The current health and economic crisis we all find ourselves in comes at a time when we are enveloped by another, different sort of crisis: a crisis of relevance faced by religious leaders, the faithful, and those increasingly on the margins of the church.
Does the Church matter anymore?
The answer for a growing number of people is that it does not, or not in any meaningful sense that would require adherence to the teachings and norms of a religion. For those formed by the truth claims of Christianity, this is indeed a crisis. And it is a crisis far more spiritual and existential—and significant—than the coronavirus.
As I reflect on our current circumstances, I think we have a unique opportunity to consider how we live out our mission. The shutdown forced by COVID-19 gives churches an opportunity to face this existential crisis with fresh thinking and creativity. Forced to step away from our routines, we are able to see—for those with eyes to see—other ways of ‘being’ and ‘doing’ church, new ways, means, and channels of being on mission.
But here is the question: will church leaders seize this moment and choose to come out of this crisis stronger and better than when we first entered it—stronger relationally, missionally, and financially?
Or will we let COVID-19 and the ensuing quarantine sink us deeper into irrelevance?
Professionally, I think a lot about mission and money. Over the last decade or so, I have actually come to like thinking about it, and I would encourage clergy and pastoral staff to think about both more.
Believe me, the people in the pews (and those not in the pews) are thinking about the latter all the time—and they need wisdom in thinking about it. Imagine if churches spent more time helping their parishioners be good stewards of their personal finances and not only about how they could give more of their time, talent, and treasure to the church. Both the individual and the church might have more savings than they do now and be better off weathering these leaner times. I certainly believe there would be more money to fuel our mission, and probably more devoted parishioners, too.
By mission I mean a lot of things, but I will simply say that mission is your organization’s purpose. It is your why, your what, and your how. It is the reason you wake up in the morning. It is the reason others are drawn to you and why they engage with you. It is also why they give to you.
Money, like a magnet, is attracted to missions that are clear, compelling, bold, relational, and, ultimately, worthy of support.
Acknowledging that every church has its own set of circumstances and personality, and that those in the trenches will be the best generator of ideas, the following nuggets of advice may stimulate church leaders’ thinking about how we can think more about mission and money and be ready to emerge stronger from this moment in history.
Thoughts for “Our Moment”
- First of all, choose to come out stronger. While the core purpose of churches remains the same, the crisis has given us a unique opportunity to rethink, perhaps even reset, the way we do things and how priests and pastors minister. It has become acceptable, indeed essential, to do things differently. Let’s take advantage of this. It is a time for creativity, not for longing for the status quo – remember, the status quo was also that protracted “crisis of relevance” I mentioned earlier.
- Think about your people. Whether you have a skeleton crew or a sizeable staff of 20 (or more!), it is time to think about the team and to lead your church as a team, leveraging strengths, and making sure you have the people you need to pursue your mission and be worthy of support. Many churches may come to realize that they need less staff than they believed, or that they can reconfigure and delegate responsibilities in new ways.
- Communicate and overcommunicate. Practically speaking, three things are essential. (1) Mail a pastoral letter that both commiserates and encourages and invites those in need and those able to give and serve to come forth. Show that you are all in the same boat, that you are in this together. Remind your parishioners that you are there for them, praying for them, missing them—and that the church still needs their support. (2) Call as many parishioners as possible, or at the very least those top 20% that give 80% of your offertory. Recruit other staff to help with calls—deacons, parish and finance council members, DREs, and so on. Now is the time to dig deep with your personnel. Seek everyone’s help, give everyone on staff a chance to step up and reach out to parishioners. But the pastor should be reaching out to as many as possible. (3) Finally, put a video of the pastor speaking on the home page of your website and send an email or text linking people to it. You want to make yourself visible and accessible to parishioners. This will foster fundraising, yes, but it will also foster good pastoral practices, being available to your flock.
- Reevaluate your mission field. For Catholics, canonically this of course means the baptized Catholics within your parish’s geographical boundaries. But these days most of these people never show up in your pews. How can you serve them in new ways when we are on the other side of this pandemic? How can you be a light to those in need of Christ?
- Plan your work, and work your plan. If you don’t have a written plan for both pastoral care, operations, and revenue, now may be a good time to create one. If you have one, this is a good time to revisit it for adjustments. Not all of the principles will pertain to a church situation, but Doug Schneider has resources to help you think through a planning process.
- Leverage partnerships and friends. If there is a development office or foundation in your diocese, consider asking for their help. They may be willing to help you with crafting e-mails, connecting you with donors, or finding creative ways to raise funds. The Catholic Foundation of Greater Philadelphia, for instance, is offering resources to help pastors stay connected with their parishioners, promote electronic giving, and has even set up a special website enabling parishioners and other donors to support parishes if an online giving platform was not already present.
- Garbage in, garbage out. I am not sure where this phrase came from, but I always associate it with databases. Databases can be so frustrating, and even ineffectual, when you can’t rely on the information contained within. Now may be a perfect time to assign that staff member or volunteer who may have more time on their hands with cleaning it up—or at least beginning the process.
- The new front door of your church. Your website is the new front door of the church. Your website makes a first impression with new visitors and bespeaks your commitment to doing things with excellence … or not. Ask five 25 to 40 year-olds what they think of your church’s website. If they’re critical, take action to fix it. Beautiful, real front doors come with significant cost, and so do websites that make a statement. And make sure there is minimal friction for giving online. Yes the vendors, take a small percentage, but believe me, those churches with high levels of recurring online donations will weather this storm—and the next one.
- Keep asking. Do not hold back on asking your parishioners to continue giving to the church. The pastor or a finance council member should do it, and both would be even better. Acknowledge that you do not know everyone’s personal circumstances, but be matter of fact about the need for consistent giving. For those who are able, ask them to give even more to make up for those who are not able to continue giving at this time. Of course, while you do this, please steer clear of “if you don’t give more we will have to close” messaging.
- Offer ways for parishioners to help other parishioners. Once we get out of this crisis, there will be significant need—and new needs. Parishioners will be eager to get back to church and many, in fact, have long been eager for new ways to engage with their church but haven’t known how. See if you can find ways for parishioners to help other parishioners who need help. Here’s one idea: offer financial or career-placement education for those who need it. Lots of parishioners can provide this kind of advice and support, and more still will need that advice and support. This is a low-commitment, high-return way to engage many parishioners while also helping them. Maybe there’s a way you can pair financial education and Scripture studies (you know most people haven’t had either!). These will be great after pandemic, but some of these things you (or others in your church, at your recommendation) can start now, virtually. The trick is to be creative and pastoral.
None of these ideas is a silver bullet, but each of them can play a role in making your church, your mission, financially and spiritually stronger both in the near-term and the long-term. Your job is to bring Jesus to His people. If your church is organizationally and financially healthy, you are better able to fulfill that most important mission.
This Friday, May 1 at 2:00pm Eastern time, American Philanthropic is hosting a webinar on “Mission and Money: Catholic Parish Funding.” Join me and pastors and church fundraisers around the country to discuss these ideas and how to strengthen your parish and navigate these difficult times.
I would love to discuss with you directly how you can improve your organization’s fundraising and organizational health. Please feel free to send me an email if you would like to chat further: firstname.lastname@example.org.