Stewardship 2021: New Learnings, Hospitality, and Grounding Giving in Mission

Melissa Spas

Lake Institute on Faith & Giving

July 2021

In this prolonged season of disequilibrium and change, congregations have undergone stressful, persistent change, beyond the control of our leaders, and often resulting in continued organizational uncertainty.  This affects every aspect of congregational life, and gives clergy and lay leadership some new challenges with which to wrestle.  However, this degree of change needn’t be a source of fear or anxiety, but can instead be an opportunity to ask new questions while also remembering our values, mission, and vision for religious community.  This is certainly true when it comes to stewardship, fundraising, and mission advancement.  Congregations have a unique opportunity in 2021 to consider their priorities and invite members and other stakeholders into shared mission, when stewardship is taken seriously in the current context.  

What did we learn about stewardship in 2020, and what are we learning now? How do we apply those lessons in this late-pandemic season?  

The impact of COVID-19 and its related economic impact affected congregations in some real and measurable ways.  As we found in our COVID-19 Congregational Study, published in September 2020, congregational giving overall was down 4.4 percent from March to June 2020 compared to the same period in 2019, with 42% of congregations reporting a decline in giving.  When we asked about future plans in the midst of 2020, none of the congregations surveyed anticipated an increase in their 2021 budget.  This is notable, and reflective of the widespread uncertainty with which congregations have wrestled across this long season of uncertainty.  

Just this spring, we went back to congregational and religious organizational leaders to ask more specifically about some of the things they have experienced, and some of the ways they are thinking about the future, especially in order to gain an understanding of what has changed in a year’s time.  Whereas in 2020 the urgent priorities named by these leaders were primarily focused on reimagining use of resources, addressing urgent community needs, and managing change, in 2021 a new focus has emerged.  Many more leaders named values, mission, and vision and the work of nurturing generosity and stewardship as their congregational and organizational priorities, relative to the same time last year.  Serving the needs of the community remains the most urgent focus, and leaders indicated that collaborative partnerships, new programs or ministries, and reconfigured staff roles would all be possible means toward that end.  These new approaches and openness to innovation are signs of possibility emerging from this long season of change.  Reorienting ministry activity in the direction of mission can be another move away from the expectation of scarcity, even in challenging times, and toward abundance.  

As we adapt to hybrid forms of gathering, how can we show genuine hospitality to all?  

Another change related to COVID-19 that is worth considering relates to how we gather in 2021 and beyond. Even as we see the increasing number of infections from the Delta variant, most congregations are resuming in-person gathering at some point this summer or fall, if they have not already.  While leaders and members alike are eager to be “back together,” there are practices that developed while apart that will carry forward, and this can leave clergy and lay leaders feeling that they are pulling “double duty” in providing meaningful, accessible worship and engagement in both the face-to-face and online spaces.  There is a gift in each way of connecting, and there is good reason to offer hospitality to those who cannot, or will not, return to in person worship, while also finding new rhythms of being together in our sacred spaces.  Of course, this has implications for stewardship and giving as well.  Across much of the past year, most congregations embraced remote means of gathering, including online worship, livestreaming, and the use of new technologies, including a dramatic increase in the number of congregations offering online giving, and in the number of donors giving primarily through that mechanism.  More than 94% of congregations with more than 100 weekly participants have online giving, and we know that many congregations who did not have this capability prior to March 2020 added it in last spring.  The digital divide remains a factor in giving – those congregations without online giving mechanisms are small in size, and it’s these same congregations which have suffered a much larger decline in giving than the average. It may be helpful to think about the hospitality that is offered to all when online giving is made easy – just as we want to welcome people to our physical spaces with warmth and consideration, we also want to make it easy for people give in the way that is most natural for them.  Today that means making online, electronic giving just as easy as dropping a check into a physical offering plate.  Any effort to reduce barriers to giving is an act of hospitality.  

What enduring truths about stewardship and generosity can we count on as people of faith?

Finally, it may be helpful to consider what hasn’t changed, in the midst of intersecting pandemics and a large-scale reimagining of the ways in which we gather and relate to one another.  God is still God, the church is still the church, and stewardship remains a critical way that people of faith can grow in their discipleship.  Fundraising is not primarily about money, it truly is about cultivating real relationships: relating to God, to one another, to the broader community, and to the future.  There is freedom and joy in generosity, and we can learn from one another and appreciate the diverse gifts that others have to share.  When we shift our mindset from simply “paying the bills” to a broader imagination about “sharing the vision,” the work of stewardship becomes something exciting into which we can enthusiastically invite others.  As Henri Nouwen says, “Fundraising is proclaiming what we believe in such a way that we offer other people an opportunity to participate with us in our vision and mission.”  It is this very invitation that makes stewardship something to celebrate!