Across the country churches are responding to the enormous impact the COVID-19 Pandemic has placed on their ministries. Health experts and economic leaders alike are at a loss to determine when Americans can expect a return to normal. Since mid-March, churches have been nimble and adept in their efforts to meet a growing virtual audience in response to stay at home orders.
With unprecedented upheaval and uncertainty, churches are reassessing their financial standing and determining how to best move forward with fundraising and capital campaigns.
Oftentimes correctly moving forward means looking back. Brian Dodd, Director of New Ministry Partnerships with INJOY Stewardship Solutions, located in Anderson, South Carolina, notes, “We learned a lot about campaigning in crisis times during the 2008 financial crash. Here is what we learned: The concept of doing a campaign that would be ‘nice’ ended in 2008. For instance, it would be ‘nice’ to build a family life center. It would be ‘nice’ to update our facilities. It would be ‘nice’ to pay off debt. The only campaigns that have existed since 2008 are what I would call urgent campaigns,” surmises Dodd.
What marks a campaign as urgent? According to Dodd, “What every church must answer in their capital campaign environment is not, ‘how much do we think we can raise?’ The first question church leaders must answer is, ‘what is God doing and what does He want to do? Has God has called our church to do something with our unique people in our unique community at this unique place in time?’ If we can already achieve what God has called us to do, then there is no urgency for the campaign. If the answer is no, then we must increase our funding to properly facilitate what God wants to do. This is what I would call urgent campaigns.”
Answering the “When?”
Many congregations are uncertain whether to begin a capital campaign now, or to wait it out and see what happens during 2021. “Moving forward with a planned campaign really depends on a church’s situation,” says Julie Bullock, Senior Generosity Strategist with Generis, a firm who coaches churches in giving and generosity. “I’ve had many of my clients who were planning on Fall 2020 campaigns shift to the Spring or Fall of 2021. And it is possible some may even shift further. I do have others, however who have remained for this Fall of 2020 because of the urgency of their project and the precise moment of vision that is in front of them. It just really depends on the situation, and it is important for the pastor and other church leaders to pray and discern the timing that is right for them. There’s no one solution.”
Building and Discipling the Giver’s Heart
If it has been a while since a church held a moment of accelerated giving, whether it was a teaching series, or whether it was an actual multi-year generosity initiative, “a giving campaign is just a healthy thing to do,” says Bullock, who sees churches that have either recently launched a giving campaign or are in the midst of the fulfillment of a campaign faring far better financially then those churches who are not.
“If this pandemic continues too much longer, then we would not want to wait too long before a church engages their people in a season of focused giving. This helps disciple people in generosity in an intentional way and can be quite healthy,” says Bullock. “Seasons of economic hardship and uncertainty often cause us to give in such a way that our giving is driven by our circumstances — like Cain’s giving in Genesis 4 — rather than allowing our giving to drive our spending and saving, embracing the theology of first. The theology of first is something that a giving campaign can facilitate when done well and done right, and we need to be challenging our people to that now more than ever.”
Charitable Provision in CARES Act for 2020
Recently Congress passed the CARES Act, and among many other things it contained a charitable-purposed provision for 2020. The provision is related to the limitation that is typically placed on your charitable deduction from your adjusted gross income. Usually there is a limit on cash contributions to 60 percent of one’s adjusted gross income. So, if your adjusted gross income was a hundred thousand dollars in a particular year, you could deduct up to $60,000 in cash for that year.
For 2020 only, Congress is allowing people to deduct up to 100 percent of your adjusted gross income. It’s unheard of and hasn’t been done since Hurricane Katrina in 2006, and most experts do not believe it will be renewed for 2021. This presents a compelling case either for campaign giving in 2020 or for some type of intentional year-end giving effort.
The Danger of Misinterpreting Your Current Financial Situation
Dodd cautions churches who may be overly confident in their current condition as it relates to their financial standing, “A large portion of churches may be saying, ‘God provided, and we’ve come through April to July even ahead of where we were last year financially.’ But the reality for churches is that many of their people are working for companies that have received part of the Stimulus Protection Plan and were sustained financially during that time. Unless the government does a second stimulus package the financial protection plan will be running out in July and August. August will be the true barometer of how your church and how your people are doing financially. You may have made it from March through July, but do not assume that is the norm. Factor in July and August and see how that compares to the first four months of the pandemic.”
Debt Retirement Campaigns
Based on our current economic uncertainty, whether you are a family or a church, you want to be looking at eliminating any debt as quickly as possible. Dodd, who advises clients on debt reduction, explains his four rules when it comes to debt. “First of all, Americans are very comfortable with debt. Obviously if not, regardless of your political persuasion, no good incumbent would ever be reelected if Americans were not comfortable with debt. Second, Americans are extremely comfortable with somebody else’s debt, in this case the church’s debt. Number three, Americans, don’t like paying off debt and number four, Americans really don’t like paying off somebody else’s debt, in this case, the church’s,” says Dodd.
“Say the mortgage payment is $10,000 per month. If those funds were freed up for ministry, exactly what would we do with it? For examples, we could upgrade the technology for our services, or we could add additional staff or renovate the children’s area. We would build a hospital in an under resourced part of the world. In a debt reduction campaign, state exactly what would be done with the freed up resources that God is calling you to do. The urgency to do that which God has called us to do, which we currently cannot do because of debt, creates urgency for people to participate in debt retirement campaign.”
Dodd recommends holding a 50/50 campaign (you can play around with the percentages). In this type of campaign, 50 percent of the resources raised go towards the principal of debt, and the other 50 percent goes towards initiatives that are moving ministry forward. “You build what I call, ‘uniting the generations for kingdom purpose,’” says Dodd, “There is a line of demarcation that we see at the age of 40. People over the age of 40 do not like debt, they want to get out of debt. They do not know why we got in debt. People under the age of 40 are amazingly comfortable with debt. But here is what they are not comfortable with. They are not comfortable with lifestyle being changed, people not being served, and ministry not being advanced. When you do a campaign where the debt is going down, and the ministry is now moving forward, you create multiple onramps for people of all generations to get excited about debt retirement and generosity in general.”
Another benefit of this type of campaign is the ability for a pastor to communicate this type of campaign. “It is an exceedingly difficult message for a pastor to stand up and talk about paying down debt,” says Dodd. “It is much easier for a pastor to stand up and talk about transformation rather than transaction and share what God is calling the church to do, and how ministry is going to change and impact the community for Christ. When a pastor can say, ‘yes, we are also going to be paying down the debt so we could do even more of this in the future,’ that is a much better conversation for a pastor.”
All in all, some things have changed in the campaign landscape and other principles are timeless. The positive outlook is that, depending on your situation, there are likely still ways to engage your givers in increased giving in this season.