Congregations and the Economy, Once Again
In preparation for an online series on congregations and money, Laurel Amabile of the UUA Annual Program Fund asked for my answers to a series of questions. I reprint them here as an online interview. Trust you will find them useful. -- Ian
What are the greatest challenges UU leaders are facing with regard to stewardship and finance?
The challenges are not entirely what we might expect. On the whole, in the survey we have been doing, 80% of congregations report equal to or even a little ahead of last year. This means that most congregations have not had to cut back in major ways though it must be remembered that even a flat budget means that people go without raises. And, if non-personnel costs must increase, it can mean pay cuts, lay-offs or furloughs. The worst direct effect is doubtless on those congregations who are most dependent on endowment income or those who were already in financial distress.
For many congregations uncertainty over future income is as much of a problem as drop off in income now. While two or three congregations have done well with capital fund drives in the past six months, it takes very steady nerves to lead such an effort now. In the background we are also conscious that the kind of congregations we want and need as we come out of this recession may well look quite different from what we thought we wanted as we came into it. While I don’t presume to know in any detail what the difference might be, I do suspect we are headed for something more grounded, focused, and sustainable.
What are the opportunities for leadership inherent in these challenges?
The opportunity is to use well the angst people are feeling and to do so in line with the mission of the congregation and capacities of the congregation. Ask people: “what does it mean to our congregation to fulfill its mission right now, right here?” For many congregations I have seen three things.
First, for a congregation the biggest opportunity is always—should always be—the opportunity to serve. I have seen more openness to becoming involved as a whole congregation in addressing the distress being felt in the community around the congregation. By stroke of good fortune we in this district had been developing a focus on homelessness, www.nomoreturningaway.org, just as the crisis hit. Our congregations have taken this up as a way for them to respond at the level of ministry. This has in turn provided us with wonderful publicity because newspapers have been very interested in writing about anything that seemed like a positive response. And note: in a climate like this organizations do better at fund-raising when they keep focused on service.
Second, I have seen smart congregations take this recession as a dose of courage to do hard things that probably have needed to be tackled for a long time. We are hearing, for example, that many congregations are taking this as the occasion to switch from paper to electronic means of communication. At a tougher and deeper level, we have congregations who have taken this crisis as an occasion to finally make the tough decision about moving out of a building that is too big or not suited to their mission. And, for those who can raise the money to build or buy land there are great bargains. Indeed, concerning new buildings, I am rather optimistic at the moment. I thought that we might have a lull in building for a while. Now it seems to me that those projects postponed for lack of money might just be balanced out by those made possible by the lower costs of building and of land.
And third, this is the time to get it right in congregational stewardship. In this environment congregations simply cannot afford to be lazy about congregational stewardship or to avoid the subject. Direct face-to-face methods work best. We know this. If you do not do this, think about it.
What potential benefits may be present for congregations and districts as a result of the current economic situation?
I think I answered this in responding to the previous question, though I did not mention anything there about the district. Dori Thexton and I have noticed a new interest in making local connections and in congregations being resources to each other. We also have seen great willingness to try doing things in new ways, especially doing things electronically. It is clear that this crisis is going to leave the district with two very important capacities that it did not have previously. The first is that online education events are, or soon will become, as important as face-to-face education events. We did an experiment with this last year and next year we will offer a regular monthly online education event with our partner districts in the Midwest, Prairie Star and Heartland. The second new capacity is the ability to make our face-to-face events virtually accessible. Distance and money now don’t need to be a barrier to our congregations benefiting from the content of our face-to-face events. The keynote lecture of our district assembly was available on the internet within hours. Virtual accessibility of events is quickly becoming the norm here just as handicapped accessibility became the norm fifteen years ago. The dual economic and ecological crises have opened people to these changes and have generated great interest from our congregations and from other districts concerning how others might reinvent themselves in similar ways.
What resources and supports are available to UU leaders to help them deal effectively with the challenges?
There are many layers of resource and great depth available to UU leaders. First, resources for congregational leaders should always be other congregational leaders, starting with other leaders within their own congregation. Leaders should not be afraid to ask for help and say they don’t know. Beyond the local congregation, many of our UUA leader lists are great sources of wisdom and advice. District staff also are always available to talk matters through and help make connection with more specialized assistance. I have personally been helped greatly by the resources that Wayne Clark, UUA Director of Congregational Stewardship Services, has distributed and updated a number of times http://www.uua.org/documents/congservices/stewardship/tough_economy_stewardship.pdf and www.ohiomeadville.org/resources/GivinginToughTimes.doc. Another great collection was assembled by Joan Van Becelare, http://www.ohiomeadville.org/economy/bestpractices.html. Finally Wayne Clark’s office is a great resource and those who have not read his book should: Beyond Fundraising: Complete Guide to Congregational Fundraising. If you have not seen it already you can browse it free online through Google Books, http://books.google.com/books?id=5KNMdceTUYEC&printsec=frontcover&dq=Clark+%22beyond+fundraising%22.
As a religious organization I am ashamed to say that, so far, our theological resources on this remain thin. My favorite collection so far is the group of materials assembled by Krista Tibbett of National Public Radio, in her Repossessing Virtue series, http://speakingoffaith.publicradio.org/first-person/repossessing-virtue/. I end with this because our basic response needs to be a faith response oriented towards ministry and mission.
How can we best connect leaders to these resources and supports?
Next to talking to people directly, resources such as I have mentioned on the internet are the best thing going.
In the future I would like a central place for this stuff on UUA.org. I find I spend a good deal of time hunting up links for people who cannot find things there. We need something of the order of a Wiki for UU leaders on this, something that can grow and evolve in response to what we are learning and that is open as broadly as possible to the contributions of many different people who are working on this.