Stories that Create a Giving Culture

Please tell us a story.jpg

Who among us is not drawn in by a good story?

Stories are the best way we share our experiences and the lessons we learn in life.  Families and communities pass along their traditions, beliefs, and moral values through storytelling.  For centuries, stories and wisdom tales have been shared around campfires and dining room tables, out under the stars, and in temples, mosques, and cathedrals all over the world.  We tell stories to explain the origins of the universe and to explain the mysteries of life and death.

Storytelling, at its best, conveys the rich diversity and texture of humanity, creating a safe and sometimes therapeutic space for challenging assumptions and fostering  tolerance of differences among people.   Well told stories touch our spirits, warm our hearts, and leave lasting images in our minds.   Sharing our soul-filled stories is another way of expressing gratitude and demonstrating generosity.

It should be no surprise to us that storytelling is a very effective tool in nurturing generosity and teaching stewardship in our faith communities.  Sacred texts around the world are a testimony to the power of the story in teaching and learning religious values.  One way to promote generous behavior is to tell the stories of how giving made a difference in your life or others’ lives.  For example, as part of a year-round stewardship program, you can invite people to share their stories in the context of worship, small group ministry, religious education, in digital or print form.

Here are a few ideas for you to consider as you plan your stewardship activities for the coming year:

  • Share stories in worship–this may be a testimony about how the congregation or faith has touched their life in positive ways, a wisdom tale for all ages to enjoy, or a guest whose organization has been the recipient of your congregation’s generosity.
  • Host a storytelling event–hold a potluck dinner or picnic at your facility, open to the community, and invite participants to come ready to share a story that conveys at least one value of the faith tradition.
  • Design a story display board–invite people to write their generosity stories down, along with their photo and perhaps some art work.
  • Create a video or visual story–convey your faith community’s stewardship values and generosity through the use of technology, posting video stories on YouTube, on your congregation’s website, blog or Facebook page.
  • Offer a story prompt–Give your constituents a theme or first line of a story, and let them create a community story.  This could be a part of a small group activity, religious education class, or just a big graffiti board people can write on as they enter the building or enjoy fellowship hour.

The summertime is a great time of year for stewardship leaders to polish their storytelling skills–around the campfire while toasting marshmallows, on the riverbank while fishing, or at an informal gathering of friends.  Share your story and invite others to share theirs; this is how the bonds of family and society are strengthened.  This is a wonderful way to include children, youth, and elders in multi-generational community!

Here are some tips for enhancing your storytelling:

  • Reflect on a memorable experience from which you learned and grew as a person–
    if it holds meaning for you, it can be meaningful to others.
  • Stick to the heart of the message you want to convey and avoid too much detail.
  • Lift up a unique angle or unusual perspective that will pique the listeners’ interest.
  • Engage as many of your listeners’ five senses as possible1507 Hands Sm 123rf to bring the story alive
  • Be sensitive to your audience’s diversity using inclusive language so that all feel a part of it.
  • Use the opportunity of telling your story to connect your experience with your faith teachings and values in ways that others can relate to personally.
  • Tell the story without reading it whenever possible–practice, practice, practice to feel more confident, but realize storytelling does not demand perfection.
  • Engage your audience with movement, song, sounds, or repeated phrases that makes them part of the story.
  • Have fun!  Your enthusiasm and enjoyment are contagious.

 If you have a story or link to share, please leave a comment for the blog host with your contact info.

Resources for Storytelling:

Cogdogroo–StoryIdeas:  http://cogdogroo.wikispaces.com/StoryIdeas

Learn to Give:  http://learningtogive.org/materials/folktales/

National Storytelling Network:    http://www.storynet.org/resources/howtobecomeastoryteller.html

Recommended Stories for All Ages:

Resources for Multigenerational Stewardship & Generosity

Unitarian Universalist Stories of Generosity & Multigenerational Worship Resources:

http://www.uua.org/finance/fundraising/stories/index.shtml

http://www.uua.org/giving/apf/51886.shtml

http://www.uua.org/worship/multigenerational/index.shtml

http://www.uua.org/worship/by_topic.php?topic=Stories

http://www.uusc.org/worship_resources

Pearmain, Elisa Davy, editor.  Doorways to the Soul  1998.  The Pilgrim Press.

berry heart.jpg

Religion in the Age of the “Nones”

Hospitality & Greetings

Current research indicates that one-fifth of the U.S. population identifies as “unaffiliated” with any religion and one-third of young adults under the age of 30 identify as religiously unaffiliated.

