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
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."
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Donald E. Skinner was the founding editor of the InterConnections newsletter for congregational leaders and a senior editor of UU World from 1998 until his retirement in 2014. He is a member of the Shawnee Mission Unitarian Universalist Church in Lenexa, Kansas.
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