An Experiment in Year Round Stewardship

By Ken Howard, part of the Vestry Papers issue on Sharing Our Gifts (September 2014)

“Insanity is doing the same thing over and over,
and expecting different results.”
Albert Einstein

Town Hall Quarterly

St. Nicholas’ year-round stewardship experiment has centered on quarterly ‘town hall’ meetings.

Like many – if not most – Episcopal parishes, my congregation has never been completely satisfied with our stewardship program. Despite frequent, intentional experimentation with a variety of approaches since our founding in 1995, we have continued to feel a “disconnect” between the way we describe stewardship and the way we facilitate decisions about giving.

We talk about stewardship as a lifelong, year-round process of thoughtful and prayerful individual and congregational discernment, based on our responsibility to God and our responsibility to each other (our neighbor in the context of the congregation). Yet in practice our programmatic efforts to provide stewardship education and facilitate stewardship discernment and decisions have been limited almost entirely to a single, intensive campaign conducted in the fall of each year. Despite earnest desires and repeated plans, a truly year-round steward program never seemed to materialize.

Reflecting on this conundrum, we realized that no matter how we adjusted the content, process, timing, or title of this annual giving campaign (we no longer call it a pledge drive), this campaign-centered approach to stewardship has consistently produced effects inconsistent with our intentions. It reduced the congregation’s sense of responsibility and sense of stewardship as a way of life by reducing their opportunities to discuss, discern, and decide about stewardship practice. It increased the anxiety of parish leadership about the financial health of the congregation by reducing their opportunities to dialogue with the congregation regarding the congregation’s finances (and this anxiety bleeds back out into the congregation). It made our best efforts to make stewardship “not all about money” seem like make believe, and our most heartfelt theological explanations of stewardship sound like a cover story for getting into peoples’ wallets. And by the time the campaign was “put to bed” each year, there remained neither the energy nor the appetite for building a year-round program on top of it.

Finally, after asking “Why?” enough times, we came to see the “elephant in the room.” The problem was the campaign-based stewardship model itself: as long as the annual giving campaign lived, a truly year-round stewardship program would not be born. So we decided it was time to stop doing what wasn’t working. Taking a decision that was simultaneously exciting and scary, our vestry, with the support of our finance committee, voted to kill our annual giving campaign.

And now for something completely different.”
Monty Python

What we are now developing is a straightforward and transparent year-round system of ministry planning, budget development, member incorporation, stewardship education, and opportunities for giving discernment/decision organized around four quarterly town hall style meetings, or as we have come to call it “town hall quarterly.” Using a rapid prototyping approach to design and test our emerging approach, we have completed two developmental iterations of the town hall quarterly process and are about to begin our third. To use the language of software development, the first iteration, completed in early spring, was our “private beta release,” in which we walked a select group of leaders through the process in order to ascertain how well the process we had designed would achieve our objectives and to identify and fix any major “bugs.” The second iteration, completed in early summer, was our “public beta release,” in which we guided all those involved in planning or delivering our ministries through completing a full quarterly cycle of the process in order to refine it further. Our third iteration of the process, which will culminate at our annual parish meeting this fall, is our first “public release,” in which the entire congregation will be involved in completing a full cycle of the process in roughly its final form.

How Does the Town Hall Quarterly Process Work?

Quarterly Town Hall Meeting
The most visible and public part of the town hall quarterly process is the town hall meetings. Held in the first month of each quarter, they take place during the half-hour break between our primary Sunday worship service and our quarterly potluck brunch. The total meeting is 25 minutes long: 15 minutes of presentations, followed by 10 minutes of town-hall Q&A, leaving 5 minutes of “wiggle room.” The agenda looks like this:

  • 11:00 am – Scripture & Prayer (rector). Carefully selected and brief, with a stewardship focus.
  • 11:01 am – Vision & Priorities Report (senior warden). A brief and straightforward vision and priorities report on behalf of the Vestry, outlining overarching priorities for the next quarter (and beyond), why we think they are important, and what they would cost.
  • 11:03 am – Five 2-Minute Ministry Reports (ministry planning team leaders). Brief reports from each of our five ministry planning teams on lessons learned from the previous quarter, opportunities in future quarters, and plans for the current quarter.
  • 11:13 am – Finance and Budget Report (finance committee). A brief and straightforward financial report outlining our present financial position and what additional resources will be necessary to achieve our plans in upcoming quarters.
  • 11:15 am – Town Hall Discussion (congregation). A question and answer period intended to help the congregation understand the personal implications of the previously presented reports. During the discussion, handouts covering the above items and including a quarterly giving estimate form are disseminated to those present (the same handouts are also sent via email to all members later the same day).
  • 11:25 am – Closing Prayer, Dismissal, and Instructions (rector). A brief closing prayer and dismissal, with instructions to participants to give prayerful consideration to what they have heard and to submit an updated giving estimate form by the following Sunday, either in the offering plate or online.

