BEING A STEWARDSHIP LEADER IN THE AGE OF COVID
By Reverend Doctor Janet Long
If the person from your congregation’s nominating committee who invited you to serve had told you that you were being asked to chair the stewardship committee during a world-wide pandemic, your answer may have been different. But here you are, trying to navigate through these uncharted waters and trying to keep your church afloat financially.
One of the side effects of the COVID-19 pandemic is that we are learning many new and different ways of being the church. Even when it is safe to gather in the sanctuary again, virtual worship will not likely be set aside. More people are being reached as time and distance are no longer factors in who attends services. Zoom meetings are proving a workable substitute for gathering in person. I’m hearing talk that some congregations are considering a hybrid meeting model in the future, alternating in-person and online meetings. Pastoral care is being provided from a distance: In many cases, the pastor is not allowed to visit the hospital patient. Face-to-face time with the pastor is not possible. The use of cell phones and social media is much more significant. Even when pastor and parishioner are in the same room—or the same outdoor space (front porch, church parking lot, cemetery)—distance is the order of the day: six feet minimum with masks in place.
Stewardship is being practiced differently, too. Here are five examples:
1 – More giving is being done online. Whether regular contributions from checking accounts, recurring giving via credit card, or occasional donations made by following a link, giving online is growing in popularity. Two suggestions: Make sure your congregation is set up with a user-friendly way to receive such offerings; and, make sure you have a mechanism in place to express gratitude for these gifts.
2 – Moments for Mission are not as prevalent as they were pre-COVID. Efforts to witness beyond the church’s walls may be getting short shrift right now. The survival instinct may be replacing an outward focus. Two suggestions: Include stories in newsletters, and video clips in email blasts, of lives touched by your congregation’s commitments beyond its doors; and, share thank-you notes from those ministries.
3 – Money concerns are being either amplified or silenced these days. The extremes of fixation and oblivion are not helpful when it comes to financial stewardship. Instead, what is most important is clear and concise reporting. Two suggestions: Send quarterly statements to givers and include some narrative about this year’s giving; and, send notes of appreciation to those who are contributing.
4 – Many are reconsidering their priorities. Appreciation of home has gained significance for most people. Relationships with family and friends have grown in importance as people are separated. The opportunity to worship together is something for which people yearn during this time of being apart. Two suggestions: Offer virtual coffee hours; and, encourage specific prayers for your pastor and church family.
5 – Moving to a broader sense of stewardship is gaining momentum. The topics of health (physical, emotional and spiritual), just relationships, personal finance, work/school/life balance, and one’s priorities in life are making their way to the surface. What a great time for the church to be the church! Two suggestions: Offer virtual personal finance workshops; and, consider how your congregation can work for justice.
One more thing: In my work with congregations, the principle of effective stewardship which raises the most interest is the pastor’s knowledge of the members’ giving. I am an advocate of that practice for two reasons:
1 – It allows the pastor the opportunity to discern pastoral care needs based on changes in giving. A drop in giving may signal a job loss, a health crisis, a problem within the family—or, a problem with the church. If the pastor knows giving patterns, there can be a gentle exploration of the reason. A sudden increase in giving may indicate that a spiritual awakening is taking place in an individual’s or family’s life. Again, if the pastor knows giving patterns, there may be opportunities for enhanced involvement or an invitation to leadership.
2 – Awareness of giving also allows pastors to be certain that financial support of the congregation is a factor used in selecting lay leadership. Nothing will drag a church board or group of elders down more quickly than a person who is not invested financially in the ministry being shared. When “How much will that cost?” or “We can’t afford that” are the comments made in response to an idea, the path to expanded mission and ministry will be made more challenging. Conversely, generous givers tend to have generous hearts and minds when it comes to considering others’ ideas.
The value of the pastor knowing about the giving of members of the congregation s/he is serving has been quantified by the Lake Institute on Faith & Giving. The organization cites these statistics: [A]mong those congregations whose clergy look at giving records, 58% reported an increase in the amount they received over the past three years (42% [had] an increase of 10% or more).
The difference is stark: There is a higher likelihood of growth in giving if your pastor has access to the congregation’s giving records. Like all confidences a pastor keeps, this is a sacred trust. Bringing your pastor into the loop likely will make a positive difference in the life of your congregation.
COVID-19 is proving to be quite a challenge for church life. When it comes to the practice of stewardship, the challenges may give way to changes which will bring about growth in the way we view—and share— the resources entrusted to us. May it be so for your congregation!
Janet Long is a retired parish pastor in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) Tradition and has served and held leadership positions on numerous national Boards and is a past Moderator of the General Assembly of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). She currently serves as a Generosity Coach for the Center for Faith and Giving.