How Should You Give – Ask Linda

How should you give?  Ask Linda.  My friend Linda occasionally helps me with tasks around the house that I can never seem to get to.   Linda has had a hard life, working full-time for minimal wages and also taking care of her mother and another elderly man.  For almost 20 years Linda and I have talked about how dehumanizing it can be to be poor in America, to live from paycheck to paycheck without hope of ever getting ahead.  Yet when I pay Linda for her work, she often gives back part of the money, saying, “Here, give this to someone in your church who needs it.” 

It’s that time, isn’t it?  The vast majority of churches in our country are already planning for 2013.  Committees are hard at work assessing the current state of their ministries and setting goals and expected outcomes for next year.  I am not naïve enough to think that local church budgets are always built around well-thought-out ministry plans.  However, a naturally optimistic faith refuses to give up that hope.      

One of the primary responsibilities of a local church pastor is educating, encouraging, and inviting the congregation to practice joyful stewardship.  I believe that people are generous by nature, but the lures of living in 21st century America have a way of choking off that generosity in favor of excessive spending or selfish hoarding.  Most of us would be better off learning how to give from those who have less than we do. 

Linda’s benevolence is confirmed by a report recently released from The Chronicle of Philanthropy called How America Gives.  Analyzing charitable giving trends at the zip code level, the report chronicles who the most generous givers in our country are and where they live.  Consider these provocative findings using 2008 statistics.

·         People who earn less money give a greater percentage of their discretionary income to charity.  

o   Families earning $200,000 or more represent 11% of U.S. tax returns and 40% of charitable giving, but high income earners give a lesser percentage of their income. 

o   Families earning over $200,000 a year gave only 4.2% of discretionary income to charity, whereas families earning $50-$75,000 a year gave 7.6 % to charity. 

o   Likewise, rich neighborhoods donate much less to charity percentagewise than low income neighborhoods.

·         Wealthy people who live in isolated enclaves or lower population density areas give less than wealthy people who live in economically diverse metropolitan neighborhoods.

o   When wealthy people live in neighborhoods where 40% of the people earn $200,000 or more, they give just 2.8% of discretionary income to charity as opposed to 4.2% for the general population of those earning $200,000 or more. 

o   As wealth increases, people tend to become more isolated, insulated, and immune to human need, which results in limited engagement with people who have much less than they do. 

Paul Piff, a social psychologist at the University of California, Berkeley, echoes these findings after years of his own research on giving, “The more wealth you have, the more focused on your own self and your own needs you become, and the less attuned to the needs of other people you also become….  Simply reminding wealthy people of the diversity of needs that are out there is going to go a long way toward restoring the empathy or compassion deficit that we otherwise see.”  How should you give?  Ask Linda.

·         Religion makes a difference in charitable giving. 

People who live in areas where religion is a core value give more.  In addition, lower income donors tend to give more to religious organizations than high income donors. 

o   Two of the top nine states in charitable giving are Utah (10.6%) and Idaho, which have a high percentage of residents who are Mormons and strongly encourage tithing.  The other top 7 states are in the Bible Belt of the south. 

o   In contrast, New Hampshire, one of the least religious states in the country, has the lowest charitable giving rate at 2.5%.   

o   If religious charitable giving were excluded from this study and only giving to secular organizations was considered, the geography of generosity would look quite different.  New York State would go from 18th to 2nd, and Pennsylvania would go from 40th to 4th.   

·         How does your state or metropolitan area give? 

Check out

o   The highest charitable giving ZIP code in the U.S. is 10021 in Manhattan’s Upper East Side.  This zip code contributed $478-million in 2008.

o   The ZIP code which gave the highest percentage in 2008 was 74103 in Tulsa, Okla., whose residents gave a generous 21.6% of their discretionary income. 

o   Nearly $1 in $8 given to charity in our country comes from California, whose residents donated more than $17.2 billion in 2008. 

Michigan ranks 13th out of 51 states (including Washington D.C) in charitable giving at 4.5% of discretionary income.  Of the 366 metropolitan areas in the U.S., my home of Grand Rapids ranks 115th with an average giving rate of 5.3%.

