Engaging Younger Generations in Your Congregation–Who Gets To Vote?

When I served congregations as an Minister of Religious Education I had regular discussions with Middle School Youth Coming of Age participants about the requirements for membership in Unitarian Universalist Congregations. I always sent pledge materials to our High School students too. These were just two ways I could begin the conversation about what is required of individuals when they join a congregation.

I have to admit I had a motive. I worked with the High School youth group. There was nothing to compel them to be there each week. I wanted them to decide that part of being a congregation member meant that you showed up. I wanted them to decide they had a responsibility to the rest of their community.

We always had lively discussions. One particular group decided that to be a member

  1. You showed up every Sunday.
  2. You brought your children to Sunday School every Sunday.
  3. You pledged 3 – 5% of your gross income.
  4. You contributed to the community by volunteering, inside and outside the walls of the congregation.
  5. Adults attended worship each Sunday as their Religious Education.

The only thing we had to discuss in depth was the pledging. They thought it was unfair to require a contribution since not everyone had money, until we discussed a percentage of income. I could see their minds working on how much of their income they could contribute.

Then one of the youth asked, “Can we join, can we become members?”. The by-laws stated that at age 16 or upon completion of an approved Coming of Age Program, youth could become members. So I told them Yes.

When we had completed the Coming of Age Program, those youth who decided to join the congregation participated in the joining ceremony on a Sunday Morning. The ceremony was the same one we used with all new members. We said our words of covenant together.

In the weeks that followed the ceremony I had two questions from these youth. “When do we get our permanent nametags? “And “When will I receive my pledge form?”

These young people were full and recognized members of this congregation. They knew they had a voice and a responsibility. They had to show up, pledge, volunteer, and continue their faith development. They attended worship services. They would and will go on to be leaders in the congregations in the communities of their future. This congregation opened itself to the youth as full members and in a profound way the youth taught the congregation what it meant to be a member.

I cringe when I see congregations cut youth and young adults from their membership rolls because they cost money. I cringe when I see congregations discourage youth and young adults from joining because they will not be there that long. These young people are both our future and our present. We need their leadership now. To cut youth as members or discourage membership because of money and mobile lives sends them the message that they do not belong. They are unable to play leadership roles in congregations because they are not members. They cannot be leaders in the larger denomination if they are not congregational members. I would venture a guess that the youth and young adults that choose membership in congregations grew up in congregations and know how to be leaders. They have been taught how to worship, plan an event, conduct a meeting, the joy of conflict, to articulate their ideals and most important, how to be a Unitarian Universalist living their faith in the world. Why will they join later on in life when we do not let them fully participate now?

Teaching individuals how to be members of our congregations is one of the most important things we do. We tell them what is required. We teach them how to participate in our communities and we train them to be leaders. Our faith desperately needs our youth and young adults. They know how to be members of our congregations and we can let them lead us.

To learn more about Unitarian Universalist Ministry with Youth and Young Adults: http://www.uua.org/re/youth/index.shtml

For more information about the UUA’s Annual Program Fund: www.uua.org/giving/apf

Money, Life Energy, and the “Faith Factor” In Congregational Giving

One by one, as we decide to change money energy from greed, fear, lack and suffering, into love, joy, abundance, and goodwill, our own circumstances will change for the better….Abundance will begin to flow through our lives. Money will simply be there. (Barbara Wilder)

Let’s face it. Money is a complexity in our lives. We exchange hours of our Life Energy for it in our work for wages. We’d love to receive more of it. We wish we could save enough to feel secure. Sometimes we are reluctant to give it away, but we feel good about it when we do. We can be exhilarated or guilty about spending it, from one moment to the next. Money is a driving force in our lives, like it or not.

Money is energy in form and function, which, at its best, flows through our lives and our relationships, transforming as it goes. Early on, we learn about the practical uses and benefits of having money as the means of providing food, clothing, shelter, and transportation. As we move through our lives we experience giving and generosity as ways to express our deepest-held values. It is the very act of giving that makes money sacred.

As a result of his research, Arthur C. Brooks has describes the “virtuous cycle” charitable giving and increased income and the mutual reinforcement of giving, health, happiness, and prosperity. Charitable giving is pleasurable for the giver. It gives life meaning. People who engage in charitable giving and voluntarism tend to have higher incomes than those who do neither. For example, in data collected for the year 2000, Brooks found that a charitable dollar is associated with $4.35 in extra income. Of the extra income, $3.75 could be directly attributed to the dollar given to the charity.

More and more, people are looking for ways to make a positive difference with their money. In particular, younger generations want their monetary giving to have the greatest impact possible in their wider communities. This is the appeal of offering plate give-away programs in which people contribute to their church and extend their giving to worthy causes beyond.

Paul Schervish of the Center for Wealth and Philanthropy at Boston College has differentiated between demand-side giving and supply-side giving. Demand-side giving has been the expectation historically, focusing on the duty and obligation of giving. In contrast, supply-side giving is rooted in the giver’s identity as a philanthropist whose gifts change lives and bring about positive outcomes. This emerging trend involves the giver’s investment of money and life energy as an expression of their faith identity.