Sociologists have now shifted their generational studies to “After the Baby Boomers.”  One extensive study on the topic in recent years was conducted by sociologist Robert Wuthnow, a professor and director of the Center for the Study of Religion at Princeton University.   Wuthnow identifies a number of cultural influences have shaped this generation of adults now in their twenties and thirties and extending into their early forties.

Wands in circularThe words Wuthnow uses to describe these influences are:  uncertainty, diversity, fluidity, searching, and tinkering.   There are several developmental trends of younger generations coming after the Baby Boomers:

  • They are sexually active earlier;
  • Psychologically independent earlier;
  • Many have an extended dependence on their parents who are living longer.
  • They are marrying later;
  • Having children later;
  • Starting their careers later because of the uncertainty and fluidity of the employment options available.
  • Establishing themselves in communities more gradually.

All of these factors affect religious communities, particularly in terms of membership affiliation, extent of involvement, leadership development, and, of course, with regard to money and financial well being.

Fewer younger adults say that religion is important to their lives than any previous generational cohort.   Instead, they describe themselves as “atheist,” “agnostic,” or “nothing in particular” in response to survey questions about their religious identification.

This group of religiously affiliated younger adults are being referred to as “Nones,” an arguably unsuitable and unnecessarily negative label.  However, they are are not without beliefs and values that matter to them.   Generally many young adults consider themselves to be “spiritual, but not religious,” and are open to spiritual deepening.  When asked if they are looking for a religious community, eighty-eight percent (88%) say they are not.  Perhaps this is due to their less-than-satisfying encounters with religious communities rather than a desire for community.

Those ten percent (10%) or so who are looking for religious communities are interested in those inclusive of theological diversity.  They generally believe in evolution and do not object to bigger government structure and services.  They are more accepting of homosexuality and a woman’s right to  reproductive freedom and access to abortion. This group is less certain about the existence and nature of God.

 Studies clearly indicate higher degrees of congregational involvement by younger adults who are married or in committed partnerships with children.  However, this is after some amount of “church shopping” and “church hopping.”  This pattern may be driven by the the fact that fewer young people were born and raised in a faith community, or that it is hard to fit a prescribed schedule or program into a busy life.  Fewer young men than women are attending alone, with increasingly mobile lifestyles and delayed partnering and child-rearing.   Essentially, these folks are piecing their spiritual and religious lives together with whatever raw materials they can find.

bricolage-bike 3The description that Wuthnow thinks best suits this generation of younger adults is that they are Tinkerers (2007, pgs 14-15)The idea came from the studies of a French anthropologist, Claude Levi-Strauss, who lifted up the important role of the bricoleur (the tinkerer) in preindustrial times.  A bricoleur uses the tools of his or her trade and any objects or materials at hand to fix things and keep them in good repair.  In doing so, the bricoleur produces a bricolage, an improvised construction made up of a variety of materials.

bricolage 1Among many contemporary adults, personal experience trumps doctrinal teachings.  Their life experiences and encounters with religion are diverse and they place high value on freedom of thought and choice.  They are improvisational and inventive, adept at piecing together seemingly disparate religious teachings and cultural components into their religious bricolage.

Internet studies show a significant number of adults are regularly looking online for religious and spiritual guidance.   Many simply don’t know where to find a place to tinker with a diverse collection of religious ideas and theological perspectives—so they go it alone.

What challenges does this new religious landscape pose for our communities? 

When I read and listen to the descriptions of the Millennials, Nones, and Tinkerers, I feel a mixture of discouragement and hopefulness

In my heart I believe these young people—and the growing segment of unaffiliated adults in general–would heartily embrace the inclusive and diverse theological environment Unitarian Universalism offers—if we could find one another on the religious landscape.  In fact, Unitarian Universalism doesn’t show up in the surveys and isn’t evident as an option in much of the research being done by Pew Research Center and Faith Communities Today.   We weren’t mentioned by Robert Wuthnow as the kind of open and accepting religious community that would appeal to this generation of younger adults.

With barely 1,000 congregations and fewer than 200,000 members world-wide, apparently we just don’t stand out enough for the researchers to include in surveys.   The ones who do often find us through Belief.net or the Church of the Larger Fellowship, our premier, world-wide virtual congregation.

An infusion of young adults and newcomers of any age would bring great energy, innovation, and talent into our congregations and our movement.  If this occurred, we would come alive in new ways as a religious movement, yet again.    And we must, so that we may flourish and grow and have any significant impact in the world.   I remain optimistic and hopeful.