How should you give?  Ask Linda.  Linda is always looking to help people who have less than she has, but she soured on organized religion long ago.  She said, “My mother tolerated everything in the name of religion.  She would never confront my siblings with their inexcusable behavior and drug use and for scamming her out of her life’s savings.  And here I am, taking care of my mother now because no one else will.  I never had a chance to go to college, I hold down 3 jobs, and have no life. 

Where’s the church in all of this?  All they care about is taking care of themselves or offering handouts without accountability.  Giving money to the church is all well and good, but God calls all of us to be kind, compassionate, and wise, and I don’t often see that in church folks.”

            What does The Chronicle of Philanthropy report mean for the church as we prepare for commitment campaigns and budget-building?

  1. Resist making assumptions about who the most generous givers in your church are.  Who is most generous: the family that makes $1 million a year and gives $50,000 to the church or the family that makes $30,000 and gives $3,000 a year?  Remember the widow’s mite.
  2. Knowing that we rely on more well-off members to provide a good part of the church’s budget and that the average wealthy family in the U.S. gives only 4.2% of their income to charity, gently challenge all people in your church to step up to tithing. 
  3. Be aware that the church is one of the best places for middle and upper class families to be exposed to the poor.  How diverse is your congregation socioeconomically?  Are you intentional about finding ways for rich and poor to learn from each other?
  4. Use mission trips in and outside of the country as opportunities for children, youth, and adults to expand their borders and experience different ways of living, serving, and giving.
  5. Cultivate a holistic, year-round stewardship program of prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness.  Statistics show that cities with generous givers also give more volunteer time.  The spillover effect means that donated money goes further. 
  6. Debunk the claim that secular giving is other-centered and therefore more altruistic than religious giving, which is self-centered.  In forming your church’s budget for next year, avoid the pitfall of focusing on institutional maintenance rather than mission and outreach.
  7. Inspire your congregation to give as a joyful response to God’s grace by telling the story in creative and compelling ways of how lives are being transformed through the ministries of your church.

In the thick of budgets, statistics, stewardship campaigns, planning, and a maze of church conference forms, all I can think of is Linda.  I suspect that we need Linda more than she needs us, for she is the expert on generosity.  In addition to being one of the most honest, perceptive, and pointed critics of the church (and rightly so), Linda gives way more proportionally than most church people, she is more sensitive to the needs of the poor, and her grace, hope, and perseverance put me to shame.

How should you give?  Ask Linda.



So What Do You Do on Friday Night?

It’s Friday night all across America.  What are you doing?  Attending a high school football game, going out for dinner and a movie, grocery shopping, walking the mall, visiting family, or crashing after a hard week?

On the 2nd Friday of every month the tiny congregation of Plainfield UMC in Grand Rapids, Michigan, opens its doors to a hundred individuals and families in the Creston neighborhood.  Although the church accepts donations and some put a dollar in the basket, most people don’t have money to contribute.  They simply need a good, hot meal and some TLC.

Jesse oversees the kitchen, and Ray is outside on the sidewalk grilling hot dogs and hamburgers, a last tribute to summer.  Bob and Wanda drive over from Muskegon because they have a heart for this neighborhood and a gift for engaging our guests in conversation.  Craig rides his bike 10 miles one way from another part of the city to help.  Sharon, Marianne, Pam and Gina supervise the food and clean-up.  Theresa serves, and her husband Jim welcomes people at the door.  Their son is getting married the next day.  Where were you the night before your child’s wedding?

Meanwhile I have the best job: introducing myself to our neighborhood guests and listening to their stories.  “Hi, my name is Laurie, and I’m the new pastor at Plainfield UMC.”  Without exception, everyone expresses gratitude for the dinner and is appreciative for the warm welcome they receive.  However, they will definitely not be attending a football game, taking in a movie, or cruising the mall after dinner.  They are simply trying to survive.   Their stories are heartbreaking, but their spirits are not broken.

Joseph, Tony, and Ron are sitting together.  Joseph asks, “What’s the difference between a born again, a Lutheran, and a Catholic?”

I stumble.  “Hmm.  Well.  Okay.  Lutherans and Catholics affiliate with a specific Christian group.  However, born again is not a denomination but describes a spiritual self-understanding that crosses all boundaries.   Lutherans and Catholics can be born again.  I’m born again, and I’m a Methodist.”

