Wildfires prompts mission re-examination

Federated PC-USA and UMC faith community change to narrative budget brings stewardship success.


"People are hurting, searching for meaningful relationships with others and God, thinking about what is truly important in life, and rebuilding their lives …What hasn’t changed is our mission."

—Healdsburg Community Church's budget

Stewardship season was in full swing at a href="http://www.healdsburgcommunitychurch.com">Healdsburg (California) Community Church last fall when tragedy struck. Raging wildfires in Sonoma County wiped out vast residential areas within 20 miles of the church. Every church member — even those whose own homes were safe — knew people affected by the fires.

“There was a lot of uncertainty — not knowing how this would affect us in the future,” says Dean Kladder, who is co-pastor of the church with his wife, Andrea. The 150-member Healdsburg church is a federated church affiliated with both the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and the United Methodist Church.

Rethinking approach to stewardship

Kladder and his stewardship team wondered what kind of an impact the community’s losses would have on giving. They had planned a different approach to stewardship, inspired by a workshop on “Culture of Generosity” that Kladder had attended last August at Zephyr Point Conference Center.

The workshop, led by Robert Hay Jr., a Ministry Relations Officer of the Presbyterian Foundation, was part of the Well-Being Retreat, an annual event sponsored by the PC(USA)’s Board of Pensions in partnership with the Foundation.

Hay urged workshop participants to rethink the way stewardship has been practiced in the church for decades. He encouraged them to focus on generosity year-round and to move from a “theology of scarcity” to a “place of abundance” by celebrating the ways God is at work in their congregations.

He also suggested that churches replace the line-item budget with a narrative budget in their stewardship campaigns. Telling the church’s story, Hay explains, “moves the focus from ‘how much we pay for lights’ to ‘how that money enables mission.’”

Narrative budget challenges members

Kladder created his first-ever narrative budget using free brochure templates he found online. After the wildfires, he reworded the introduction.

“A lot has changed in our community recently,” said the narrative budget that was mailed to church members last fall. “People are hurting, searching for meaningful relationships with others and God, thinking about what is truly important in life, and rebuilding their lives …

“What hasn’t changed is our mission. We are now, more than ever, ‘seeking to live like Jesus so others can experience God’s love.’”

Members were challenged to bring the church’s part-time director of youth and children’s ministry to full-time status. “We saw that as a mission to our community,” Kladder says, explaining that few churches in Healdsburg offer any kind of youth ministry.

Testimonies focus on why the mission matters

In the weeks leading up to commitment Sunday, people from the church and community were invited to share testimonies in worship. Kladder says the testimonies focused not so much on “why I give” but rather on “why the church’s mission matters.”

One of the testimonies was given by a mother whose son had gotten involved in Healdsburg Community Church because the church she attended did not have a youth program.

Before commitment Sunday, church members received a letter from the pastors that included the narrative budget and a letter from the stewardship team that included a pledge card. At the bottom of each letter was a handwritten note.

New approach breaks records

The new approach to stewardship resulted in 72 pledges — the highest number in the church’s history. The 72 included 14 families who had never pledged before and 32 who increased their pledges. The church budget grew by 7 percent, more than enough to meet financial goals. And the congregation ended 2017 in the black.

“I think we’ve become a more generous congregation because people understand the mission of the church,” Kladder says.

He and the stewardship team put into practice another idea from Hay’s workshop: sending handwritten thank-you notes to each pledger. “I really appreciated the Foundation’s approach to personalizing the process by saying thank you. It was also an opportunity for pastoral care.”

The cycle of gratitude continued, he adds with a chuckle. “We got thank-yous for the thank-you notes.”

Hay believes the experience of Healdsburg Community Church demonstrates what can happen when congregations move from a theology of scarcity to a theology of abundance.

“For too long we’ve been asking people to give more because we don’t have enough,” making it sound like the church is a sinking ship. “Nobody wants to give to the Titanic,” he says. “We’d rather give to a church that is excited about the future.”

Kladder says he’s learned that “stewardship doesn’t mean gathering funds for one more year. Stewardship means collecting resources that you can use for the church’s mission.”

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