'High-Five' challenge increases giving at New York church

'High-Five' challenge increases giving at New York church

Staten Island congregation responds to call to compensate staff fairly.
Jane Greer


Thanks to the “High-Five” challenge, 90 percent of the 124 members of the Unitarian Church of Staten Island, N.Y., have pledged to double or triple their financial commitments to the church. Many pledged as much as five percent of their income, said the Rev. Nate Walker, outgoing interim minister. “Our goal was to get people to pledge five percent or more of their annual income,” Walker said.

Because of the new program, pledges for the 2008 fiscal year are up from $54,000 to $82,000. While some members of the New York church have increased their pledges to five percent of their income, others have raised it to three percent, with the goal of increasing their pledge to four percent the following year and then five percent. “I would say that 90 percent of the congregation either went to five percent or said they significantly increased their pledge and would work toward five percent,” said Susanne O’Callaghan, finance committee chair. The appeal to members was made in February.

What provided the momentum for this change? “We were at a finance committee meeting and asked ourselves why in so many religious traditions tithing [giving 10 percent of income to the church] was common,” Walker said. They then went around the table and asked people how much they were actually pledging and the response was in the range of one to two percent. “What if we doubled that amount?” Walker suggested. From there, it wasn’t a big step to arrive at the amount of five percent, he said.

One of the biggest motivations to increase pledges is the congregation’s commitment to fairly compensating its staff. “Some of our people hadn’t had a raise in nine years,” Walker said. Because many church leaders and congregants didn’t even know who was on the staff, Walker organized a service honoring staff members who were invited to share their stories. “Once people heard these stories, they felt a greater commitment to compensating them fairly,” Walker said.

“He made us realize it was a social justice issue,” O’Callaghan added.

Three church employees will see immediate salary increases with two more employees scheduled for future raises.

An important part of the process is a canvassing system that spreads the stewardship responsibility among a larger group of people, Walker said. Each board member and committee chair is now responsible for canvassing three to four people. This means that each board member and committee chair must thoroughly understand the budget in order to present it to others. “This distributive-canvasser model solved our problem with our usual canvass burnout,” he said. “It also helped create a culture of shared responsibility, which inspired a culture of generosity.”

Each committee is also charged with holding a church fundraiser each year.

Not only has the congregation raised more money, it has also gained vitality. “This has energized the congregation,” Walker said. “People are pulling together.” One of the results of this new energy is that the congregation also increased its membership from 89 to 124. Some of that is bringing back people who had left the church because of an earlier conflict, Walker said.

“It looks like they’ve found a cause; that a strong case has been made for this,” said Wayne Clark, the UUA’s director of Congregational Stewardship Services and author of the book Beyond Fundraising: A Complete Guide to Congregational Stewardship. “And that’s important. I’m not surprised that it’s working well.”

Staten Island is not going to keep the High Five Challenge to themselves; they intend to spread it around. They’ve challenged the First Unitarian Church in Philadelphia, a congregation that has called Walker to serve as its next minister, to do the same. The congregation also hopes to challenge other churches in the Metropolitan New York district.

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