Stewardship in January: Celebrating Epiphany as a Season of Giving
May 5, 2018 by Presbyterian Foundation
By Rev. Cader Howard
Pastor, First Presbyterian Church, Stillwater, Minnesota
Does this sound familiar? Summer vacation is barely over, and September is a mad rush to finish next year’s ministry goals, asking budgets, and campaign materials, all while the program year kicks off. And then suddenly we throw out the lectionary and stop everything else to focus on money for four weeks — right in the middle of prime fall programming.
As much as we try to focus on the possibilities and vision for next year, we’re distracted by the current year’s budget. Will the miracle of end-of-year giving erase the annual shortfall like it seems to every year?
Even as we ask for new pledges, we must also remind everyone to fulfill their current ones. Though the campaign concludes in November, pledges continue to trickle in as late as February, making it difficult to finalize the new budget. This is the pattern I’ve experienced every year of my pastoral ministry, except for the last three.
Three years ago, in 2015, I attended the annual Stewardship Kaleidoscope conference and heard a radical new idea from keynote speaker Sarah Sarchet Butter, who serves as pastor of Wellesley Village Church in Wellesley, Massachusetts. She proposed that we move our annual campaigns to January, to coincide with Epiphany. It sounded impractical, even impossible, but our Stewardship Team realized that it made a lot of sense for our 400-member congregation.
Having completed three successful January campaigns, I can enthusiastically recommend this schedule to pastors and lay leaders looking to reinvigorate their stewardship practices. The first thing we realized was how much more time we had to prepare for our campaign. With families traveling and so many members spending time at the cabin — a Minnesota tradition — it was difficult to accomplish much planning in the summer. But now we have four months in the fall for our ministry teams and church council to pray, plan, and discern what God might be leading us to do in the next year.
Our stewardship messaging is clearer because we can focus on one thing at a time. In November and December, we only have to remind people to fulfill their current pledge so we can finish the year strong and accomplish everything we planned to do.
Our givers receive a lot of helpful information before they dedicate their pledges on the last Sunday in January. They know how their personal finances worked out for the year, having received W-2s from employers, investment reports, and annual giving statements from the church. Our givers also know how the church finished the fiscal year, whether there was a shortfall or surplus. They can confidently make a new pledge because they have more information. As the new year dawns, givers can reflect upon their total charitable giving and decide whether their generosity is where they want it to be.
The new timeslot for Stewardship has helped us focus on gratitude, for we make our new pledges in the context of celebrating a full year of ministry. We look back and remember with thanksgiving all that the Spirit led us to do in mission and ministry. Then we look forward to the new things God is doing. By kicking off the campaign as we celebrate Epiphany, there is a strong connection between the Magi bringing gifts for Jesus and our own efforts to give our best to God. Admittedly, we have taken some liturgical liberties by stretching Epiphany from a single day to a four-week season of giving!
The most important step we took was to clearly communicate the changed schedule to the congregation and anticipate a few concerns: prepaid pledges are still welcome in December. Ministry teams continue spending at prior year levels until the budget is adopted, just like they always have.
This stewardship schedule will not work for every congregation, but it has been life-giving for us. Pledges have increased each year, our fall programming is uninterrupted, we have more time to plan an effective campaign, and we have a meaningful focus for that cold stretch of ordinary time in January!
Cader Howard has served as the pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Stillwater, Minnesota, since 2012, having previously served two congregations in Atlanta. He and his wife Cameron Howard, Assistant Professor of Old Testament at Luther Seminary, have two children.
This article was first published on www.luthersem.edu/stewardship.