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Opportunities for Leadership in Challenging Economic Times

The following is an archive of an online discussion that took place on April 30, 2009, the first in a series of Q&A events. This discussion was moderated by Laurel Amabile, Director of the Unitarian Universalist Association's (UUA's) Annual Program Fund, and features commentary by Terry Sweetser, Vice President of Stewardship and Development, Wayne Clark, Director of Congregational Giving, and other panelists with experience in congregational stewardship and finance.

Introducing the Panel

Laurel Amabile (Moderator) is the Director of the UUA's Annual Program Fund.

Wayne Clark is the UUA Director of Congregational Stewardship Services. In that role, Wayne directs a group of nine consultants who use a guiding and coaching model to help congregations with annual budget drives, strategic planning, capital campaigns, and endowment fund development. He also recommends (to the UUA treasurer) building loans, loan guarantees, grants, and awards to qualifying congregations.

Rev. Ian Evison is the Congregational Services Director of the Central Midwest District of the UUA. Prior to this he has served in a variety of roles including Director of Research at the Alban Institute in Herndon, VA, Academic Dean at Meadville/Lombard Theological School, and parish minister in Niagara Falls, NY. He has a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago Divinity School and a D.Min. from Meadville/Lombard.

Rev. Patricia Newport Hart is the co-minister of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Lancaster, PA, and a Stewardship Consultant for the UUA Congregational Stewardship Services program (9 years) focusing on capital fundraising and annual stewardship, as well as strategic planning which supports and is essential to stewardship whether it is long-term or short-term. I am also the Annual Program Fund (APF) representative from the Joseph Priestley District. Much of my interest and experience in congregational stewardship began when I was a lay volunteer and Board member in my home congregation, when we learned what can happen when you don’t fix the roof.

Rev. Terry Sweetser is the UUA’s Vice President for Stewardship and Development. His staff group is responsible for much of the UUA’s income: The Annual Program Fund, Friends of the UUA, Legacy Giving, and comprehensive campaigns (NOW, CFUU, HOTF). In the last five years the Stewardship and Development staff has raised $91,000,000.


What are the greatest challenges Unitarian Universalist (UU) leaders are facing with regard to stewardship and finance?

Rev. Terry Sweetser: During the economic down turn, UU leaders have to remember and practice the basics of fund raising: vision and relationship. People give to vision, not need. So it’s important to make sure the congregation has a clear view of how it makes a difference in the world and in people’s lives. The urgency of the vision trumps petty concerns about needs in specific budget line items. If people believe in the vision they will be willing to pay for the infrastructure. If folks are instead, buried in the detailed needs of the congregation, they will be less inspired to give.

Relationships are the another part of the equation. Fund raising is personal. Person to person we need to tell each other how the vision inspires us and makes us want to be generous. Any thing we do to reduce to personal touch will reduce generosity.

And finally, even in hard times we have to ask for the money. Don’t be distracted by asking people to events, potlucks and parties. Ask for the money.

Wayne Clark: During this economic recession, the challenge is to find the opportunities for growth (in the largest sense of the term) while minimizing the focus on the economic threats.

Patricia Newport Hart: Being able to draw on a clear vision for their congregations and our association, and the confidence that a bright, vital, growing future is possible. The challenge is not to panic, or to get so focused into the details of managing the budget that clear, enthusiastic messages about the church’s vision get lost.

Ian Evison: The challenges are not entirely what we might expect. On the whole, in the survey we have seen doing, 80% of congregations report equal to or even a little ahead of last year. This means that most congregations have not had to cut back in major ways though it must be remembered that even a flat budget means that people go without raises. And, if non-personnel costs must increase, it can mean pay cuts, lay-offs or furloughs. The worst direct effect is doubtless on those congregations who are most dependent on endowment income or those who were already in financial distress.

For many congregations uncertainty over future income is as much of a problem as drop off in income now. While two or three congregations have done well with capital fund drives in the past six months, it takes very steady nerves to lead such an effort now. In the background we are also conscious that the kind of congregations we want and need as we come out of this recession may well look quite different from what we thought we wanted as we came into it. While I don’t presume to know in any detail what the difference might be, I do suspect we are headed for something more grounded, focused, and sustainable.


What are the opportunities for leadership inherent in these challenges?

Wayne Clark: Lay leaders have an opportunity to build a compelling case for financial support of the congregation. They have an opportunity to build on what’s already going well in their congregation while specifically not feeding congregants’ anxiety about the recession.

