From Rowing to Sailing: toward cultivating cultures of generosity

May 6, 2022 by Erin Dunigan

People give to what they value. It really is that simple. The question for congregations becomes how to communicate in a way that cultivates this value-driven generosity.

Rev. Dr. Rose Niles, Ministry Relations Officer for the Presbyterian Foundation, seeks to equip congregations as they delve into these questions. Values, Mission and Vision: Building Cultures of Generosity Through Community, Clarity and Communication is the second of a four part series on Stewardship presented by Niles for the Synod of the Northeast.

Moments of Joy

During the webinar, Niles asked two pastors who are in the midst of this discovery process to share their stories. Rev. Julie Thompson-Barrier is pastor of The Presbyterian Church on the Hill in coastal New Jersey.

“Rose came in to meet with our session and asked them about their moments of joy,” said Thompson-Barrier. This shifted the energy of the group completely. Instead of a dull discussion the conversation became animated. The session members realized that they wanted more of that joy.

“By starting with what brings joy in the life of the church you can then lead into what are your core values that are most important to you, your church and to the community you are trying to reach,” Niles said. “What is important to you has everything to do with why you give and how you give.”

People want to see alignment between what they believe and what they are supporting, Niles said.

Sharing stories

Rev. Diane Jamison Fitch is pastor of the First Presbyterian Church in Springfield in Flourtown, Pa. She was called to the congregation in the middle of the pandemic. Shortly thereafter, she brought Niles in to work with the congregation.

Due to the ongoing pandemic, last summer worship was held outside every other week. “Because we were doing things a bit differently, I thought it might be nice to give people a chance to share their stories,” Fitch said. She began to ask three or four people to share a story of their favorite hymn or passage from the Bible as a way of telling their story of faith.

The response was amazing. What began as only a summer practice became integrated into the year-round culture of the congregation. “The sharing of these stories has really been impactful in the way we are moving forward,” Fitch said.

Your congregation’s unique calling

What is it that we as a congregation are uniquely here to do? What do we contribute to our community? How is it that we have an impact on the world around us? These are some of the questions that Niles suggests asking to help guide you to your church’s mission.

One key piece for the Church on the Hill was to actually change the structure of the session to match their new mission statement. “Changing the session’s structure to match the mission was a way to say that these changes are real, it is not just a document that will sit on a shelf somewhere,” Thompson-Barrier said.

“Your core values help to answer the big why questions: Why do we matter? Why are we here?” Niles said. This leads to the congregation’s mission statement which is a statement of purpose of the church that reflects these values. “You can look at a Mission Statement as your church’s reason for being,” Niles said.

A roadmap for the future

The church’s vision is the road map to the future. The vision should align with the mission statement and map out how to accomplish it.

“Ask the congregation, ‘How do you want to see us live out our mission and vision?’ and continue to clarify this,” Niles said.

She also recommends telling stories of how the congregation is already living out its vision. “Tell those stories year-round, not just in what used to be called stewardship season,” Niles said. Part of telling those stories is to help the vision to be owned by the entire congregation, not just the session or the leadership or a select few.

From rowing to sailing

“In this process we need to always remember to hold our planning lightly, being open to new possibilities that emerge along the way,” Niles said. “What we are seeking really is quite a shift.”

It is a shift from scarcity to abundance, from funding the budget to funding the vision, from rowing to sailing. “In her book, Sailboat Church, former moderator Joan Gray uses the example of rowing a boat, verses a sailboat being carried by the wind,” Niles said. “Let’s let the wind of the Holy Spirit carry us as we continue along this journey.”

Erin Dunigan is an ordained evangelist and teaching elder in the PC(USA). She is a graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary. She serves as a photographer, writer and communications consultant and lives near the border in Baja California, Mexico. In her free time, she is an avid gardener and leads horseback riding tours along one of the most pristine stretches of beach in Northern Baja.