“What’s a Methodist?”

“We’re a community of disciples of Jesus Christ that was started by a man named John Wesley.  We believe that God’s grace is free, and there is nothing we can ever do to earn God’s love.  We also believe that God calls us to love our neighbors.  That’s why we’re having this dinner.”

“I like that.  I’ve been here before.  I’ve gotten food at the pantry.  I was married once and divorced.”

Tony says, “I go to the Open Door Pentecostal Church on Knapp.  We only have about 20 people.  Our pastor is an African-American woman, and she is on fire.  We have healing services on Sunday evening where people fall under the power of the Holy Spirit.  I am a schizophrenic, and the healing prayers help me.  Do you have Sunday evening or weeknight services?”

“I’m sorry, we don’t.  But we do worship on Sunday mornings at 11:15 a.m. with a free breakfast before.  You are always welcome.”

“What’s the difference between Methodists and Pentecostals?”

“None.  We love Jesus and our neighbors just as you do.”

“Love covers a multitude of sins.  I’ve never been married.”

“Ain’t that the truth,” Joseph chimes in.  “I’ve had some hard lessons to learn.”

“Don’t we all,” echoed Tony.

Ron, who lives in the same nearby adult foster care home as Tony, finally enters the conversation and says, “I don’t have a family.”

I move to another table where Randy, Jack, and Sam are sitting.  Randy had a kidney transplant a year ago.  He has experienced numerous complications but says, “Somebody always has it worse off than me.  I feel welcome here.  It doesn’t matter what religion you are.  Just love others.  That’s it.”

“Did you get enough to eat?” I ask Jack.

“You bet.  I grew up with hardly any food, so I’ve learned how to make do with little.

“I watch what I eat because I’m on disability.  If you are smart you can make it on a food card.  But I do come here and to the food pantry, and I go to St. Al’s for the free dinners on Tuesday and Thursday.”

Sam chimes in, “I’m a handyman and a painter, but I don’t have much work .  I learn how to be a smart shopper with my food card.”

Jack says, “I had cancer 5 years ago and went back to work as a furniture refinisher, but I can’t do it anymore.  It’s hard to find a job at 60, but I was raised to work.  I’m no freeloader.  I’ve learned that you don’t need a lot of stuff to be happy.  I’ve had a lot and a little.”

“I want you to know how much we appreciate what you’re doing,” Randy says.

A family with a husband, wife, and 6 small children settle down to eat.  We chat for a few minutes, but they’re really busy making sure their children eat.

I greet a middle-aged man who is holding a 1-month-old baby and is accompanied by 3 teenagers.  Each of the girls asks me to guess how old they are and who the mother of the baby is.  They are 15, 16, and 19 years old.  The 16 year old is the mother.

Alex and Elizabeth share with me that Elizabeth attended Sunday school at Plainfield UMC until she was 10 years old.  She just got a job in a business across the street, and Alex does electronics and computer work.   “I love to help churches.  If you ever need anything, just call me,” Alex said, handing me his card.

Andrea is eating dinner with 2 small children.  Her husband works in Holland, but they were in the area running some errands and saw the sign advertising our dinner.  “What a godsend this is.  Thank you so much.”

I welcome a few parents and grandparents of our Sunday school children.  Two courageous and deeply faithful young adults volunteer every Sunday to teach anywhere from 4 to 15 neighborhood children.  The children show up for breakfast every Sunday morning and then stay for church school.  It’s extremely challenging ministry, with children who come and go at will, have little parental supervision, and are more hungry for the love of Jesus Christ and the care of this church than an actual breakfast.

When the evening is over, we have 6 hot dogs and a few desserts left and no hamburgers and baked beans.  As we’re cleaning up, a few more young men arrive and inhale the rest of the hot dogs.

Are we making a difference on this Friday night in Grand Rapids?  Are we changing the face of poverty in the Creston neighborhood, or are we simply putting on Band-Aids?  It’s making enough of a difference that the church borrowed from its endowment to renovate the kitchen so that outreach meals can be served at least three times a week in the fellowship hall.  We’re not in it to earn money, but what little we raise goes toward mission around the world.

