The First Unitarian Church of Oklahoma City started giving away all of its nonpledge Sunday offering three years ago.*
The Rev. Mark Christian describes what happened: “The last year that we kept the plate for ourselves we totaled just under $3,000. This past year it was $22,000 for the year. This is one of the most exciting things we’ve ever done.”
The money--all of it--goes to a different social service group each month. “Some of these groups have pretty small budgets,” Christian says. “When we come in with a check for $1,500 or $2,000, it makes a big impact.”
Getting started was a big step for the 380-member congregation. Christian took the idea to the board of trustees at the end of his first year as minister, in May 2002, proposing to give away part of the plate. But by that fall he’d decided that wasn’t enough. “I wanted us to stand more firmly in our faith,” he says. “I proposed to the board that we give it all away. We agreed to try it for three months, and we have not looked back.”
A hundred miles away in Tulsa, 1,100-member All Souls Unitarian Church started giving away all of its Sunday offering in January and found that contributions went from an average of $400 to $2,000 a week. Each week a different community group gets a check for the full amount.
All Souls minister the Rev. Marlin Lavanhar says the church expects to give away about $110,000 over a year’s time. Coupled with other giving built into the church’s budget, he says, the church will be donating 10 percent of its $1.4 million budget to outside causes. “In a sense, we are tithing to the community,” says Lavanhar.
Church members are excited. “As soon as we put a cause before them, whether it’s domestic violence, disabled veterans, or racial justice, and remind them that this is how our values can be lived out in the world, they get behind it,” Lavanhar says. “One person told me that he used to give just the minimum amount to the church, but now he’s become a joyful giver. He has learned to enjoy being generous.”
And it’s given the church more visibility in the community. The church name is showing up in newsletters and annual reports of nonprofits that receive donations. In October the Tulsa World newspaper featured the All Souls program on the front page of its religion section.
Lavanhar also likes what giving the plate away says to church visitors, demonstrating that the church is actively engaged in the community and is not financially needy.
Lavanhar believes donating 100 percent of the nonpledge Sunday offering has lots of potential, especially if other congregations pick up the idea. “Imagine if Unitarian churches across the country became known for giving away our collection,” he says, “and that inspired other churches, other denominations, to do the same. There would be hundreds of millions of dollars to feed the hungry and protect the vulnerable. We could be a model of generosity.”
He believes that giving away the Sunday plate has also contributed to an increase in pledging and has inspired some who formerly didn’t pledge. “Every church has people who don’t pledge, but who say they give to the plate. Now we can remind them the plate does not support the church, but pledging does. This has made our pitch to members much stronger.”
Ginny Gregory, past president of the Oklahoma City congregation, sees a similar impact at her church. “We’ve quit thinking we’re so poor,” she says. “Every year our pledge drive just barely made it, or fell a little short. But last year we exceeded our goal and were able to give our staff eight percent raises. That felt good. We’re looking at money differently. It makes us look outward more than we used to.”
The Second Congregational Society in Concord, New Hampshire, is in its second full year of giving all of its offering away. “When the leadership recommended it to the congregation at the annual meeting, it was a courageous venture,” the Rev. Marcel Duhamel says. “We were really struggling to make our budget. But it had no negative impact, and now we’re giving away $18,000 a year.” Before, the plate brought in $8,000 to $12,000, which went into the operating budget.
“We’ve had very positive reaction from the community and we’re becoming known as an altruistic church. Before, we were too focused on ourselves.” He said there’s been no negative impact on the annual stewardship drive.
Also in New Hampshire, the Unitarian Universalist Church of Nashua is now in its third year of giving away its offering. It’s also the third year of taking any offering at all. Church consultant Michael Durall persuaded the congregation that it was the right thing to do, and since then collections have been $400 to $700 a week, according to Barbara Koumjian, church administrator. Every four to six weeks a local organization is chosen to receive about $2,000. “We are energized,” Koumjian says. “It’s kind of exciting now to see how much good we can do.”
The Unitarian Society, a Unitarian Universalist Congregation, in East Brunswick, N.J., has given away all of its Sunday collections since the fall of 2003. The Rev. Susan Rak said the program, Cash in Basket, which was started by the late Rev. Paul Mueller, collects several hundred dollars a week that is distributed to local, national, and international groups. “Every week it’s a reminder that we sit inside this walls, in this sheltered space,” Rak says, “but we need to make connections with the world outside.”
Giving away all or part of the offering is a great idea, says Wayne Clark, the UUA’s director of congregational fundraising, adding, “It does help us move outside ourselves. And clearly it’s a way of being more visible in our communities.
Correction 12.2.05: An earlier version of this article incorrectly reported that the First Unitarian Church of Oklahoma City had started its plate-sharing program at the suggestion of church consultant Michael Durall. The church actually began the program before it started working with Durall. Click here to return to the corrected paragraph.