In my head, I know this would require a cultural sea-change in most of our congregations.  Collectively, we would need to reach out farther and more effectively throBig surfugh electronic communication venues and social networks to enhance our visibility and attract younger adults.  We would need to redesign our programs and entry spaces to clearly and visibly reflect our diverse perspectives, principles, and values.

We would need adequate levels of professional staff in our congregations to offer the spiritual guidance and religious education opportunities to guide and accompany young people on the developmental journey, which is increasingly complex in today’s world.

We would need to expand our palette of worship and musical offerings to appeal to a wider range of ages and theological interests.  We would need to be intentional about the relational needs of our communities:  to balance the attention given to our established friendships with the needs of our newcomers.  We would need to practice authentic hospitality, helping those new to Unitarian Universalism feel truly welcome and included, within our buildings and beyond.

I am quite convinced we could grow in numbers and in our influence as a religious movement if we could imagine such a future for ourselves.  I mean, really imagine ourselves doubling, tripling, or quadrupling in numbers of people in our communities:  see their faces, hear their voices, and feel the buzz of the energy they bring.

new visionThere are seekers  looking for the kinds of relationships and activities already going in many of our congregations:  excellent professional ministry, high quality religious education for all ages, open and attractive facilities, fantastic music, and the vibrant energy that emits from people who really care about one another.  They are out there, with the tools of their trades, ready to Tinker with all the wonderful material we have to offer for their religious bricolage.

Vision—Courage—Energy—Commitment–Diversity–Generosity–Stewardship:  these are what it takes for a community to come alive and flourish.

Meeting_at_the_Oasis bricolage 2


Research and Reports on Generational Trends and Religion

  • Wuthnow, Robert.  After the Baby Boomers.  2007.  Princeton University Press

Innovative Ministries that Appeal to the Unaffiliated

Building an Abundant Spirit

The Giving Speaks blog is pleased to share another guest post by K. Peter Henrickson of the Pacific Northwest*

We all want to be generous people, and most of us want that quality to be present in those we hang out with — particularly in our churches.  But what does that mean?  What observable differences will we see around us when a spirit of abundance abounds?  To bring focus to how an abundant attitude might shape congregational behavior let’s consider three specific examples in church life:  the worship service, the coffee hour, and our special programs.

What happens in your church when the collection plate gets passed each Sunday morning?  In many Unitarian Universalist congregations it sails along without so much as a stutter stop until it reaches the end of the row, and then after some twisting and reaching starts again and gathers speed as it scoots back, seemingly with a life of its own.  Each week a large portion of those present contribute neither cash nor check, particularly as more and more make their pledge payments online.

Why is that?  Put differently, what are we telling ourselves about this weekly request for money?  I think for many the internal monologue is that this plate routine is irrelevant since we already pledge to support our church; it is a somewhat bothersome distraction from our worship therefore.  But we tolerate The Plate Thing because, after all, there are visitors among us, or perhaps “those who should be pledging more.”  We tell ourselves that passing the plate is just another way the church has of reaching into our pockets.  But, we continue, our pledge is already quite fair, even Quite Good — and anyway we’ve decided already what we will give annually and want to be respected in our judgment about what is right for us.

Further, there are ccongregation leaders who announce before the plate is passed “If you’re a visitor, this is not for you.  You’re our guest; just send it on.”  This reinforces the subliminal sense that the Sunday offering is a tax imposed to punish the members who didn’t cough up enough during the budget drive, apparently all of us who attend regularly.

Finally, all Unitarian Universalist congregations budget some level of support from fund-raisers and other gifts above and beyond pledge income, most frequently including an increment from Sunday plate collections.  This can confirm our self-talk narrative that “Folks around here are not very generous.  They don’t pledge nearly enough to support our programs — but I’m not about to do it all myself.”

All our self-talk on the subject slips past the most important aspect of the Sunday collection:  It’s Not About the Money.  Well, it is.  But more so, it isn’t.

So, what’s it all about?

When we worship together we are learning, remembering again what about our life is important. Much of our worship learning comes out of our sacraments and rituals.  We are practicing being “in the present” and taking personal oaths.  We are aspiring to be even more the kind of person we think we can be, and learning that that person is right there before us, within our reach.  We worship to practice reaching.  (And no one, I daresay, visits a new congregation hoping to be told they are excused this morning from reaching for their better selves.)