It’s making enough of a difference that when we smelled gas in the afternoon and a technician charged more to fix the stove than we gathered in donations, we smiled and knew that God would provide.  An unexpected $200 donation was sent the next week by a family from another United Methodist church in the area who could not attend the dinner but wanted to help.

It’s making enough of a difference that even though we cannot fix the lives of our guests, we are connecting with our neighbors.  We are sitting at the same tables together, talking about our lives, sharing in God’s bounty, and giving thanks for simple joys like fresh apple pie and a place to sit for a while.  Plus, we’re offering a sneak preview of the heavenly banquet in the kingdom of God.

Come to think of it, this wasn’t just a preview, this was the Kingdom come on this earth: here and not yet.  Kind of like World Communion Sunday.  The menu was different: hot dogs and lemonade rather than bread and grape juice.  The liturgy was different: heart to heart conversation rather than the Great Thanksgiving.  And the setting was different: beat up tables and chairs rather than cushioned pews.  But the same Holy Spirit was present: swirling, dancing, delighting, empowering, encouraging, dispensing hope, and including all at the table.

No one ever gives up at Plainfield UMC.  This small but mighty congregation is convinced that their presence in the Creston neighborhood is leaven, light, love, and hope.  Thirty years from now none of these faithful church folks will probably be around.  Yet there is absolutely no doubt that every person who attends this 2nd Friday dinner and every child who comes to breakfast and church school on Sunday morning will remember Plainfield UMC.  They won’t remember what they ate, but they will remember this:

  • the open doors of this congregation
  • the loving consistency and safety of our presence
  • the stories of a Jesus whose grace won’t ever let them go
  • the sweet, sweet power of the Holy Spirit, which mysteriously blew them in the door and somehow stayed in their heart.

So what do you do on Friday night?



Make Things Happen

Tomorrow is the day! Thirty-one-year-old Adam Greenberg has been given a one-day contract with the Florida Marlins, who will be playing the New York Mets in an end-of-the-season baseball game that will not affect the playoffs. But it’s going to be the coolest game of the entire year. You see, Adam Greenberg is the only person in Major League Baseball history to have his career end on the first pitch.

On July 9, 2005, Greenberg made his major league debut with the Chicago Cubs, but in his very first at-bat he was beaned in the head by a 92 mile-per-hour fastball. Adam never made it back to “The Show.” He has bounced around the minors for the last 7 years and was also on the Israeli National team. Greenberg always had a dream to get back to the majors, though.

This summer documentary filmmaker Matt Liston heard about Adam’s story and started an online campaign called “One at Bat,” hoping to enlist as many people as possible to support Adam’s return to the majors for one “at-bat.” Liston’s campaign took off and attracted the attention and advocacy of other professional athletes. Last week the Florida Marlins front office decided to make it happen for Adam. The very team whose pitcher beaned Adam Greenberg 7 years ago has guaranteed him one at-bat.

What fascinated me as much as Adam’s story is Matt Liston’s role. Liston said that he always wanted to play Major League Baseball but knew that he wasn‘t good enough. When he heard about Adam, Matt was determined to make that dream happen for him. Liston figured that his online “One at Bat” campaign had about a 1% chance of being successful but was convinced that if he could attract enough media attention, Adam might be given an opportunity.

This story is not only about baseball and the courage to follow dreams. It’s also about leadership. If I could summarize the essence of leadership in 4 words, I would say, “Leaders make things happen.” Leaders find a way. Adam’s dream wouldn’t have happened without Matt’s leadership in creating a vision, developing a plan, and then executing it.

I’ve discovered over the years that leadership cannot be reduced to a certain style, philosophy, or theology. Leaders cannot be pigeonholed, labeled, or put in a box. Simply put, leaders are able to empower groups of people to accomplish goals that move forward the mission of their organization.

So where were the leaders during the 3-month lockout between the National Football League and the NFL Referees Association? Last Wednesday the NFL finally announced a deal with the Referees Association to increase salaries and improve pension benefits. Admittedly, labor negotiations are extremely complex. Yet NFL owners have never been richer and rake in billions of dollars every year. Why did both sides fail to reach an agreement, leaving pro football games to be officiated with replacement refs from lower division college, high school, and semi-professional ranks?

