out how to launch a meaningful planning process that will get the entire leadership engaged in a forward looking process.”

“First, it’s clear we need to have everyone involved,” muttered Cal, “even the goofballs.  And, with everyone engaged there will need to be some structure to guide the congregation’s discussion.  We don’t want to end up with a lot of individual ideas that don’t have a coherent relationship to each other –or are so bland they sit there like a Jell-O salad, don’t offer anything to sink your teeth into.

“We’ve got a damn fine group of trustees right now,” Calvin continued.  “I think we need to start by getting their ideas.  Let’s go on a retreat and ask them what they see as most important, things the congregation should be attending to that we’re not.”

“Yes, Cal,” Rev. Katz broke in. “The trustees we have now are the best we’ve had in years, but we need to talk to a larger leadership group.  I don’t think the trustees alone can launch a successful visioning effort.  There is a larger group; it’s an informal group.  They are the opinion leaders in our congregation however, the glue that holds us together.”

“OK, but how do we figure out specifically who they are?” asked Calvin.

“It seems to me we should look at our list of members and think about who serves the congregation most heavily.  I bet you and I can list them out in a few minutes.  They constitute, at most, 20% of the members.  Starting with our membership directory, let’s give folks a point for serving on a committee sometime during the last three years, two if they were in charge.  Also, other kinds of service should get points, like teaching in the religious education program, or helping consistently on Sunday mornings, even participating in the affiliational groups.  People get points for each major, time-consuming effort – especially those most visible to others.”

They went through the exercise to see where it would lead them.  They could see that the point totals were obviously skewed around a relatively small group of members.  Then, they also looked at the giving records of the past three years.  They added two heavy contributors who were not already on the list of leaders, and one retired woman who was no longer able to give much of either her time or money, but who was respected by everyone as one of the founding members of the congregation.  Their process  was not science, simply instinct.  When done they had 37 of the 243 members listed.

“I know there are others who have also been in the congregation for years.  They talk a lot at congregational meetings,” Rev. Katz continued, “but they don’t ever seem to step up to the plate and give much, in any sense other than talk.  We will hear from them eventually; and, we’ll all listen.  But, I don’t think we need to solicit their opinions at this point.”

“You’re right,” said Cal.  “After all is said and done, the individuals we have already listed are vital to this congregation’s health.  What that group wants, the others will want too – or pretty much go along with.  Yet, if that group doesn’t get behind something, it won’t happen.”

Looking at the list they decided to have a series of small informal dinners at Cal’s house over the course of the next three months.  Dividing the list into smaller conversational-sized groupings, they saw they would need to hold six or seven such dinners, with a few extra spouses and partners included.

Rev. Katz said, “I want to be sure we have one of the current trustees at each dinner.  And, while I do not need to be at all of them, I need to attend at least three so that I have an opportunity to listen to more than a single small group.”

And so, they held the conversations.  The key but unannounced focus was to ask at some point in the evening, “What do you see as missing that you would like to see our congregation doing three or four years from now?  Don’t worry about cost at all – just let your thoughts come as they will.  How can we be a better church?”

After the series of conversations they had quite a list of ideas – but not a coherent vision or plan.  They then scheduled a retreat with the Board, and let it be known that the Board would be talking about the possibility of launching a congregation-wide visioning process.

At the retreat Cal explained that they had each attended a dinner at his place during the last few months.  In the course of those conversations, they would recall, there had been discussions about things that some people in the congregation felt needed improving.  He handed out a list of the identified unfulfilled needs to be addressed.  The group talked about the items individually for a couple of hours.  There were differences of opinion expressed about their relative merit.  New ideas were offered too.

Finally Rev. Katz said, “I see three general themes being discussed here: First, people have expressed concerns about what happens on Sunday morning.  We can broaden that notion a bit and refer to it as the quality of the spiritual journey.  People seem to want the very best religious education for their children, and also want to engage in their own deepening awareness.  There are several items that relate to the quality of the Sunday experience, but also an apparent desire for expansion of our adult enrichment programs.

“Second, there is a call for our congregation to more deeply impact on the larger world.  This group thinks we are not engaged as strongly as we might be in social justice, environmental, and other concerns of that sort.

“Finally, and I am not quite sure how to label this, there are concerns expressed about the health of our relationships within the congregation.  I see some ideas here that suggest that people want to assure there are strong personal connections, not only for themselves but also for all the newcomers who visit on Sundays.  I see some suggestions here that I guess I would label as a call for strong, healthy interpersonal connections, including pastoral support.

