Re-learning to say ‘thank you’

I have a confession to make. I am inordinately fond of webinars and seminars that reinforce my pre-existing beliefs and practices. A recent webinar for nonprofit leaders on the importance of saying “thank you” did just that.

You’d think saying “thank you” would come naturally to the church, but you might be surprised at the pushback I get when I remind churches of the importance of saying those two words. The resistance seems to stem from a misunderstanding of the contemporary giving process. More than once I’ve heard people say, “Why should we have to say thank you for something you’re supposed to do anyway?”

I even had one individual challenge me on the subject of thanking, asking, “Is that Biblical?” I am seldom at a loss for words, but in that instance, I was. I should have reminded him of the Apostle Paul’s typical salutations in his many letters: “I have not stopped giving thanks for you.” (Ephesians 1:16 NIV)

Tom Wilkinson

Tom Wilkinson

The attitudes I’ve encountered are representative of the institutional model of church stewardship widely used in the mid-20th century, when people gave to the church because, well, it was the church. But that doesn’t work anymore.

Baby Boomers, Gen-Xers and Millenials operate on a very different charitable playing field than their parents and grandparents, and church leaders and members must realize the church no longer inhabits a preferred status among donors. The church exists in a competitive environment, and the secular competition is eating our collective lunch. That competition doesn’t come from the Presbyterian or Baptist church down the street. It’s the sophisticated development offices of the Red Cross, the American Cancer Society, Hospice, the National Geographic Society and (fill in the blank) University.

“Giving USA,” the almanac of charitable giving in the United States, reports that the broad category of “religion” receives the largest market share of charitable gifts in our country, roughly a third of the more than $300 billion given in 2016. That’s the good news. The bad news is that our market share in 1985 was around 50 percent. So yes, we are in a competitive market, and we’re losing.

Consider a personal example. I give $1,000 a year to my alma mater, Purdue University in Indiana, earmarked for the theater department. That relatively modest gift earns me membership on the President’s Council, and I get invited to any number of special events, athletic activities, concerts, you name it. I get a personal, handwritten note from the chair of the theater department and a mention in the playbill for every production. I get thanked or “touched” at least once every two weeks. Pretty good return on such a modest gift.

In many of our local churches, donors are barely acknowledged. They might get an email from the financial secretary around pledge time asking them to confirm their pledge, and somewhere in that missive is a “thank you,” but you’d have to look pretty hard to find it. Donors will then get quarterly or annual statements from the church — which look for all the world like credit card bills — acknowledging their gifts. Again, a “thank you” may be buried somewhere in them.

So what do the University of Florida, Florida State, University of Central Florida, Rollins College and all the rest know what we don’t? It’s simple: saying thank you pays dividends.

Here are some simple, easy things every local church can do:

Revamp the offertory/offering time in worship to say thanks for the gifts members and friends have made. Connect those gifts with tangible success stories about what has been accomplished because of those gifts.

If you’re the pastor, set aside a few minutes every week to write a handwritten thank-you note to anyone who has made a gift to your church, regardless of the amount. In the course of the year, you’ll have thanked everybody.

Add a personal note to the giving statements you send to donors just to say thanks.

Create a planned giving program to encourage people to make legacy gifts to the church from their estate plan. The foundation can help you do that.

And simply remember what your mom and dad taught you. Smile, and say please and thank you.

For more ideas, check out Network for Good’s donor thank-you guide.

* Wilkinson is the foundation’s vice president of church relations and new business.

How we give: removing the barriers

When I was growing up, there were predominantly two ways people paid for things: cash or check. Credit cards weren’t widely used, and those that were available were unique to a store or gas station. The first “universal” credit card I can remember was the BankAmericard, later renamed Visa.

Many people, especially those who had lived through the depression, viewed credit cards as a quick way to get into debt, a terrible situation. I remember my father paying bills by check and balancing the checkbook every month with the cancelled checks mailed back to us by the bank. And with no ATMs, people got their cash by writing a check for more than the amount of their groceries or going to the bank and getting money from a teller. People carried their checkbooks everywhere.

While that’s no longer the norm, many churches still conduct their financial business as if it is, accepting only checks and a small amount of cash. When I served a local church, it was common to hear people say they wrote one check every month — to pay their church pledge.