We include a request for gifts in worship because all of us, back into the Mists of Time, have felt the impulse to be helpful to others.  But we balance that against the need/desire to take care of ourselves.  And, for most of us, the Self comes first.  Part of the worship practice is simply to remember that others need to be cared for just as we sometimes need to be cared for, and the taking of a collection is the community’s vehicle for delivering that reminder.

Passing the plate is *just* a ritual.  The ritual reminds us that we always have the ability, even with pocket change, to help others.  It’s not about the church needing more money.  It is not particularly about an amount of money.  But the ritual is emphatically about putting money in the plate.  Passing the plate is about what we need — affirming that we live an abundant life.  And for those who have been unresponsive in the past we want to promote new self-talk as the plate comes nearer.  How can we do this?

Many churches have taken up a Share the Plate program, deciding that some portion of the collection will be designated specifically for causes and people outside the immediate church community.  The church decides that part of every worship collection will be given away: say, one-quarter, one half, or even all.  In some churches the gift is limited to one Sunday each month, but is the entire collection.  In any case the self-talk previously described loses traction.  We are asked to respond to a cause beyond our own congregation, its woes and our story about our place in them.

CHECK OUT THE GIVING SPEAKS POLL ON THE TOPIC–at the link below**

My own preference is to give away a smaller portion if necessary, but out of every collection; this seems to me a surer way of limiting the opportunities to dwell in scarcity while we worship.  In any case most churches that have tried sharing their plate collection have not stopped.  They report no diminishment in their own income, and frequently an increase.  This is the experience reported by Rev. Neal Jones in this space last month (http://wp.me/p1xUUk-iU ) in support of his contention that congregations which practice abundance experience abundance.

Another possible way your congregation can manifest a generous countenance is, for example, during social hour after the service.  Is there a basket near the coffee urn where people are expected to place a donation for their coffee?  Get rid of it.  If your church is like mine you pick up a tenth of one percent of the total church revenue for the year from that basket.  One additional pledge would equal three or four years of take from the coffee basket.  Instead, try putting up a little sign saying something like:

WE’RE GLAD TO SEE YOU.

COFFEE IS ON US.

We happily cover the costs of our Social Hour out of your generous contributions during worship.  Thank you.

This is a way for the congregation to openly celebrate its generous, attractive spirit.  It undercuts the story, above, that this church “always wants more of my money.”  At the same time it suggests yet another reason for all worshipers to think about dropping something into the plate every week while also taking away a reason for holding back (“for the coffee basket”).

Third, consider the attitude your congregation manifests when charging members for programs and services.  While I am sympathetic to the reality that churches need to raise enough money to cover their costs, I am less inclined to the notion that every cost which can be separately identified and assigned to a sub-group should be.  I was once a member of a Unitarian Universalist congregation which decided that people could pick up their own newsletter copies in the church lobby on Sunday morning; if they wanted them mailed there would be a fee to cover postage.  The same office administrator proposed that members pay for the church directory — “enough to cover copying costs”.

These are extreme examples I hope, but they highlight the point.  When we join a church we expect to enjoy core services in return for our fair pledge.  The problem is in agreeing what the core consists of.  A church thriving with an attitude of abundance will look for ways to expand its definition of core programs and services; the congregation dwelling in scarcity finds it necessary to charge extra fees.  It’s simply not worth giving up an abundant spirit to chase even a few hundred dollars.[i]   A church with a countenance of abundance holds itself freely open to all — while openly displaying its desire to have all fully embrace its abundant life, including, of course, embracing abundant financial support.


[i] Alternatively, some churches find that by charging a modest fee for programs they induce a higher commitment to attendance; I suspect there is truth in this observation and recognize that some programs by their nature are more successful when attendance and participation are highly predictable.

**FIND OUT WHAT OTHER CONGREGATIONS ARE DOING ABOUT SHARED OFFERING PROGRAMS!

Participate in this Giving Speaks poll:   

________________________________

*K. Peter Henrickson lives in Vancouver, WA has served the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) and its Pacific Northwest District for over 30 years.  Peter served two separate terms as district treasurer for a total of 15 years.  During that period, he began consulting with congregations on general financial management issues.  With the learnings from those consulting jobs, Peter put together several presentations for both district meetings and the Unitarian Universalist Association’s General Assembly.  And the material from those workshops grew into a book, Church Financial Management, which is now available through Amazon.   Peter has served on the Board of Eliot Institute and was Treasurer for a total of about ten years and has served as the UUA’s District Compensation Consultant since 2005.  Peter can be contact directly at:   kphenrickson@gmail.com    (360) 608-8571