“We could sit here and debate these items individually, but that doesn’t address the more general concerns.  I think those general ideas provide the format for a larger discussion of where the congregation wants to go.”

He concluded by saying, “It’s time to bring this discussion to the entire congregation.  I suggest we call a day long planning session for all those who want to come.  We could organize people into interest groups around the three areas I just identified.  Then, we can use the specific list we already have simply to seed the conversation for each group.  They are all worth talking about further by others.  Let’s have the congregation evaluate the individual ideas, add others, and put them all into a more coherent plan.”

The others agreed that this breakdown was a pretty good way of sorting out the list.  They would ask the members to pick one of the areas of most interest and form a working group for the day to think about that area of church life.  They further determined that they would try to focus the congregational planning on a time five years into the future.  And, they would encourage the discussion to not dwell too much with fiscal concerns.  The participants would be asked to consider that, while resources were not unlimited, a large increase was going to occur over the next five years.  They could plan on up to $25,000 to launch their ideas over the next two years, $35,000 each year of the next three, and then sustain the ideas with $50,000/year.

The day was very successful in drawing many people, engaging them in serious discussion, and ending up with reasonably good thinking about how the congregation needed to change.  Of course, the “opinion leaders “ were there and were each pleased to see the ideas they thought important were included in the discussion.  Their positive support was critical.

Rev. Katz preached on each of the areas during the next few weeks, which helped launch initiatives for the committees to begin working on.  And, the Board directed the Finance Committee to develop a five year Vision Budget that would move the congregation in the chosen direction.  In so doing, the Board agreed upon only two fundamental parameters: 1) that membership would increase at the rate of 5%/year; 2) that average per family giving would increase by 10%/year.

Calvin Hobbes finished his term as President two years later.  He reflected on what had made the planning process work better during his tenure.  He decided that it had been important to set the leadership into its role.  They had not been given any official status or power, but they had been asked to lead.

Second, the congregational discussion had been focused.  It had been an open discussion — but it was also seeded with ideas that were important in the eyes of the leadership.  This allowed for plenty of room for the congregation to massage the contributions of the opinion leaders, but also assured key ideas were present in the discussion without names attached to them.

Finally, the Board had recognized that no plan is done until the details are addressed.  In each of the three areas the Finance Committee had met with other related committees and groups to get agreement on the timing of various initiatives.  The discussion that ensued after the Finance Committee had developed the costs of a five year program projection had been realistic and the congregation had excitedly pursued the initiatives outlined there.

It was a plan that could work for the congregation.

Story 2

Rev. Bob Jones of MapleValleyUnitarianChurch had grown increasingly concerned about what he understood as a sense of scarcity among his parishioners that was not substantiated by the vacations they took, the cars they drove, and the homes they lived in.  Yet, the national economy was in bad shape and scarcity thinking hung around like a low grade infection, bringing anxiety and inability to recognize their truly abundant lives.

He called together two couples in his congregation as well as a retired doctor whose partner had died some years ago.  He told them he wanted their guidance and help in facing a difficult task.  They were selected because they had all demonstrated strong support of his ministry and had been generous over the years.  (He knew they were very wealthy.)

They gathered one evening and he explained he had been thinking about what he saw as a failure of spiritual awakening.  He lamented that the members of the congregation were not enthusiastic about the church’s ministry.  He expressed his dismay that only about one-fourth of the givers could be called generous within their means.  Many others were moderately supportive, but well over half the members were not contributing much at all to the church.  Yet, despite the low giving levels many members over the years had expressed repeatedly  “We’re doing pretty much all we can do; we’re tapped out.”

Everyone around the table shared similar concerns and went through the data on the 165 families and individual givers in the congregation:

  • Only 21 of the 165 gave more than $150/month currently, totaling $61,000/year – more than one third of all giving in the church.
  • Another 46 averaged about $100/month.
  • Nearly 100 currently gave less than $85/month, averaging about $35.

They all expressed frustration over an inability to move the congregants to a heartfelt sense of mission.  Rev. Bob went further, suggesting that a person’s giving and their notion of the congregation’s mission in the community and in the world seemed to be closely intertwined.  Congregants would not engage seriously and enthusiastically in a planning process that would move the church into a wider ministry.  Many complained that such exercises were a waste of time and effort because the plans did little more than sit on the shelf since the congregation “could not afford them”.