Connected by a Quarterly Ministry Planning & Implementation Process
The quarterly town hall meetings serve as milestone markers between which the work of planning and implementing ministry (and programs) takes place.

Ministry planning teams hold a single planning meeting each quarter. In a major change from past practice, our ministry planning teams no longer meet monthly. Rather, they limit themselves to a single, formal, in-person ministry planning session every quarter, during which they are required to achieve four objectives: (a) review and learn from previous quarters’ successes and failures, (b) identify future opportunities for ministry, (c) plan for the upcoming quarter, and (d) provide directions to their various ministry guilds on carrying out their part of the plans. Upon completion of each quarterly ministry planning meeting, each ministry planning team shares its meetings notes not only with their own ministry guilds, but also with the other ministry planning teams, the finance committee, and the vestry. Between their quarterly ministry planning sessions, ministry planning teams provide guidance and support to their ministry implementation guilds through less time-consuming channels (e.g., email, phone, social media, etc.). The ministry implementation guilds (and clergy) then incorporate the results of the planning process (and the quarterly town hall discussions) into the content of their various ministries. Thus, practical issues and real-life concerns make their way organically into adult formation programs, sermons, newcomer welcome/member engagement programs, and even into the prayers of the people at worship services.

Vestry continues to meet monthly but with a more strategic focus. The vestry tries to function less a group of department heads that “run” the various ministries of the church and more like a body collective charged with discerning, keeping, and communicating the church’s vision, mission, and ethical norms, and making sure the church’s various ministries have the resources, support, guidance, and encouragement necessary to achieve them.

Finance committee of the vestry also continues to meet monthly but with a more investment-oriented focus. Rather than developing a single annual budget, from which the Vestry plans its stewardship and budget management efforts for the whole year, the finance committee now prepares four quarterly budgets for the vestry’s approval, each of which has two parts. The first part of the budget covers the immediate upcoming quarter and is always balanced based on current income from giving estimates and other known sources (e.g., rents, interest income, etc.). The second part covers the three following quarters, and is also balanced but based on the increased investment (through membership growth or increased individual giving) necessary to fund the ministries and programs required to achieve the church’s vision and mission.

The Payoff:
Fewer Meetings, More Effective Ministry, and a Realignment of Responsibility

We foresee many benefits to this new (and still evolving) approach to stewardship, some of which we are already beginning to realize, some of which will take time to fully realize, and others which we will no doubt serendipitously discover over the long term.

Perhaps the greatest benefit we foresee is a more appropriate realignment of responsibility. The congregation will have greater mutual responsibility for discernment about finances and stewardship. The ministry planning teams will have greater and more collaborative responsibility for direction of ministry and the managing of programs. The finance committee will have a more collaborative and investment-oriented responsibility for budgeting and financial management. And the vestry will have a stronger strategic focus on the vision and mission of the parish.

At Least That’s the Plan

What we are doing here is an experiment after all. By next year at this time we will have had a year’s more under our collective belt with this new approach of ours. And we promise to return in the fall of 2015 with a report on what we have learned.

Try This: In the fall of 2001, St. Nicholas Episcopal Church was in tough shape. With only $500 in the checking account, anxiety levels were high, and choices needed to be made. Our first response: Asking ourselves “Why do we exist?” In the process, we discovered four things:

  • If we couldn’t answer this question, then it was time for the church to close.
  • We weren’t afraid of dying.
  • We could live with the knowledge that, “We didn’t succeed but were faithful”
  • We couldn’t live with “they were killed by anxiety.”

We could answer the question and we are still here today, still asking the same question.

Is your church in an anxious place? Perhaps asking this same question, ‘why do we exist’ will help clarify next steps for your congregation.

Ken Howard is the author of Paradoxy: Creating Christian Community Beyond Us and Them (Orleans, MA: Paraclete Press, 2010), the founder and director of The Paradoxy Center for Incarnational Christianity at St. Nicholas Church, and the rector of St. Nicholas Episcopal Church in Germantown, Maryland. St. Nicholas Church was the first successful church plant in its diocese in nearly forty years. Growing steadily since its start in 1995, it is in the top third of diocesan congregations in size and the top 5% in per capita giving. Ken’s blog, Paradoxical Thoughts may be found at PracticingParadoxy.com.

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One thought on “An Experiment in Year Round Stewardship

  1. Ken that must have been a very brave if somewhat chilling decision. It will be good to read what evolved.
    Thoughts and prayers.
    Clive.

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