For The Someday Book

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Creating Congregations of Generous People by Michael Durall, Alban Institute, 1999, 104 pp.

Creating Generous PeopleI’ve been reading a lot of book about stewardship lately, as my congregation is struggling to learn and grow in this area. Michael Durall’s book was cited by several others as an important resource. It is no longer in print, but I found a copy easily at half.com for less than a dollar.

I was surprised by the tone of this book, from the beginning. Most stewardship experts write in a way that is frank, but relentlessly encouraging. They seem to say, “You’re doing it wrong, but if you do these things, you’ll be rich!” Durall has all the frankness, but a much less cheery outlook–while maintaining that congregations can create generous people and provide ample resources for their ministry.

First, Durall acknowledges that most people give the same amount, year after year, without significant increase. He argues that traditional pledge drive methods (especially those that emphasize the annual budget) actually encourage and reinforce low-level and same-level giving patterns. Durall names the 80/20 rule–that 20% of the people carry 80% of the load of work and giving. What makes his work different, though, is that he argues that increasing stewardship is not about going after the 80%, but increasing the 20%. He says that most people in the bottom 80% do not know why they give the way they do, resist changing it, and that “attempts to increase the giving level of the bottom 80% of the congregation may be futile.”

Durall backs this up with experience and research. He counters the dictum that “money follows mission,” common in so much of the literature, including the popular J. Clif Christopher books.

Increased programming (expanding the mission) will not motivate 80% of the members of most congregations. … Parishioners who give the least are motivated by maintaining the building and the congregation. More generous parishioners believe they are also helping people who are less fortunate, and strengthening their relationship to God. (26-27)

He names the deep intransigence of a church’s giving culture, and the sustained effort required to transform it. While he does agree that people should be encouraged to give to God and not to church, that we need to be emphasizing mission, he does not think this is enough to overcome longstanding patterns of same-level and low-level giving.

Durall instead invites us to nurture the trait and spiritual discipline of generosity throughout our churches.

Charitable giving should make some difference in how we as religious people experience life from day to day. If giving to your congregation is similar to writing a check at the end of the month to pay the phone bill or the electric bill,  and then forgetting about it until the end of next month, you are not giving enough. Similarly, if you take spare change or a dollar or two from your pocket or purse for the weekly collection and never notice the difference, your giving has too little meaning either for you or for your church. (38)

The remaining chapters offer some practical advice and exercises, some of which are familiar (like not encouraging giving to the budget) and some of which were new to me. I found his advice to ministers especially helpful. While he agrees with J. Clif Christopher that ministers should know what people give, Durall assumes they probably will not, and that makes his guidance most helpful. He says that the minister should “introduce the importance of stewardship to the congregation at the earliest opportunity,” which is best accomplished by making a leadership gift and sharing that intent with the church, even before a call is issued. (49) I love this idea. He adds to the minister’s list: stressing the importance of giving to new members, encouraging a mentality of abundance over scarcity, setting vision and clarifying roles, and including stewardship in worship regularly–especially by finding ways to thank people.

Durall’s concrete advice about stewardship builds upon his realistic assessment of congregational giving culture, his claim that we are to be building generous people, and a commitment to year-round stewardship. Though it is older, Durall’s book offered new ideas and perspectives that I have already shared with my Stewardship Team and we are finding ways to use in our congregation. Some might find his less-than-optimistic read on giving cultures depressing, but I found it honest and helpful. I think this is a worthwhile addition to every pastor’s stewardship library.

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Real Good Church: How Our Church Came Back from the Dead, and Yours Can Too by Molly Phinney Baskette, Pilgrim Press, 2014, 228 pp.

Real Good ChurchLet me start by saying that I knew going in to this book that Molly Phinney Baskette and First Church Somerville are the real deal. I got to know Molly when I served in Boston, and I was privileged to watch some of this transformation with my own eyes. I was there in the early years, when it was still fragile and uncertain, which makes it all the more exciting and encouraging to read about a church that is now thriving as a model for others. This book tells the story of how they did it.

I read a lot of books of advice for leading and transforming churches. Some of them sound like impossible plans only a consultant could concoct. Others promise that “if you just do this one thing, your church will turn around.” Still others offer a lot of theory, but not a lot of practical advice. Real Good Church manages to avoid all of those pitfalls. It’s packed with practical wisdom acquired from hard-earned experience, but it also offers a deeper reflection on the Spirit of God at work. The tone throughout is light-hearted and conversational, so you feel like you are carrying on a conversation with a friend in ministry. It’s a great resource.

One of my favorite insights comes early on–the need for clergy to be “Doomsday Pollyannas.” We must be honest about the realistic potential of demise, but also offer hope.

Communicating the urgency of doing things well and/or differently to our people, while also communicating how confident we are that we can do it. … What’s at stake is the death of the church for everybody, and what’s possible is the life of the church, for everybody already there who buys into the vision, as well as many more people who aren’t aware that this place and people are going to become an important part of their lives. (11)

I love this term and description, and I have found it true in the life of my own church. We are able to move forward best when we share both a sense of impending doom and impossible (or only possible with God) hope. She returns to this idea later, as well.

Dying churches are often churches with low self-esteem. Your task as a leader is not to build up the church’s self-esteem but to build up its God-esteem: its sense that God is guiding them and is a big stakeholder and participant in its life and future–their sense that God loves them and is hard at work, and visibly at work, among them. (72)

Another important insight running throughout the book is the connection between the church and its community.

Look for the action in your community, and be in the midst of it. Plant yourself there, be visible, build relationships. (75)

First Church Somerville did that with a Drag Gospel Sunday, participation in local parades and festivals, joining in the Red Sox excitement with outdoor viewing, office hours in the local coffee shop, and more. Baskette is clear that this is not a program for you to follow in your church, because they are rooted in the local community in Somerville and the identity of their congregation. However, every congregation can find the life and energy in their community and become involved. We can all shift our ministries to focus on “them” (those people who are not already active in the congregation) rather than “us” (church members’ tastes and needs).

The book has sections on everything from job descriptions to e-mail to worship to conflict to facilities management. The appendix is rich with examples of materials used at First Church Somerville. It radiates with the author’s creativity and energy for ministry.  I recommend it first for pastors, especially those serving churches in need of revitalization. It would work as well for lay leadership in those churches, but the sheer wealth of material might be overwhelming to a church council without a careful plan to absorb (and implement!) ideas slowly. You’ll learn a lot, enjoy reading it, and leave encouraged for the possibilities for the future of your church.


About Me

I am a full-time pastor in the United Church of Christ, mother of a young child (B.), married to an aspiring academic and curmudgeon (J.). I live by faith, intuition and intellect. I follow politics, football and the Boston Red Sox. I like to talk about progressive issues, theological concerns, church life, the impact of technology and media, pop culture and books.

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