Realistically, they all agreed.  The planning effort they had gone through four years ago was too general, not focused, and there simply wasn’t a sense of reality to it.  It was destined to the same dusty fate.  Rev. Jones suggested that congregants seem to feel there was never going to be much change in giving, so why bother planning for changes (which always cost more money)?

On the other hand, people did not want to increase their gifts to the church because there was little in the way of a vision for change.  People were not inspired to increase the commitment without some motivating sense that their increased gifts would make a difference.  The congregants had money; they simply were not motivated to contribute it to the church.  The congregation was locked into a “Catch-22.”

He explained that he wanted them to consider changing the basis for their own annual giving this next year.  Rather than commitments of a fixed amount he asked if they would consider simply matching the increases of other congregants.  He had some numbers and together they determined that they would be giving somewhat more, but it could have valuable consequences.  They too were willing to give more if it might make a difference somehow.  They talked further.

A little later the doctor suggested expansion of the idea: “Suppose,” he said, “that for all those who currently average less than $50/month we agree to match the increased giving over the next year 3:1.  That is, if a family in that group gives more than their current gift level over the next year we could promise to match all the increase three times over.  Suppose further that for those with average giving between $50 and $150 each month we would match increases the same way, but at $2 for each $1 of increase.  Then finally, for everyone already over $150 we can match any increase dollar for dollar.

“This approach could cost us a lot more,” he asserted, “but only if all those folks at the lower end increase their giving – which is what we want.  Further, those who are on very limited income, do not give much and cannot increase their giving, would still know that any increase they can afford will be very meaningful.”

Enthusiasm was building.  One of the others suggested that they consider matching increases each year for three years.  This might induce ever higher giving levels into the parishioners’ overall spending habits, and probably create a longer-lasting effect.  She was a professor in the finance department at the  business school.  She got out her calculator.

With some agreed upon assumptions they could see that the total cost to them could be as much as $425,000 over the three years, or $28,000 for each of them every year, but likely no more.  But if that happens stewardship gifts by the rest of the congregation will increase from a current level of about $165,000/year to over $350,000/year – more than doubling.  With their matching gifts added in, the congregation could receive about $1.3 million rather than the $500,000 expected from current giving patterns.  Of course, this would only be worthwhile if the congregation stayed at a higher level rather than drifting back to $165,000 after the matching incentive stopped.  That was the question; they would only know the answer by going ahead.

They went ahead.  The five of them set up a small charitable foundation which they agreed to equally fund.  The charity would, in turn, pay the matching funds to the church.  Rev. Jones announced to the congregation that a small private — and anonymous — foundation which was interested in the problem of instilling personal generosity had chosen their church to make a wonderful offer.  (All true!)  He described the experimental matching program.

One person in the congregation stood during the ensuing discussion and wondered if this wasn’t crass manipulation – and “should not be done in a church of all places.”

Another member, a university psychologist, argued that they were all being manipulated every day — for example when he had decided to buy a bottle of wine with a pretty label rather than the more modest one he initially looked at.  He asserted that rewards and punishments are the reality, even the behavioral glue, of societal life.  They need not be understood as exclusively negative in character.  He pointed out that the offer being made was manipulation designed to bring out the best in each of them.  In fact he proffered that he attended church specifically to be manipulated into being a better person and he and his wife had already decided to enjoy the manipulation by pledging more.  It could not be a bad thing.  The members applauded and later agreed to participate in the experimental program.

So, what happened?  Membership increased by 50% over the next few years because of the excitement that was so evident in joyful programs and attitudes.  This was a positive but unexpected consequence of the initiative.  The number of pledging families increased from 165 to 223 during the three years.

Rather than only 21 families giving more than $150/month, there were now 72; and only 37 family units were below $85/month.  Average giving over the three years went from about $85/month to more than $200.  All the new families understood the stewardship expectation; in practice their giving was quite high too even though it was not included in the matching program.  Total stewardship income in the third year (without the matching funds) was more than $500,000 rather than the $350,000 expected, and three times the level of earlier years.[1]

More people felt they knew what it meant to be generous, and they kept doing it because they were part of a church community that was making the world a better place.  They felt their own lives were better for it too.

Since it was clear there was going to be an increasing budget, the congregation became alive to the opportunity of planning to increase their services.  They spent the first of the three years in a serious effort at focusing on creating new programs both within the church and in service to the larger community.

A Community Minister was hired.  The congregation became heavily involved in serving two local charities.

