Mark Lail: Russ, what does success look like in the church today?
Russ Long: We have certainly felt the effect of these difficult economic times, but in the midst of that we see some exciting personal transformations. That is how we view success and what effective ministry is. We believe God has given us an abundance, and provides everything that we need for the year. That's how we live.
Lail: God is always teaching us the difference between a need and a want. The church has to ask: what do we need in order to accomplish what God wants us to accomplish here? Then, we must trust that when God wants us to do something, God will provide the resources to make it happen.
Russ, I know that both you and Bud are committed to moving forward with missions despite financial setbacks; however, I would venture that even when missional churches like yours experience a tighter budget, there are some in leadership who say, “Well, perhaps we can’t do as many of the missional things we’ve been doing.” What do you say to a church leader who brings that message to you?
Long: I don’t get much resistance at the leadership level regarding our missional commitments. If anything, they pull me along. In the face of resistance, my response would be, “We are a missionary church. We serve a missionary God who’s been generous with us, and we will put others first.”
Lail: The economic crisis has changed our world, and many churches have encountered people in desperate need, perhaps because of foreclosure or job loss. Churches are accustomed to providing groceries and other financial help from time to time through compassionate ministries, but it seems like the current economic crisis has created a new type of poor: active community members, long-time homeowners, regular givers. How do you minister to these—hit by a combination of job and mortgage troubles—who walk into your office and say, “Pastor, life has fallen apart and we’re in trouble.”
Long: When we are aware of a family with a financial need, we try to be generous in meeting that need to help them through their crisis. We avoid creating an ongoing dependency, but we have a fund that allows us to help people, and God has always had a way of restoring that fund. We try to examine what people are doing financially and help them get back to stable ground. We have used Financial Peace University because we want to give them more than just a hand-out. We want to help them overcome their situation and get back on their feet.
Lail: The next generation of kingdom followers tends to behave differently than the previous generation. What do you see in terms of generational giving trends in your church right now?
Long: When we talk about how we raise money, the Builders (age 65 and over) say we need to teach biblical tithing, but we’re discovering that the Boomers (ages 36-65) and the youth—the youth in particular—need to respond to a person, a face, or a need. They want to make a tangible difference. Our youth have committed nearly $6,000 to Faith Promise this year. We have explained that the money will first go toward the education of a young man in Honduras. Then, it will provide food for children in the orphanage. This way, they learn the discipline of commitment, but we have tied their gifts to specific causes.
Lail: Would either of you like to talk about changing volunteer patterns in your ministry?
Bud Reedy: We have experienced an impact on volunteerism in our local church. In the church I grew up in, regular attendance meant you were in church and Sunday School four Sunday mornings a month as well as Sunday night, Wednesday night, and at least 14 nights of revival. I’m not sure when that attendance pattern died, but it’s been gone for some time. Regular attendance here at Stillmeadow is more like two Sundays a month. A variety of societal shifts have contributed to that: blended families, new work schedules. If you have 100 in average attendance each week, you probably have somewhere between 140 and 160 regular attenders. How does that affect volunteerism? When it comes to the children’s division, the youth division, ushers, choir, all of those infrastructure ministries, individuals just aren’t here to volunteer as frequently. We now ask people to serve in the nursery once a month, knowing that if the average attender serves once a month that’s half of their worship time.
Long: People also have more demands on their lives now; consequently, they accept more short-term assignments. We’re in a sprint kind of culture, rather than a marathon.
Reedy: In response to that trend we developed a strategy for seasonal participation. We learned that people dropped out of the choir because it was a weekly commitment. Many have now rejoined because it’s seasonal and we’re giving them permission to take some time off.
Lail: Our youngest Christians are generous, but they are selective in their giving. They’re careful about where their volunteer hours and money are committed.
Long: I have come to the conclusion that the problem is not a shortage of money or resources; it just needs to be cultivated differently. People are still buying bigger homes, faster cars, and eating out multiple times during the week. They have money to do what they want to do. There is money out there; we just have to ask for it differently than we did in the past.
Reedy: At Stillmeadow, we have a “stewardship moment” before every offering. We are very intentional about celebrating the church’s generosity. My experience has been that telling stories of generosity breeds generosity. Instead of announcing on Sunday morning, “Malachi, chapter three, states that you’re to bring your tithe into the storehouse and if you don’t, you’re really robbing God, so you folks need to get with the program,” (that’s an exaggeration, of course), we say, “Because you gave last week, we were able to send a check to Eastern Nazarene College. Because you gave, pastors will receive their retirement checks. Because you gave, we were able to minister at the York Rescue Mission.” Celebrating generosity creates generosity. The congregation senses, “Wow, we really are doing something great for God.”
Lail: Often pastors miss the opportunity to connect the vision with the offering plate in that moment the offering is given. It is discouraging to donors to continually give and tithe but never receive any feedback about what their dollars are helping to accomplish in God’s kingdom. Offering time should be more than an intermission in the worship service; it is time to make a connection. When a dollar drops in this offering plate, something significant happens in God’s kingdom.
Long: I’ve borrowed an acronym from Leonard Sweet: EPIC.* As we cultivate this new generation of givers, these are four principles to consider:
Reedy: I find that Boomers and Builders are far more likely to give out of institutional loyalty. Twenty-somethings need that relational connection, or the coin stays in the pocket. If they’ve held the baby in the orphanage, the money will follow that vision. It gives the offering a name and face.
Long: People often view the church on the basis of what they experience in the worship service, which is just one hour a week. Things are happening in that building all seven days of the week. So, whether it’s at offering time, in a financial statement, or in a “thank you” letter, we connect the dots between the investment and our mission. We use pictures and stories to do that because that’s what people respond to.
Reedy: I love that about the Wesleyan-Holiness way of following Jesus. Wesley was a missional mentor, in whom Mildred Bangs Wyncoop identified a searching spirit. Wesley, from a missional standpoint, was constantly looking for ways to connect with people. It was not just his preaching, although that was significant, Wesley was a genius when it came to connecting people with the mission of the church through not only works of piety but also through works of mercy: feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, encouraging the discouraged, visiting the hospitalized, visiting the institutionalized, visiting those who were in prison. His was a comprehensive strategy for connecting people with the kingdom.
Lail: I appreciate the connection to Wesley and have often thought that if he could look at our culture, he would probably make many of the same recommendations that he made to his culture. He would instruct us to be in the presence of the poor and the needy intentionally. The ministry of connecting people is not an easy one, but we are called to minister in a world that needs it. When people are connected, they see that God’s kingdom is advanced through giving, and they are motivated to steward their dollars with greater care.
Thank you both for sharing your wisdom, and for leading your congregations in missional giving and ministry.