Let’s take a closer look at the role of the faith community in giving patterns…

  • Charitable contributions in the United States topped $290 Billion in 2010,
  • Giving to religion the largest share at thirty-five percent (35%) to total dollars.
  • Of the total dollars, over fifty percent (51.1%) are given by people who are regular church attenders and describe themselves as “strong” or “very strong” in their faith.
  • Simply belonging to a congregation matters, since those who do are more likely to give to the congregation, to secular causes (66%), and to volunteer (44%).

Research clearly indicates the “faith factor” is a significant influence in charitable giving, and giving in congregations. Congregations that reported an increase in attendance over the past five years were most likely to report an increase in their annual fundraising. Another good example of why active participation in religious community and regular attendance to services makes a difference in giving levels and overall financial health.

Congregation leaders must find ways to nurture the giver’s need to give as a spiritual practice, rather than emphasizing the congregation’s need to fund its annual budget. This is a delicate balancing act for congregations trying to strengthen their financial picture. However, in light of the research, encouraging giving in faith communities as beneficial to the giver and the congregation is important to remember.

The first step is to understand how people relate to money at a personal level and engage the conversation in our congregations. The next is to structure our budgets and giving programs around our mission and ministries, emphasizing the difference the congregation makes in the world and how lives are changed for the better. In follow up to these steps, it is important to explicitly connect the individual’s faith identity and values to their financial choices and giving to support their faith community. It is through the alchemy of money, life energy, and faith identity that abundance is realized.

Links for Further Exploration of Money, Life, and Spiritual Practice:




Links to the Giving Data and Research:

Giving USA Foundation: http://www.givingusareports.org/

State of the Plate 2011 report by Brian Kluth: http://www.stateoftheplate.info/index.htm

2009 Congregational Economic Impact Study, Alban Institute and Lake Institute: http://www.philanthropy.iupui.edu/LakeFamilyInstitute/docs/2009CongEcoImpact_KeyFindings.pdf

Empty Tomb, Inc. Giving Research: http://www.emptytomb.org/research.html

Books referenced for this blog post:

Brooks, Arthur C. Who Really Cares. Basic Books. 2006.

Wilder, Barbara. Money is Love: Reconnecting to the Sacred Origins of Money. Wild Ox Press. 1999.

Annual Pledge Campaigns–You’ve Heard of “Speed Dating”, but “Speed Pledging”??

It was time to organize the annual stewardship campaign and the pressure was on.  The Rev. Christina Neilson, minister of the Southwest Unitarian Universalist Church in North Royalton, OH, originated the idea for a new concept she calls Speed Pledging, modeled after the popular speed dating trend in social networking among adult singles.  It turned out this was a fun way to engage one-on-one stewardship conversations without the pressure of a long, complex campaign process.

The smaller congregation Rev. Paul Langston-Daly serves tried the Speed Pledging approach and reports a positive outcome.  Paul describes the questions his congregation used and how the responses offered valuable feedback for leaders to use in future planning.

The questions Paul’s congregation used were designed to help people engage with the dramatic changes of the past year:  hiring a minister 3/4 time, moving to a beautiful location (from the Elks Club) and making a commitment to growth.  Everyone seemed to have a good time, getting to know each other  better and raising nearly $28,000, up from $22,000 the previous year and $18,000 the year before.

The congregation used 3X5 cards to record the responses of those they engaged with for each set of questions.  The process was informal, with an invitation for people to pair up and then switch conversation partners after a five-minute bell rang.  The process was conducted three times, one round for each question.

After the rounds of one-to-one conversations, the leaders handed out pledge forms and invited people to make their pledge.  Many did pledge that evening, but some took the forms home to think about it. And people appreciated the opportunity to talk about the congregation and its future.

The responses were gathered and used by the board to gauge how the congregation was doing and to get a sense of where people wanted to go in the future.  It was very helpful for us in planning that year.

Elements of organizing the Speed Pledging process :

•  Choose the campaign theme and schedule events as early as possible  (such as Conversation, Community, Commitment)

•  Newsletter articles and other publicity several weeks in advance and throughout the campaign

•  Sermon series  that introduce a range of stewardship themes

•  One mailing—reduces the amount of paper used!

•  Potluck dinner –begin the meal with a blessing by the minister or key stewardship leader

•  Stewardship Leader makes the pitch for congregational giving

•  Establish teams of 2-4 people for the ask

•  Prepare envelopes for each family

•  Written pledges go in envelopes and are collected in a bowl—Dessert comes AFTER the pledging!

•  Mugs with congregation’s logo or the campaign theme are given to each participant

Questions for Speed Pledging conversations (using an appreciative inquiry approach):

•  Conversations are set up with two rings of seats facing each other—five minutes each, then partners switch seats around the circle.

•  Conversations are framed by three types of questions that encourage expansive thinking:  values questions, potential questions, and wishes questions.

•  Introductory question:  Why do you come to church on Sunday?

Record the themes that emerge in the responses shared and seek feedback about the process.   This can be done by giving each person index cards for recording responses.

Post Speeding Pledging Clean Up:

•  Mailed pledge cards to all who didn’t attend or not yet pledged.

•  Letters and calls to follow-up the mailing.

•  Thank you notes to everyone pledging.

•  Pledging event for all those pledging 2.5+% of income or other high mark of giving as set by your congregation.

 Remember:  This is the beginning of a conversation, not the end.

Exploring various models and approaches to annual stewardship campaigns?  Check out the results of the recent Giving Speaks poll on the topic: http://poll.fm/3hkep