Talkin’ bout Your Generation: Getting Them to Give

One of the areas congregations struggle with most is stewardship. If your church is anything like mine, it’s like pulling teeth to even find people to head the stewardship campaign, no less getting people to give in a way that’s meaningful. I can’t deny sometimes wishing that in our UU congregations, we had a culture of tithing – the magic 10% that seems to flow freely from the pockets of many evangelical Christians. But we don’t, and we struggle to get people to see the value of our congregations and put a dollar figure to it. Many will donate countless hours to committees, justice projects, and doing the physical work of the congregation, but that only goes so far when there are mortgages and light bills and salaries to pay.

Not surprisingly, generational theory can play a role in stewardship. I actually have some first-hand knowledge of this, having been in charge of my congregation’s stewardship campaign in 2010. Here’s what we did:

 One Pitch Does Not Fit All

Instead of one pitch about supporting our congregation for everyone to hear, we created four different pitches, each with their own flavor. Now we did have some common themes – namely, that true stewardship is a commitment of not just money, but also of our time and talents. We’re using the Time, Talent, and Treasure theme a lot when we talk to both potential members and current ones, asking for a yearly commitment to give of all three in some measure, knowing people have varying levels of each at different times.

But then, instead of one big stewardship event, we had a series of Generational Parties. We asked members of each generation to create an event that would (a) be something they’d like and (b) address the pitch with certain generational emphases. The general pitch is the same – here’s our budget, here’s what we’re looking for from you, here’s what “fair share” means – but the place, the style, and the emphasis were all different.

 The Silent Party

At first, the Silent on our stewardship committee didn’t much care for this idea. In true Adaptive form, he said, “but we should all be together – why are you separating us?” But we assured him it would work, so he and his wife hosted a dessert party, and they gave an effective pitch.

 Pitching to the Adaptives requires an emphasis on

  •  relationships and building new relationships throughout the year
  •  pastoral care, especially as they are the generation now most likely to need home visits, hospital care, rides to doctors, etc.
  •  care for the earth – carrying on the causes of compassion, freedom and equality
  •  leaving a legacy – making sure there’s a place with a strong tradition to continue this work
  • outlining budget goals and providing detailed rationale – not just “we want to grow” but “we need more RE classrooms”
  •  a stress on fair share and proportionate giving
  • a bold “ask” – asking for real and exact numbers

The Silents party was a success – new friendships were formed, and when it came to the post-event canvass (followup calls), our Adaptive committee member, who previously thought this was crazy, said, “my wife and I will call all the Silents.” His conversion rate was great – despite having more fixed incomes and more snowbirds, he was able to get in several cases an increase in pledges.

The Boomer Party

This was an all out shindig – great wines and local beers, great appetizers from a local gourmet foods market, and quite the crowd at the home of one of our more generous Boomer couples (they have served in leadership since their arrival 5 years ago).

 Pitching to the Boomers requires an emphasis on

  •  vision – going beyond the hard numbers to who we are and what we see ourselves as
  • enhancing the quality of programs, with a view toward making us “the best”
  • highlighting the spiritual benefits of a faith community – how having a strong congregation helps them become stronger and more effective
  • addressing concerns over retirement and the benefits of continuing to give
  • asking for opinions – what will best serve us as we head into retirement, take on different leadership roles, consider life in the empty nest (often you’ll get a whole new set of classes, programs, and small group ministries)

Now some of this did happen at our Boomer party, but interesting, our host had just lost his father and was himself dealing with learning he has a serious illness. The host spoke at length about all that our congregation – and indeed, our denomination – had done for him, and he spoke of his hope that we would continue to be that kind of place for others. Talk about vision! It worked beautifully, and again, we saw increases in pledges.

The GenX Party

We held a pot luck after church one Sunday, with a couple of parents downstairs with the kids so that the adults could talk. It was wonderful – one of our newer families is Indian, and the food they brought was an amazing addition to the rather basic American pot luck fare we are used to. I hosted this party, along with another member of our stewardship team – we settled on a Sunday potluck, knowing that most GenX families could stick around for an hour but probably couldn’t make time during the week due to the endless music lessons and scout meetings and soccer games.

Pitching to GenX requires an emphasis on

  • the practical side of the budget – how much it costs to send a child through RE, how much one month’s utility bills are, what we spend on supplies
  • focus on youth programs – what we have and what we want in the most encouraging and safest way possible
  • emphasis on fair share, knowing that this is the generation currently carrying the largest debt load; GenX doesn’t want to be seen as slackers or shirking their responsiblities
  • rising leadership – that this is the generation stepping into leadership roles, and part of leadership is a responsibility to give time, talent, and treasure
  • short-term projects rather than long-term commitments; we can’t fund the next ten years of RE, but we can build a playground

This party was a huge success – for several, it was the first time they’d been seen as leaders, and in fact one woman in her early 30s said “yes” to a leadership role, which she admitted she’d have shied away from, thinking she was too young. For others, they finally understood the pragmatic side of fair share and stewardship – could see it in real terms, and could see how they could help shape the here and now… several sheepishly raised their pledges by significant amounts, having finally learned what was expected of them. Interestingly, we also built an ad-hoc committee on digital media, and are in the process of not only updating the website but also getting more active in Facebook and Twitter.

The Millennial Party

This was a casual gathering at a local coffee shop. There weren’t too many people in attendance – we are, admittedly, not doing a great job attracting and keeping young adults – but those who are with us are very committed, and were happy to sit together for a little bit in a bustling hangout.

Pitching to the Millennials requires an emphasis on

  • community – doing things together
  • improving the world we live in; big projects we can do together
  • the many ways to interact – Sunday services, small groups, special interest groups, group discussions
  • adult RE – many of this generation are unchurched and can use some of the same kinds of lessons we give our kids, about world religions, our principles, etc.
  • like GenX, the practical side of the budget – how much it costs to send a child through RE, how much one month’s utility bills are, what we spend on supplies
  • space to be heard – this generation knows they are small in number in our congregations, despite being large in number in the world

These gatherings were great for the adult Millennials who are just now finding their place in the world. They saw that their investment is a way to build community to do big things, not just a nice place to get personally fed. While many of our Millennials are naval families on limited budgets, they still saw ways to give a fair share, and understood the time and talent portion of stewardship.

So what did we learn?

We learned that by addressing the unique perspectives of these generations, not only how they see the church but also where they are in their lives, we could help them best give and feel a sense of ownership. They seemed to better understand their fare share and the benefits of giving. In real terms, we saw an increase not only in the number of pledge units, but also an increase in the pledge amount (a solid 10% increase!) for 2011.

Further, we got more time and talent commitments from the Xers and the Millennials – rather than feeling overshadowed by the Boomers who are in leadership now, they saw that it’s time to step up and take the congregation to its next stage.
And finally, we saw relationships being forged – many of those who gathered in these generational parties got to know their peers a little better, and for our newer GenX and Millennial families, they got to make some new friends.

Again, generational theory isn’t the be-all, end-all of anything… but it is a good tool for the toolbox.

Next time: Generations in the Board Room, or “oh, so that’s why we had that fight over the bylaw changes.”

PS: here’s a link to the stewardship brochure we use – Time, Talent, and Treasure

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