Mission Shares in 2020: One church's success story

February 23, 2021

Even before COVID-19 hit in March, Hampden Highlands UMC in Hampden, ME, expected 2020 to be a year with financial challenges. The budget was ambitious and congregational giving was on a downward trend, said Pastor Spencer Shaw, who has served the church since 2018.
Pastor Spencer Shaw

Despite that, Hampden Highlands paid 100 percent of its 2020 Mission Shares, and Pastor Shaw shares some of the approaches he and church leaders used to help make that possible. 
Embracing online giving
“We made the decision even before the pandemic,” Pastor Shaw said, and set up online giving at the end of 2019. But once the church was worshiping online, that decision became critical. 
Initially online worship attendance was on par with in-person, but it dropped off a bit – some could not connect online; others explored the new option of worshipping remotely with other congregations. “That’s connected to giving, because a lot of our folks approached giving as out of sight, out of mind,” Pastor Shaw said.
And the concept did face some resistance: In the Finance Committee and Administrative Council there was some concern about security. 
“Another concern that I hadn’t heard, was that it would be as if we're charging people to come to worship. Like you use your credit card somewhere else,” he said.
“Others said, ‘There's something so physically important about being able to offer your tangible offering,’ and I completely understand that. I think that is something that’s deeply meaningful. That's why we would never take that away as an option,” Pastor Shaw said.
Both options for giving – mailing in a check or using electronic giving via computer or phone – are mentioned each week during remote worship, and people are given the details for using each.
“It has opened up some other possibilities there, I think,” Pastor Shaw said, “and I think people are realizing that it's not a bad thing to have and it doesn't mean that it's an impersonal way of giving.”
Telling the story of where Mission Shares go
“I would say we have a very generous congregation, but that intentional language of stewardship is not part of the congregational cultural DNA. We knew that we had to address it,” Pastor Shaw said. “The Finance Committee was working [on] how do we encourage that? Not just looking at it as we're paying bills for the church, but how are we going to tell the story that this is enabling ministry?” 
“In many of our congregations around the connection, there's this idea that [Mission Shares are] our church tax or this is what we have to pay to ‘The Conference’ … as if we are not the conference, but we are we are part of the conference, you know?”
The Finance Committee and other church leaders started to be more intentional about sharing the message that Mission Shares support New England mission and ministry as well as world mission. 
“We are in ministry all around the world, not just in our community. However, we are still in ministry in our community and these dollars do, in some ways, help with that, too. And I think that is important for people to see: ‘Where is the immediate connection to where I am?’ But also, ‘How is this having an impact around the world?’” 
The church started to see more giving specifically earmarked for Mission Shares – even from people who were worshiping online but are not part of the congregation.
 Another way of reframing, Pastor Shaw said, is to see Mission Shares as a spiritual practice.
“I think there's been sort of a misunderstanding about what Mission Shares are; that it's just an obligation for each United Methodist Church,” he said. “But … our goal as Christians is to give sacrificially in ways that we can, so whether that's a full tithe or it's working up to a tithe, that's a spiritual practice that we have. Well, this is sort of our church’s tithe. This is sort of our church's spiritual practice of giving in that way.”
Being transparent about the church’s finances
“We tried to keep the congregation very aware of where we were [financially]; we tried to be transparent from the beginning,” Pastor Shaw said. “I am very grateful for the Finance Committee here that they do hold that as a core value: To make sure people know what's going on.”
They sent a couple of letters to the congregation during the course of the year. Here Pastor Shaw talks about the first letter that went out:
“It was first a letter of gratitude, but it was next a letter of transparency about here's where we are. We're having a real hard time keeping up with our Mission Shares. I can't remember the exact month, we were very much behind in shares and, embarrassingly so, and that has not been the case for this congregation,” which had a long history of paying at 100 percent.
“I'm so grateful for [the finance team] and proud of them, because they stayed on top of this and really wanted to both encourage the congregation and challenge them as well.”
Reworking fundraisers 
Pastor Shaw said that at first, they were unsure about how or if they could hold some of their traditional fundraisers amid the pandemic. 
Their two Bean-Hole Bean Dinners became take-out meals and the annual Christmas Fair – under a new name – was moved outdoors. Proceeds from the Christmas Fair – generally about $10,000, were traditionally used for Mission Shares. The 2020 event brought in about $5,000, but it was more than was expected, Pastor Shaw said, and showed that with some “creativity and willingness to adapt” they could host events despite COVID-19. 
As the pastor, being willing to talk about finances 
“I'm still learning about how to work alongside churches in their financial life. I don't have a finance background, and so I'm learning as I go,” Pastor Shaw said. He says he doesn’t feel comfortable talking about giving and the church finances from the pulpit.
“I feel very awkward about it. I just have to be honest there, but it's important, and I recognized the deep importance of it, so I have made it a point each week in worship to talk about our giving,” Pastor Shaw said. “And to make mention of one way that you're giving this week makes a difference.” 
Pastor Shaw said he got that advice from Rev. David Abbott at the United Methodist Foundation of New England; he recommends reaching out to the Foundation as a resource.
Being intentional about saying ‘thank you’
“This is still a work in progress for us. We're trying to be more intentional about it, about writing thank-yous to people for giving — especially people giving directly in response to [a solicitation] letter. We're trying to get to the point where we become a well-oiled thank-you machine,” he said, to ensure that everyone receives acknowledgement every time they give.