But it's not very exciting. Money dropped into the plate usually ends up in the operating fund, paying for the gas or electric bill. The collection can also feel like an obligation to visitors as the plate comes down the row. And many regular pledgers feel compelled to contribute something to the plate just because it's there in front of them.
But some congregations have found a way to add enthusiasm to the Sunday offering ritual. They give the plate away--to charity. The Unitarian Society of New Brunswick, New Jersey, began giving away all of its Sunday offering last fall, except for pledge payments. "It's the most invigorating program I've ever seen," says the Rev. Paul Mueller. "Giving went way up." The congregation normally budgets $4,000 annually from the Sunday offering, but in the first eight months of the give-away, which began in September, worshipers have contributed $6,674.
Rev. Mueller speaks these words each week before the offering is received: "We do not gather your gifts for ourselves, but for the world. All that we receive for ______ organization in this morning's offering will be sent to them. As always, we encourage you to be generous."
All of the offering since September has been given to seventeen organizations benefiting research into breast and prostate cancer; AIDS, literacy, and children's programs; a women's shelter; schools; Doctors Without Borders; and environmental groups. The donation program has given new meaning to the offering ritual, says Mueller. "Giving it away has helped people think about the larger community. People suggest charities because they know of someone who needs help, maybe someone who has breast cancer, for example."
Mt. Diablo Unitarian Universalist Church in Walnut Creek, California, has "Share the Plate Sunday" once a month, giving half of nonpledge cash to charities chosen by the social justice committee. Contributions average $700, an increase of $100 to $200 over regular Sundays. "The timing was very right," said Jason Neakrase, chair of the social action committee. "Our members had expressed a desire for more opportunities for social action projects."
The congregation created special projects as tie-ins with the donations. For instance, one month the collection plate money went to Dress for Success, a charity that provides clothing for job interviewees. In addition to the Sunday collection, the congregation also donated clothing. When Habitat for Humanity was the recipient, two Habitat work days were organized for Mt. Diablo friends and members. "It's a great opportunity to showcase social action issues to our congregation," said Neakrase.
He added, "We found out a couple of things--the amount of money we lose from our operating budget isn't very much, because people are giving more."
Mt. Diablo member Florence Pierson is one of those who puts something extra in the plate for the special projects. "I love the fact that a lot of our effort is going to help low-income people in our own community," she said. "When we do our annual canvass a common complaint in years past has been that we haven't been involved enough in social action. I haven't heard that this year. These projects are definitely making a difference in our church."
Dupage Unitarian Universalist Church in Naperville, Illinois, also gives the plate once a month to designated causes. "The giving on these Sundays is pretty substantial," said Dupage member Dean Reschke. "So often there seems to be a disconnect between what we do in our worship and the real world expression of our values. This practice makes a clear and intentional connection. I think members are hungry for concrete ways to regularly express their values. And this is more tangible for people than just giving a percentage of the budget."
First Unitarian Universalist Church of Austin, Texas, started a "Split the Plate Sunday" several years ago. Each October the Social Action Committee presents fourteen causes to the Finance Committee, which selects twelve. "Be sure to pick noncontroversial recipients as well as nonpolitical causes," says Henry Hug, a member of the finance committee. He said the congregation thought it would lose money, but found that Sunday cash contributions have more than doubled.
At the Unitarian Universalist Society of Greater Springfield, Massachusetts, the practice of sharing the plate was instituted several years ago, said member Cynthia Sommer. First, the Rev. Georganne Greene preached about the idea of giving as spiritual practice, introducing the idea of tithing.
"She approached our Standing Committee with the idea of doing this with ten per cent of our weekly plate collection to help other organizations working for social justice in our community," said Sommer. "The standing committee discussed positives and negatives and I believe the consensus was unanimous that we recommend it to the congregation. The congregation voted it in easily, and many of us are proud to see ourselves as growing in generosity ever since. Twice a year, the minister and the chair of our program council and the chair of our social justice council decide where to send a check for a few hundred dollars. It is not much, but it helps."
"My personal reaction," said Sommer, "was to double my weekly offering, since, after all, the folks receiving our donation are only getting ten cents on the dollar!"
For many years the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Corvallis, Oregon, did not collect an offering. "We took pride in the fact that we did not put people through the discomfort of passing the plate," says treasurer Louise Ferrell. About twenty years ago, when the fellowship began to grow and needed the money, collections were begun. To accommodate collection opponents, special envelopes were provided for contributions to a charity of the month. Currently the congregation collects about $4,000 annually in nonpledge cash and $7,000 for charity.
"There is no question," says Ferrell, "but that our charitable collection is important to overall satisfaction with our church and that some of our members would be loudly unhappy if we did nothing."
James Lieb, a member of the East Brunswick congregation, said he had not been in the habit of putting money in the plate, apart from pledge payments, until the congregation began giving the money away. "Now that the money goes for a special purpose, I'll put in $10 for whatever the cause is. It's only a few hundred dollars a year for me, but when you add it to what everyone else donates, it adds up. And it also opens up one's perspective. I'm giving to charities I'd never heard of before. It feels like a very positive thing to do."
Starting a Share the Plate Practice
- Introduce it with sermons and newsletter articles.
- Promote it as part of the congregation's social justice program, as a way to help the larger community.
- Select recipients that are not controversial or political.
- Provide information about the recipient agencies. Have representatives of those organizations speak to the congregation or host information tables after the service.
- Provide opportunities for people to volunteer time with those same agencies.
- At the end of the year, recap all of the good causes the money has supported.
- If you think there will be resistance, start small, with a percentage of the plate.