As the season began, it became clear that the replacement refs were in way over their heads. Their inability to perform at a high level compromised both the safety of players and the integrity of the game. The tipping point came last Monday when a “Hail Mary” Seattle Seahawk pass was deemed a game-winning touchdown when others felt it was a Green Bay Packers interception. The player, coach, and public outcry was so immediate and vehement that the NFL and the referees reached an agreement 2 days later. Where were the leaders to make things happen before everything got ugly?

James Winkler, General Secretary of the General Board of Church and Society, wrote last week in Faith in Action about his uncle, who was an entrepreneur and traveled all around the South selling one thing or another. Jim remembers his father telling him, “Uncle John used to say, ‘There are three kinds of people in the world: those who make things happen, those who watch things happen, and those who stand around and ask, “What happened?”’ I intend to make things happen.”

Likewise, leaders in the church don’t watch things happen. Nor do church leaders ask cluelessly, “What happened?” Leaders in the church make things happen. There is no one certain clergy type that is successful in pastoral ministry. However, all effective clergy have one characteristic in common: they have a passion for making things happen. And all healthy, vital churches have one trait in common: their lay and clergy leaders don’t just talk, they make things happen.

Ten Rules for Making Things Happen in the Church

1. Know your context.

What worked in your 2 point charge in the country probably won’t work in the large downtown church, and what worked in your wealthy suburban church likely won’t work in a struggling inner city mission church. Context determines action. Therefore, analyze your ministry setting well, know your demographics, understand the community around the church, learn about your congregation’s history, and get to know your parishioners. Then develop a ministry plan and make it happen.

2. Make full use of your strengths rather than lament your weaknesses.

Leaders who make things happen build programming and ministry around their own greatest assets and the unique gifts of their staff, lay leaders, and congregation members.

3. Encourage others not to wait for permission.

Leaders who make things happen empower lay persons to discern their passions, develop ministries that fit with their congregation’s mission statement, gather similarly-committed people around them, and go for it!

4. Be flexible but always follow through.

Leaders and churches that make things happen are adept at adapting plans on the fly. They are invested in outcomes, not in following the letter of the law. “Whatever works” is their mantra. Such leaders and churches are agile and able to change direction at a moment’s notice.

5. Be alert and find clues everywhere.

Great leaders read widely, spend time in God’s world, and make room for prayer, Bible study, and discernment. They seek wisdom from secular organizations, observe the work habits of leaders who produce, and pick the brains of those who are successful in their jobs. The church has much to learn from the world about how to make things happen.

6. Surround yourself with people who are much more gifted than you are and trust their instincts.

Excellent leaders align their ministry with God’s mission and are acutely aware that they can do nothing apart from God. They focus their energy on equipping others to realize their potential by deep and generous listening, offering space for vision and creativity to emerge from chaos, and selflessly giving others credit. Leaders understand that in Christian community our collective gifts create a mysterious synergy that unleashes the power of the Holy Spirit.

7. Light a fire in others by your presence and example.

Leaders who make things happen are connected with and present to their constituents. They are totally invested in the mission of the church and will do whatever it takes to get the job done. Because their inner and outer lives are integrated, they inspire by example.

8. Accept feedback graciously.

Leaders who make things happen seek continuous improvement, regulate their emotions, don’t waste time being defensive, and are eager to enhance their effectiveness.

9. Make sure everyone has “one at-bat.”

Leaders who make things happen understand that every individual is important, unique, and essential for the church to function at its highest level as the body of Christ. Inclusivity at every level of congregational life creates a highly effective community of disciples who demonstrate the fullness of the kingdom of God.

10. Don’t give up the dream.

Adam Greenberg will have his one at-bat tomorrow because he never gave up his dream. Greenberg lit a fire in Matt Liston, Liston lit a fire in thousands of fans, and those fans lit a fire in the Florida Marlins to make it happen. Greenberg doesn’t see his one at-bat as a mere gimmick and hopes this might be a springboard for a major league career. But even if it never happens, Greenberg knows that it will be enough to have that one at-bat.

Leaders and vital churches make things happen. How will you light the fire?