They also decided to “adopt” a young African woman who wanted to come to the U.S. to study music.  And, the congregation promised three troubled and at-risk teens in the youth group that they would help support them in attending college or community college.  All they had to do was focus harder in high school and get admitted.  The Community Minister worked with them too, bringing other supportive services to bear.

The congregation hired a full time adult learning director who began creating lifespan learning programs for adults every evening during the week.  There were also outstanding programs in the Sunday school, and there were adequate supplies — and cookies.

There was money available to help congregants attend important denominational meetings and trainings which brought more members into a deeper connection with the denomination and with the ministry of the congregation.

Some said it was a modern day miracle.  Rev. Bob and the anonymous leaders knew it did not require divine intervention; it was an exercise of human will – a matter of breaking through habitual patterns of thought which lead to habitual self-defeating behaviors.

Story 3

Rev. Sue Ellerson raced to the gas station near her church.  It was 2:30 in the morning.  One of her congregants was hiding in the mini-mart however, having apparently been beaten again by her husband.  This was a continuing saga in the Bronson household, a secret known by very few in up-scale St. James Church in the Woods.  Her congregation was removed from such realities in so many ways – the income, educational, and social status differences seemed to wrap them in a protective cocoon while also shutting them off from the realization that others suffered, even among their friends.

She decided however that the reality needed to be shared with her Board of Trustees.  She knew there were other situations in the congregation which defined the dark side of any community, including hers – alcoholism, abused children, and bankruptcy to name a few.

When she talked to her Board a month later, she related some of the stories that were part of the life of the congregation, stories that don’t get told in nicer churches like theirs.  The President of the Board wept as he explained that these stories brought forth his own memories of a favorite cousin who had been murdered by her husband a few years ago.  The family had not been aware of the difficulties she had faced in her marriage.  “I am so angry at myself for not helping,” he said.  “I was oblivious, and didn’t do anything over all those years.”

That evening the Board decided they would launch two new efforts in the congregation.  First, they needed to train a cadre of laity who would engage in pastoral work; they needed more talent available simply to be present in members’ lives in a way that would be conscious of the signals of distress.  They decided to hire a well known psychologist in the community to help the minister design and offer a program of effective pastoral counseling.

Second, they decided that their highest priority in the upcoming budget year was to get involved in the social services of their community, particularly the shelters, halfway houses, and runaway teen programs – all of which had direct relevance to their membership as evidenced in Sue’s stories.  To do this they would ask the congregation to extend their efforts by calling a community minister into service with them.  Such a service would increase the budget by another 10%.  The Trustees agreed to push hard for that increase.

Three years later Rev. Ellerson reflected on the changes that had occurred in her congregation.  There was a much higher interest throughout in being in service to each other.  For example, they now had six members designated as pastoral chaplains.  One of the chaplains was so excited about what he was doing that he had decided to end a first career, return to school, and study to become a full time adolescent and teen therapist.

A new part-time Associate Minister was developing strong connections between the congregation and some of the service agencies in the community.  While he had focused initially on the issues evident within the congregation, that was changing.  Now a group wanted to get involved in a literacy program serving a nearby immigrant community.  There was another group involved in a work-release program with a nearby correctional facility.

Others had opened their lives to service too.  There was a pool of drivers providing transportation for the elderly.  There was an after school activities program with some of the teens helping care for the youngsters.  And, the Casserole Brigade now had several members rather than the two who had done that work for so many years.  Everywhere she turned there were members in support of others.

Rev. Ellerson talked about the changes over a beer one evening with her Associate Minister.  “What happened here?” she asked.  “Why did this congregation change over the last three years from ignoring the difficulties of others to being heavily in ministry to them?”

“First,” explained Rev. Inquvist, “you got their attention by showing them that their own friends in the church have problems that they need to work on as a community.  That’s a huge step – simply getting their attention; and, by showing them things affecting them directly and viscerally they wanted to help.  Everyone wants to help, but mostly on problems to which they feel connected.”

“Second, you called me,” he said jokingly.

“You’re right,” said Rev. Ellerson, “and it’s not a joke.  The church has had someone to focus our attention, so the initial efforts have been more successful.  From those early successes you have shown the members that what they do matters; it makes a difference.  And, by awakening that interest in making a difference, they want to reach out to serve other communities.  They now recognize the importance of their service in bringing meaning to their lives.”

After finishing their beers they went back to church for another meeting.


            [1]  Get out a pencil (with an eraser) and your own calculator.  These are not wild, exaggerated expectations.

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