Rev. Mark Becker

According to the Blackbaud Institute Charitable Giving Report for 2016, about 7.2 percent of overall fundraising revenue was raised online. Of those gifts, 17 percent were made using a mobile device, a 21 percent increase over 2015, and 10 percent were more than $1,000. The report also noted total charitable giving increased 1 percent in 2016. Because of this, organizations without an effective way to accept contributions electronically probably lost gifts during that year.

It’s a lesson for churches. Those that don’t provide diverse ways for people to give might lose gifts to other nonprofits. It’s no longer practical for churches to receive offerings only during worship via check or cash in envelopes preprinted with the church’s name and date. People rarely carry checkbooks, so without other giving options, they must remember to write a check before worship and take it to church. Statistically, an “active” church member attends worship just 13 times each year. Given those conditions, it’s likely churches won’t receive contributions members intended to give, except from the few people who might mail a check.

A solution is online and electronic giving. Through a smart phone or other mobile device, an individual can give online any time or place — Sunday morning, Wednesday evening, in the sanctuary, at the beach. And electronic options make special offerings, such as for disaster relief, much easier. A church no longer has to announce the giving opportunity weeks in advance so people can remember to bring their checkbooks. Churches can ask for gifts on the spot when the issue is most current.

It’s all part of a well-planned program of stewardship, implemented throughout the year. Christians give because God has first given to them. It’s a spiritual issue, not a financial one. If we don’t provide people with more preferred giving methods, we could rightfully be accused of placing a stumbling block in the way of an individual’s spiritual growth.

People have an inherent need to give to something bigger than they are — to participate in a greater work than they could do themselves. But as long as churches only receive financial gifts “the old fashioned way,” they will be viewed as irrelevant and incapable of doing useful work. That is where we are. The links below offer tips and resources to help churches change.

Electronic/online giving resources

Related Story
Electronic giving takes the dip out of seasonal slumps

* Becker is president of the Florida United Methodist Foundation.

Growing a culture of generosity — but not by accident

If raising money in order to do ministry seems more challenging every year, then your church — or ministry — is not alone. The good news is that people have not stopped being generous, faith is still real, vital ministry is still being offered and resources have not suddenly disappeared.

That’s according to the Rev. Dr. Michael Vilardo, president and founder of Transforming Christian Ministries, an Ohio-based consulting firm that works with churches and organizations to help them vision, plan and secure resources for their ministries.

The real issue, Vilardo says, is a gap in effective communication. The story simply isn’t getting across.

Story releases resources

“If a church can articulate their mission and vision clearly, if they can write a case for how fulfilling it is and how it will impact lives, especially describing outcomes, then people will begin to give resources to ministry in a stronger way,” Vilardo said in a recent phone interview. “The problem is churches are passive. The church needs to think clearly about how it will engage people.”

Clergy and laity wanting to engage people more effectively and tell their church’s story in the language of stewardship principles that work can learn how June 7, 1:30-4:30 p.m., during a workshop Vilardo is leading on behalf of the foundation. It’s one of several workshops offered that afternoon at St. Luke’s United Methodist Church in Orlando prior to the start of the annual conference gathering June 8.

The Rev. Dr. Michael Vilardo has worked as a pastor and development professional for more than 30 years. He’ll share his experiences June 7 as he leads the “Old Money, New Money, More Money: Cultivating Generous Givers to Transform Ministry” workshop sponsored by the foundation. (Transforming Christian Ministries photo)

The Rev. Dr. Michael Vilardo has worked as a pastor and development professional for more than 30 years. He’ll share his experiences June 7 as he leads the “Old Money, New Money, More Money: Cultivating Generous Givers to Transform Ministry” workshop sponsored by the foundation. (Transforming Christian Ministries photo)

Titled “Old Money, New Money, More Money: Cultivating Generous Givers to Transform Ministry,” Vilardo’s session puts practical ideas in play alongside his personal experiences helping congregations experience generosity and meaningful ministry.

People want to give

Vilardo served two growing United Methodist congregations in Ohio before putting his experience to work as a consultant. At one congregation, he helped leaders more than quadruple their membership and ministry. Vilardo says he’s passionate about giving churches the resources they need to connect with communities in Gospel-charged ministry initiatives.

“I want to equip pastors with the tools necessary to grow the culture of generosity, to take it to a new level,” he said. “I love to see donors get excited about giving away large sums of their resources to do ministry, and do it with a smile and excitement. Now that’s gratifying.”

Vilardo says that experience is why he’s happy to go to work every morning.

“(It’s) helping organizations nail down their mission and vision,” he said. “Not posting them on the wall, but asking what is God calling us to do and what would it look like to fulfill that mission.”