Patricia Newport Hart: To lead, rather than just manage. Boards, other lay leaders, ministers and professional staff are needed to be strong, collaborative leaders more than ever by their congregations – this may be just the time to refocus on the work of leadership as it is needed, in different roles.

Rev. Terry Sweetser: It’s the best possible time to talk about money, what things cost, and how to get the best value. It’s a good time to set priorities so that you know the most important things to do and fund. Cutting budgets across the board always leads to discouragement and loss of vision. Now’s the time for leaders to really start measuring things to find out what works and what it costs. This a time when healthy change can begin.

Ian Evison: The opportunity is to use well the angst people are feeling and to do so in line with the mission of the congregation and capacities of the congregation. Ask people: “what does it mean to our congregation to fulfill its mission right now, right here?” For many congregations I have seen three things.

First, for a congregation the biggest opportunity is always—should always be—the opportunity to serve. I have seen more openness to becoming involved as a whole congregation in addressing the distress being felt in the community around the congregation. By stroke of good fortune we in this district had been developing a focus on homelessness just as the crisis hit. Our congregations have taken this up as a way for them to respond at the level of ministry. This has in turn provided us with wonderful publicity because newspapers have been very interested in writing about anything that seemed like a positive response. And note: in a climate like this organizations do better at fund-raising when they keep focused on service.

Second, I have seen smart congregations take this recession as a dose of courage to do hard things that probably have needed to be tackled for a long time. We are hearing, for example, that many congregations are taking this as the occasion to switch from paper to electronic means of communication. At a tougher and deeper level, we have congregations who have taken this crisis as an occasion to finally make the tough decision about moving out of a building that is too big or not suited to their mission. And, for those who can raise the money to build or buy land there are great bargains. Indeed, concerning new buildings, I am rather optimistic at the moment. I thought that we might have a lull in building for a while. Now it seems to me that those projects postponed for lack of money might just be balanced out by those made possible by the lower costs of building and of land.

And third, this is the time to get it right in congregational stewardship. In this environment congregations simply cannot afford to be lazy about congregational stewardship or to avoid the subject. Direct face-to-face methods work best. We know this. If you do not do this, think about it. Wayne Clark’s book Beyond Fundraising is the most current congregational stewardship resource available from the UUA Bookstore.


What potential benefits may be present for congregations and districts as a result of the current economic situation?

Ian Evison: I think I answered this in responding to the previous question, though I did not mention anything there about the district. Dori Thexton and I have noticed a new interest in making local connections and in congregations being resources to each other. We also have seen great willingness to try doing things in new ways, especially doing things electronically. It is clear that this crisis is going to leave the district with two very important capacities that it did not have previously. The first is that online education events are, or soon will become, as important as face-to-face education events. We did an experiment with this last year and next year we will offer a regular monthly online education event with our partner districts in the Midwest, Prairie Star and Heartland.

The second new capacity is the ability to make our face-to-face events virtually accessible. Distance and money now don’t need to be a barrier to our congregations benefiting from the content of our face-to-face events. The keynote lecture of our district assembly was available on the internet within hours. Virtual accessibility of events is quickly becoming the norm here just as handicapped accessibility became the norm fifteen years ago. The dual economic and ecological crises have opened people to these changes and have generated great interest from our congregations and from other districts concerning how others might reinvent themselves in similar ways.

Rev. Terry Sweetser: The opportunity for clarity in vision, strategy and tactics has never been greater. We can’t be all things to all people and now is the right time to decide as congregations and districts who we really are and whom we can really serve.

Patricia Newport Hart: The current situation has made all of us get clearer about our priorities, which is always a good thing. That opportunity also exists for churches, and districts—some cuts can and will be made that can be helpful in the long run; but even more, a congregation that meets this challenge with focus and hope will be able to celebrate that as a success they’ve accomplished together.

Wayne Clark: The economic recession provides a great opportunity for congregations to revisit their mission and focus beyond the navel gazing that often occurs in our congregations.


What resources and supports are available to UU leaders to help them deal with the effectively challenges?

Wayne Clark: District Services, Congregational Stewardship Services, UU Leader and UU-Money email lists, the compilation of articles entitled “Giving During Tough Economic Times,” online discussions, webinars.

Rev. Terry Sweetser: As Wayne points out the Districts and the UUA have a lot of services and discussions available. I think the most important help we can provide is a forum for discussion and asking questions. Hope as this online resource develops there will be more questions from you which we all can struggle with.

