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Panel discussion looks at why some congregations have seen giving increase during the pandemic

Vital Conversations panel features a fundraising consultant and the organizer of a worshiping community

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

Photo by Ibrahim Boran via Unsplash

LOUISVILLE — One result of the pandemic is that members of organizations — churches included — are reimagining their common life together as well as their giving practices.

Some churches actually saw giving go up during 2020, Erin Weber-Johnson said during Wednesday’s edition of Vital Conversations, put on by the Office of Vital Congregations and 1001 New Worshiping Communities. Others have endured plummeting receipts. Why is that, Weber-Johnson wondered. What she found out was intriguing enough that she co-edited a book published this summer, “Crisis and Care: Meditations on Faith and Philanthropy.”

Weber-Johnson is a fundraising and strategic planning consultant with Vandersall Collective. She appeared on Wednesday’s webinar (view it here) with the Rev. Rafael Viana, organizing pastor of On the Way Church in Lawrenceville, Ga. The topic was ecclesial health.

People who have lived through pandemics including COVID-19 and the racial reckoning “need to create deep connections between the deep needs of the moment,” which can include collective rage and lack of control and agency, the “feeling we can’t make a change,” she said. “For some congregations with upticks in giving, they said, ‘We know you are angry and are worried about x, y and z. Join us in changing x, y and z together.’ Others are saying, ‘We can get stuck and paralyzed, or choose to move forward with this vision.’”

Erin Weber-Johnson

“We are different [now], and it’s OK to be transparent about that,” she said. “We are figuring this out together, but here’s what defines our common life: We are lovers of Jesus and worshipers. Who we are has not changed, but people are quick to move over the tension. They are afraid if they don’t have quick answers, people won’t give.”

“We are also looking to make people understand that the work has changed,” Viana said, demonstrating his task by displaying a photo of a bridge in Honduras apparently connecting nothing with nothing. In fact, the river nearby had shifted its course after the bridge had been constructed. “The bridge is still there but for no reason,” he said. Churches “need money to keep ministry going, but the river of life may shift.”

The Rev. Rafael Viana

“We spend money on the things we love,” he said. “The things we do really do change lives, and people want to be a part of that.” A friend once told him not to share “the big picture” in such publications as the church’s annual report. Instead, the friend advised, share small stories of effective ministry. “When I see people in America give with a passion, it’s so amazing,” Viana said. “People have their lives changed because people invested in us.”

“What is true,” said Bryce Wiebe, director of Special Offerings, “is that since the start the Holy Spirit has induced and motivated the absurd generosity of believers” who had to build a structure, the church, just to hold all the giving. “Generosity and gratitude are compounding energies. They are God-ingrained, natural impulses. Every time we say no to those things [generosity and gratitude] we are disinviting the Spirit.”

Weber-Johnson said the work of Dr. Russell James and others have highlighted the impact that giving has on the brain. “We talk about how souls are changed, but we are physically changed by giving,” she said. “Our brains are rewired, emitting different hormones that feel good. It is a bodily and incarnational way of being.”

“And it doesn’t diminish the more you do it,” Wiebe added. “People need to feel alive and connected about what they’re doing. Just invite, constantly invite. You aren’t trying to fill the budget — you are activating the Holy Spirit’s work of generosity and giving.”

This is also true, said the Rev. Carlton Johnson, coordinator of Vital Congregations: “Often we choose to worship Jesus rather than following Jesus because worshiping is easier.”

How, asked the Rev. Nikki Collins, coordinator of 1001 New Worshiping Communities, should we pair the relationship between generosity and transparency in our church community spending?

There can be generational differences when it comes to the way we look at money. Weber-Johnson said when asked about their first money-related memory, some Baby Boomers recall Woodward and Bernstein’s shadowy source advising the Watergate investigative reporters to “follow the money.” Millennials are more likely recall the 2008 stock market crash.

“For Boomers and Generation X, transparency is important. There is a level of distrust in institutions,” Weber-Johnson said. And yet there’s something “deeply disheartening” about learning what the church’s monthly garbage bill is. “Don’t communicate the ‘what.’ Communicate the ‘why,’” she told those participating in the conversation. “We did this. This is why, and this is who was impacted by it.”

She noted that the lectionary focus on Mark this fall offers preachers several opportunities to talk about systems and economics during their sermons. “There is also a place for being transparent about the systems of power at work,” she said. “We are engaged in decolonizing our brains around money in churches.”

The Vital Conversations panel discussions continue at 2 p.m. Eastern Time on Wednesday, Sept. 8. The next conversation will be on Spirit-Inspired Worship. See Section 2 of Developing the Seven Marks of Congregational Vitality.

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