A shift in culture

Leaders need to understand two key facts if they want to connect generous givers with their church’s vision, Vilardo says.

“First, we no longer live in what Robert Putman and David Campbell describe as a post-World War 11 nation of joiners (in their 2010 book ‘American Grace’),” he said. “We can no longer just expect people to come. We must become intentional about ministry and vision, then live that out.”

“At the same time, we’re experiencing the greatest generational wealth transfer in the history of the USA,” Vilardo added. “The resources are available, but the church is losing ground.”

In the workshop, Vilardo will share how leaders can learn from the fundraising world around them.
Development professionals use specific tools for a reason, he says, and understanding that will help ministry leaders find clarity in their own sense of purpose.

As a pastor with 17 years of experience leading Methodist congregations, Vilardo is sensitive to the pitfalls of adapting corporate principles to the church.

“We steer away from thinking of stewardship and leadership as a transactional model,” he said. Instead, church leaders “think more of being transformational — an organic evolution of who God is calling us to be and how we can live out of that to find a stronger sense of our mission and direction.”

“What’s most important is how can we create a culture of generosity,” Vilardo adds. “Generosity naturally makes a connection between money and ministry. When we respond to a generous God with our own generosity, we’re part of the cycle of providing resources that truly offer the Gospel.”

Vilardo’s workshop is open to all laity and clergy. More information is available here.

Individuals wanting to attend the workshop may register through May 31 at www.acflorida.org by selecting the pre-conference workshop registration option in the left-hand menu or by contacting Heidi Leab at 800-282-8011, ext. 192, or email hleab@flumc.org.

After the workshops

Clergy and laity are also invited to attend:

Children at Risk: A Mission of Bridge Building” at 6:30 p.m. The session will be led by Dr. Tammy Pawloski, early childhood education professor and director of the Center of Excellence to Prepare Teachers of Children in Poverty at Francis Marion University in South Carolina

“Sweet Treats Reception” sponsored by the foundation at 8 p.m. Guests will have an opportunity to talk more about the issues featured in the evening session and make a donation to the foundation’s Future Generations Fund, which provides grants to programs and ministries that nurture young people in their faith and Christian discipleship.

* Maul is freelance writer based in Wake Forest, North Carolina.

Record gifts of stock buoy ministries

When lifelong Methodist James Robert Gregg was baptized at Morrison United Methodist Church in Leesburg in 1924, his parents had already been members a number of years. Ninety-two years later, Gregg and his late wife, Carroll Zeigler Gregg, left a gift designed to help the congregation continue its positive witness for years to come.

Established in 1857, when pioneer settlers met under a palmetto thatch on Lake Griffin, Morrison is Leesburg’s oldest church. Today, with 500 in weekly attendance, the church is poised to begin the next 150 years buoyed by the visionary giving of members committed to a foundational tenet of Methodism: “Having, first, gained all you can and, secondly, saved all you can, then ‘give all you can.’ ” John Wesley, the denomination’s founder, advised that rule of living in his sermon on the use of money.

“Giving all you can” to further God’s work is also a guiding principle of the Florida United Methodist Foundation’s ministry. The foundation offers people the ability to put their money where they think it can do the most good — now and in the future.

That’s one reason the Greggs bequeathed 530 shares of stock to be sold by the foundation on behalf of the church. Proceeds from the sale totaled nearly $100,000, and the entire amount went to Morrison.

Giving trend

The Gregg’s bequest, beyond being generous in its own right, illustrates a significant giving trend over the past few years, according to Margaret Cox, the foundation’s treasurer.

“In 2014 stock gifts totaled $125,000,” she said. “In 2015 that number increased to $875,000. In 2016 the foundation helped process stock gifts in excess of $1.2 million.”

The late James and Carroll Gregg’s 2016 gifts of stock provided nearly $100,000 for Morrison United Methodist Church in Leesburg. (Morrison United Methodist Church photo)

The late James and Carroll Gregg’s 2016 gifts of stock provided nearly $100,000 for Morrison United Methodist Church in Leesburg. (Morrison United Methodist Church photo)

Cox couldn’t cite a specific reason for the uptick, but suggested possibilities: increased awareness of the foundation’s services, favorable tax laws, the fact the foundation’s brokerage service facilitates the transactions without charging a commission and, of course, simple generosity. Donors also benefit from the gift — they receive tax deductions, while avoiding capital gains taxes.