Patricia Newport Hart: In addition to the extensive resources that already exist through the UUA staff, I would encourage congregational leaders to reach out—share ideas, support, encouragement—with other Unitarian Universalist congregations nearby. This could provide a chance for new partnerships to form.

Ian Evison: There are many layers of resource and great depth available to UU leaders. First, resources for congregational leaders should always be other congregational leaders, starting with other leaders within their own congregation. Leaders should not be afraid to ask for help and say they don’t know. Beyond the local congregation, many of our UUA leader lists are great sources of wisdom and advice. District staff also are always available to talk matters through and help make connection with more specialized assistance.

I have personally been helped greatly by the resources that Wayne Clark, UUA Director of Congregational Stewardship Services, has distributed and updated a number of times focusing on stewardship in tough economic times (which Wayne referenced above), and the Ohio Meadville District's resources, which focus on similar content. Another great collection was assembled by Joan Van Beccalare. Finally Wayne Clark’s office is a great resource and those who have not read his book should: Beyond Fundraising: Complete Guide to Congregational Fundraising. If you have not seen it already you can browse it free online through Google Books.

As a religious organization I am ashamed to say that, so far, our theological resources on this remain thin. My favorite collection so far is the group of materials assembled by Krista Tibbett of National Public Radio, in her Repossessing Virtue series. I end with this because our basic response needs to be a faith response oriented towards ministry and mission.


How can we best connect leaders to these resources and supports?

Patricia Newport Hart: Always a good question. Other than the communication methods that currently exist, what good ideas do any of this discussion’s participants have?

Terry Sweetser: We must use the Web, Facebook, Twitter, and all the conventional means. This is the right time to try new things. Some won’t work, but we will learn from them and do better.

Wayne Clark: UUA website, monthly congregational packet, General Assembly, conference calls.

Ian Evison: Next to talking to people directly, resources such as I have mentioned on the internet are the best thing going. In future I would like a central place for this stuff on I find I spend a good deal of time hunting up links for people who cannot find things there. We need something of the order of a Wiki for UU leaders on this, something that can grow and evolve in response to what we are learning and that is open as broadly as possible to the contributions of many different people who are working on this.

Rises and Falls in Congregational Giving

We have another question. This comes from Larry Wheeler, one of our UUA Congregational Stewardship Consultants, based in Asheville, NC.

I’m interested in the panel commenting on the discussion going on currently in the UU-Money email list, which is clearly showing more than a handful of congregations that appear on track to increase their giving in spring (2009) annual stewardship campaigns, while others talk about major drops. Any thoughts as to why the difference?

Patricia Newport Hart: In response to Larry Wheeler’s question: I would love to know the answer also, because I have seen the same thing in our district. My guess is that there are some significant regional differences, making even holding the line lots harder in some places than in others; but I also think that the increased focus on annual stewardship this year has actually helped. It feels like a real success to achieve an increase of five percent or more this year, and more people are talking about it when it happens…which is encouraging for all of us.

Wayne Clark: In response to Larry’s question: I am finding some clear trends this spring. Successful congregations are those that are comfortable talking about money….as a means to an end only. Successful congregations seem to be making a connection between making a compelling case and implementing their vision and mission. Probably the most important factor, however, is a stewardship committee that sees this economy as an opportunity, rather than a threat; a team that approaches money positively and avoids feeding the anxiety.

Angela Matthews (Development Director, Star Island Corporation, and member of the APF Committee for the Northern New England District): When I think about healthy organizations, there are two essential elements of stewardship that come to mind:

  1. Ownership. Stewardship of a congregation or organization means that responsibilities are spread broadly across all members, that they are highly engaged in the work of taking care of business, that many serve on committees rather than a small group carrying all the burdens.
  2. Engagement. Members are engaged with one another as well as with the work of the business of running a congregation. They care about each other. So that in times of economic upheaval, not all are impacted equally and because of that, some can do more than others.

Unencumbered Operating Reserves

Here is a question from Dave Rickard, one of our UUA Congregational Stewardship Consultants. In addition, Dave currently chairs of the Stewardship Committee at his home church, the UU Church of Little Rock.

What kind of unencumbered operating reserves should a congregation establish?

In these difficult financial times, I have heard several suggestions to use operating reserves to balance budgets but not much concern about what might happen if reserves are exhausted.

Wayne Clark: With regard to Dave Rickard's question: One approach might be to establish an operating reserve fund with six months' worth of money set aside. Then, when needed, the congregation could decide to borrow the money with interest, and with a specific plan to replace the money.

For more information contact web @

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Last updated on Thursday, July 14, 2011.

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