Stewardship and the Small Church
by Michael Allen, Small Church Steering Committee and parishioner of St. Alban's Harlingen
Does your church struggle every month to fund basic needs? Do you open your electric/utility bill with trepidation? Has the COVID-19 pandemic and changes in your local demographics dramatically altered the size and make-up of your church? Are you surviving because you have a surplus of funds from earlier, more substantial times, but would have difficulty keeping your doors open based on your current tithing?
If you are dealing with these issues you are undoubtedly a small church. As a small church, Stewardship or more bluntly, the need for funding is not only daunting but essential to survival and growth. Whenever the topic of stewardship arises in a small church, it tends to make everyone uncomfortable. Everyone thinks of stewardship in terms of tithing and is uncomfortable asking for money, particularly in the current economic times. Although tithing is the financial backbone of most churches, the reality is that stewardship comes in many forms.
Members of small congregations, for the most part, have been giving all they can monetarily so pushing the congregation to give more is usually fruitless and can be destructive. When addressing stewardship, think about the fact that many of your parishioners give an inordinate amount of time and effort to improve and grow your church. In reality, a person’s time dedication to the church is as important as their monetary contribution.
You cannot separate stewardship from community outreach. They go hand-in-hand and are the pathway to growth and success. Every pancake breakfast, bake sale, yard sale, fish dinner, or Mexican fiesta night brings revenue to your church and exposes your parish home to new, potential members. Every church should focus on its community demographics when planning its activities for the year. Think about who you are trying to reach, your message, how to leave a lasting impact, and whether you are fulfilling a community need. Obviously, creating additional funds for the church is important, but it should not be your primary motivating factor. Funding will materialize as new members appear through your outreach efforts.
Rebuilding a church is a slow and tedious task. My professional background included saving businesses undergoing difficult times, so when I was called to help All Saints in San Benito my ego thought I could just make things happen overnight. It has been a humbling experience and makes every small step forward seem immensely gratifying. A wise priest told me during my early attempts, “Don’t ever overestimate what you can do in a year, nor underestimate what you can do in five years!” It was a very wise observation and has held me in good stead. All Saints is beginning to flourish and the overwhelming sense in the congregation is excitement and high anticipation. Enough cannot be said for the health of the congregation. You should continually focus on the accomplishments of your church as well as new beginnings of hope, love, and growth. Celebrate everything good that happens in your church family. Thank every member for their efforts and assistance. As the attitude in your congregation moves from fear and despair to hope and excitement new meaning and focus will take care of your “stewardship” issues.
A happy, energetic, and hopeful congregation is contagious in a community. As you expose the love and joy experienced at your church during your community outreach events new members will seek you out. We have tried the traditional advertising route with postcards, newspaper ads, etc only to discover community outreach is still the most effective recruitment tool.
Following are a few things to keep in mind in your journey:
- BE ENTHUSIASTIC! Instill a sense of accomplishment and enthusiasm in your congregation by emphasizing the good things that are happening. Progress will be slow at first but will grow as your congregation responds to the new sense of hope instilled in the church.
- KNOW YOUR COMMUNITY! If your community is primarily made up of older adults, then focus on those events and services that fit that demographic. Focusing on young families is counterproductive in that scenario. Young families are always the ultimate goal for every church but generally speaking, older adults without children or whose children are grown, are much more likely to join your congregation. Simply put, young adults with children lead busy, hectic lives and are less likely to commit to a new church. As your church grows, young families will naturally gravitate to the church. The tendency to focus on attracting young families is sometimes misguided depending on the community demographic.
- BE SOCIAL AND INCLUSIVE! Always include a pre-or-post social aspect to your Sunday services. Once a month conduct an all hands meeting where anything and everything is on the table for discussion. This includes finances, outreach, events, complaints, things to celebrate, etc. An informed congregation is a strong, viable congregation.
- PLAN! Make a calendar of events for the year and try to do at least one outreach event per month. It is easier to get the word out and plan for upcoming events when you have an annual calendar. Every event has merit and should be treated accordingly. If your community is hosting events such as a marathon, football game, or Boy Scout Jamboree show up and give out complimentary bottles of water from your church. More bluntly stated - BECOME VISIBLE AND RELEVANT IN YOUR COMMUNITY!
- BE HUMBLE! Make sure you greet every new visitor with enthusiasm and respect. First impressions are meaningful.
- BE PATIENT! When one door closes GOD will open another door! If you fail at something, mark it down as a learning experience. Trying and failing is preferred to doing nothing. Also, don’t fall into the rut of doing the same thing over and over. We, at All Saints, have found that some of the ideas broached by members that seemed off-the-wall initially turned out to be huge successes.
- BE CONSISTENT AND HAVE A PLAN! At All Saints, every letterhead, hat, t-shirt, tote bag, notepad, cup, pen, and electronic sign has the same message, “FIND A PLACE TO BELONG.”
- CELEBRATE! Healing your congregation must be the highest priority. Without an energized and engaged congregation, you have no chance of growing. Make a point of celebrating any congregational and church accomplishments. If a parishioner's child or grandchild is graduating from high school or college, announce it at church. Celebrate birthdays and anniversaries. Share good news within the congregation. All of this and any other ways you can think of to celebrate your church and its members will re-energize and bind your congregation together in the common goal of building your church.
- DO NOT DESPAIR! With a positive attitude and the help of God, one can overcome life's problems. Never make a problem into a disaster. There is no such thing as disasters, just obstacles. You can go around, under, over, or through an obstacle. You can accomplish great things together as a congregation by turning what you view as a disaster into merely an obstacle.
- INCLUDE GOD IN EVERYTHING! It is by HIS auspices we are privileged to be guardians of His home, our church. Include His message of hope, love, and redemption in all your efforts.
Stewardship is both terrifying and a blessing. As small churches, money is a crucial element to our success. Do not be afraid to ask those with the means to help you grow God’s home in your community. Sometimes you will find support in unexpected places. Asking for assistance is difficult and you will be rejected on occasion, but not asking means you will always be rejected. Hopefully, the message you get from this article is to believe in God and believe in your congregation. It is amazing what is possible with faith and hard work.
As small churches, we believe we are alone in our battle to survive and grow. In fact, all of us are one of many in our diocese experiencing the same issues to some degree or another. The Small Church Steering Committee was formed to bring the small churches together to share their stories and provide valuable information and tools to assist them on their path to success. Contact us or the diocese directly; you will be pleasantly surprised by how much your diocese has to offer your church.