Christie Morrison, the foundation’s accounting manager, said church professionals are often surprised to learn how seamless the process is.

“For some donors a gift of stock is a way to support their church without affecting their monthly budget,” she said. “They’ll still get a tax deduction, the church receives the funds, and the foundation will do it without charging them a fee. It’s a win-win situation.”

It was a win-win for the Gregg family. “The trust was set up specifically for Morrison, but the foundation facilitated the stock sale,” said the couple’s daughter, Carol Gregg Hart. “They could not have been any more helpful.”

The Gregg gift: more than money

World War Two bomber pilot James Gregg returned to Leesburg with his bride in the mid 1950s, after a stint with Eastern Airlines. He applied his energy and work ethic to a development company, creating a comfortable living for his family while continually serving Morrison and the greater Methodist church.

Both Greggs “truly believed in the Methodist way,” Hart said. “They didn’t spend time finding fault with others, but were committed to building people up. The Methodist church is very open and inviting, and we grew up with this sense of being loved and cared for and accepted.”

Hart was able to see the impact of her parents’ witness firsthand: “Later, I watched as my father’s health deteriorated; people gravitated to him, telling stories about his goodness.”

Investing in the future

Emerging from a decade-long decline in attendance, the Morrison church stands on solid ground, but faces the challenge of remaining relevant in a fast-changing culture.

Members and guests attend a choral festival held at Morrison United Methodist Church. (Morrison United Methodist Church photo/Terri Hester)

Members and guests attend a choral festival held at Morrison United Methodist Church. (Morrison United Methodist Church photo/Terri Hester)

Like the Greggs, the church’s lead pastor also grew up in Leesburg. The Rev. David Stauffer returned in 2016 to serve at Morrison, brimming with enthusiasm about the possibilities.

“I’m passionate about watching people grow as disciples of Jesus, seeing them discover the great depths of God’s love and grace,” Stauffer said. “God sees us at our full potential. When people overcome what holds them back and become full and authentic disciples, that’s what brings joy and hope into their lives.”

The timing of the Gregg’s gift fit perfectly with Morrison’s vision.

“Our staff has a tremendous passion for reaching people,” Stauffer said. “The Greggs had a history of faithful leadership in this church. So the first thing we’re doing is investing in leadership training — specifically best practices in a turnaround situation.

The funds will also help the church improve its technology. “We’re hiring someone to run that ministry who will properly train volunteers and position us to be better stewards of our resources,” Stauffer said.

The unrestricted nature of the Gregg’s gift freed Morrison’s leadership team to be imaginative, without having to use visionary funding to plug a hole in the budget.

That’s just fine with Hart. “My parents were too involved in leadership to earmark the money,” she said. “They were humble, understated people who trusted the church to use the money wisely.”

Church leaders appreciate the flexibility. “We need to invest in ministry,” Stauffer said. “Gifts like this make it possible.”

* Maul is freelance writer based in Wake Forest, North Carolina.

Loan helps merged church reach out

The young boy walked slowly down the road, all alone, a basketball in his arms. New Horizon Church member JoAnn Parrish remembers being struck by the lonely image, hoping his life would be so much more.

She envisioned him in a different future — doing homework after school with friends, having a safe place to go, belonging to a community of faith that would support him.

Standing at the new site of New Horizon Church, Parrish realized he didn’t have to be alone. The church could fulfill that vision for him and many others like him

New Horizon is planting roots off Highway 27 in northeast Polk County, which will mean new outreach to youth and families in the growing area. It will also be a new beginning for a congregation formed by the merger of two smaller churches.

Stronger together

First United Methodist Church of Haines City and Davenport United Methodist Church were small, aging congregations with uncertain futures seven years ago. With the encouragement and support of the Florida Conference and the South Central District, they voted in 2010 to merge. The new congregation became New Horizon Church.

“By coming together they had an opportunity to become a stronger and more vibrant church,” said Dan Jackson, who consulted with New Horizon as director of the Florida Conference’s New Church Development office.

After the merger, the 250-member congregation sought a new location to support outreach to families moving into the county. They found it in a 20-acre site adjacent to the new Ridge Community High School in a fast-growing residential area. Between 2000 and 2013, the population within a five-mile radius of the church site grew 39 percent. It’s projected to grow another 16 percent by 2023.

New Horizon will consecrate the new worship space June 4. Photo courtesy of New Horizon Church.

The congregation sold the Davenport church property and used some of the proceeds to purchase the new land. It began worship at the downtown Haines City property and launched a capital campaign to build a new church.

In July 2015, the Rev. Frank Adams was appointed to the congregation. In addition to fresh energy and passion for the work ahead, Adams brought operations management skills from a 27-year career at Disney World. The congregation moved forward with him in faith.

Building momentum for new ministry

Architectural plans for the new building were drawn, but financing was a question. The Florida United Methodist Foundation and its Development Fund provided part of the answer.

The fund offers low-interest construction and renovation loans to Florida Conference churches, agencies and missions through deposits from investors. Any Florida resident, business or church may invest in the fund with a minimum deposit of $100, earning an interest rate that is often higher than what certificates of deposit and savings accounts offer. And investors can withdraw their funds at any time, much like a savings account.

The church submitted a loan application in 2015 and was approved for a $3 million construction loan that will be offset by $700,000 or more through the sale of the Haines City property after the move. In October 2015, the congregation broke ground on a 450-seat sanctuary and five multi-purpose classrooms.

Ministry has already been well underway, however. On regular “Muffin Mondays,” members deliver 15 dozen muffins to the high school. They also volunteer weekly with the high school’s Fellowship of Christian Athletes and in community special events.

Trish Aimes, New Horizon’s nurture director, and the Rev. Frank Adams give last-minute instructions to children and volunteers before the church’s first-ever Easter egg hunt. A total of 85 children participated. Photo courtesy of New Horizon Church.

“It’s kind of funny when you’re building a new church for the pastor to say, ‘We need to go out into the world where they are,’ but that is the focus,” Adams said. “It’s all about relationship-building.”

“It’s been exciting to see God leading this group of people,” said William Huff, a church member who helped lead the congregation through the merger and construction. With an average age of 78, the congregation knew it needed to attract and serve a new demographic. Huff helped launch a worship service geared toward younger worshipers called Awakening. He envisions student musicians playing in the praise band and more.

“What I see down the road are families coming and searching,” he said. “I’m hoping we can bring people in to be part of a Christian church family, which some of them have never experienced before. If we are successful in getting into this community, understanding their needs and providing for their needs through our ministry, I see more and more coming — a whole new energy.”

Parrish agrees. “We’re going to go in there as a senior community, but my hope is that in a year or two, you will see a lot of youth there,” she said. “I am praying that what it’s going to be is not just a safe haven for teens, but a place to find Christ in the welcome and the love they receive.”

The consecration service for the new space is June 4. Leading up to that will be a health fair with free health screenings May 20 and a spring party for the community with music, food, family activities and games June 3.

“God is really blessing us,” Adams said.

Demand is high: investors can help

The New Horizon loan is one of 174 active loans, valued at nearly $125 million, and the demand is increasing, says Andy Craske, the foundation’s vice president of loans and investments.

“The foundation has been highly successful in expanding relationships with a larger number of Florida Conference churches and agencies over the last several years, which has resulted in solid loan growth from refinancing, renovations and new construction,” he said.

At the same time, the deposit base has been nearly flat, reducing available funds.

Director of Ministries Stephen Petrocelli and other members write their favorite Scripture verse on the floor of the new sanctuary as inspiration for generations to come. More than 45 people attended ta service to bless the foundation. Photo courtesy of New Horizon Church.

“We’re approaching a point where churches may have to wait for money to become available, even after a loan request is approved,” he said. “This is not something we want to burden our churches with, so we are looking to add to our deposit base.”

That’s important, Craske says, because the fund allows churches to access financing at the low end of market interest rates, saving them money. The current rate is 3.5 percent. And churches have the opportunity to work with a lender that has the same mission and core beliefs.

It’s also a good investment, with a competitive 1.5 percent rate of return. “The interest rate we pay on deposits is currently about 10 times higher than the market rates, so investors are earning much more interest income on their deposits than anywhere else in the market,” Craske says. “It’s a win-win situation — churches earn more than the market on deposits and pay less than the market on loans.”

Individuals get that same interest rate, Craske says, but also something more.

“They benefit by knowing their deposits are being used to provide for their church to grow, be fiscally responsible, and achieve its mission of transforming disciples of Jesus Christ and making a change in the world,” he said. “In this scenario, it becomes a win-win-win situation.”

Individuals, churches or businesses interested in opening an account may request an offering circular at www.fumf.org/about-us/contact-us or contact the foundation at 866-363-9673 or foundation@fumf.org. Current depositors can increase their investment at any time.

* Chamberlain is freelance writer based in Tampa, Florida.