Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Overrated in Congregational Life: The "Summer Slump Letter"

Some people mark the changing of the seasons by holidays. Some people don't mark the changing of seasons with terms like solstice and equinox, but Memorial Day weekend, the 4th of July, Labor Day, and Easter.

Congregations can mark the changing of the seasons from the giving messages they receive via email or snail mail. You know it's autumn when you receive a letter asking for a pledge in the coming year. You know it's winter when you receive a letter to remind you of your last opportunity to make a tax-deductible donation for the fiscal/tax year. You know summer has arrived when you receive a reminder letter that congregational giving is often down during the summer months and that budget strains are acute during that time. Kennon Callahan called this the "Summer Slump Letter." Forget keeping a calendar or looking at the weather. Look at your mailbox or inbox. You'll know what season it is then. I've seen several Summer Slump letters already this summer. They're a little early this year--the economy must be bad. Slap a Bible verse or a prayer on the end of the plea, mark a season, proclaim deficit awareness, and spiritualize it. There you have the Summer Slump letter.

For many congregations, tight budgets are a way of life. Even for congregations flush with cash from a bequest or a land deal, I have yet to encounter a congregation that doesn't agonize over financial resources in some way (I see congregations flush with cash who fight more than congregations with tight budgets, but that is another story).

After seeing numerous cycles of letters and emails sent to congregational members over the years, congregational coffers should be full of donations, deeply moved and inspired by the letters they receive. These letters have probably been written for several decades. Have they made a difference (please let me know if they have)?

Why bother writing these letters?

Congregational leadership wrangles over the budget during most monthly meetings, if not all of them. Letters send a message that the leadership is not ignoring the tight budget, but doing SOMETHING. It usually makes them feel better, not to mention puffing up their own sense of accomplishment if they are giving themselves. Sometimes congregational leadership will go so far as to scold the congregational members for not giving. How well does scolding go (please let me know if you have a scolding success story)?

Callahan suggests that if there is a summer slump time in the congregation that it has to be planned for throughout the year, not addressed as a surprise occurrence each year. What might be a better approach to addressing a giving trend that is lower during the summer months?

1. Rarely will summer giving dips be adequately addressed during the actual summer months. These trends have to be addressed during the budgeting process, not when resource issues reach panic levels.

2. Some assumptions about congregational giving must be released. New members do not mean more money for a congregation, in fact, new members will probably mean resources will become even more strained. The new member + new member = more money fallacy is rooted in a notion that a congregation is the center of a given culture. With that in mind consider the next point.

3. Giving is based on a relationship. My late grandmother gave to ministries when she connected with the television preacher or Bible study leader. I didn't necessarily like how or to whom she gave, but the television ministry connected with her faithfully and regularly, more than even her own family. Even with a television, a kind of personal connection is made. How much better a connection is made when congregational leaders facilitate intentional, face to face communication with a listening posture? With a letter, nothing is learned about the recipient. A face to face meeting, though labor and time intensive, provides learning beyond measure. Face to face meetings are opportunities to learn about what God is doing through that person and how that activity can be shared with the body of Christ. Face to face communication is a high risk, high reward venture.

I invite you to share your wisdom about summer slumps or any other giving season issues you would like to discuss.

Do you know what season it is in your congregation? Check your inbox or mailbox--the overrated Summer Slump letter may be there.


  1. We get quarterly "Giving Reports" that thank us for fulfilling our pledge regularly, or remind us if we are behind. It's also couched in terms of "In case we misapplied some of your gifts, this is what our records show..."
    Additionally, our pledge year runs with the calendar while the church fiscal year is July through June. Stewardship season is the fall and budgeting season is in the spring. That seems to give the business office an opportunity to advise if we are running behind and gives us a good feel during budgeting time of what funds will be available. It also keeps the church finances in the front of people's minds all year long.
    Also, our ministers are not shy about talking about money, and new members are expected to pledge (even a little bit). Jesus talked a lot about money - so why shouldn't Christian churches.
    I'm not sure where the statistics came from, but they are always repeated during new member classes. 80% of the people who pledge will still be in the pews after 5 years, and only 20% of those who pledge will still be there after 5 years. Apparently it's true that where your money is, there will your heart be also.

  2. Last paragraph should read...
    I'm not sure where the statistics came from, but they are always repeated during new member classes. 80% of the people who pledge will still be in the pews after 5 years, and only 20% of those who DON'T pledge will still be there after 5 years. Apparently it's true that where your money is, there will your heart be also.

  3. Abbie--

    My experience in Presbyterian congregations has been that Presbys are much more clear about their expectations, especially about giving. I know there are case where that doesn't happen, but I found the difference striking. I think it bodes well for giving. However, I still saw the Summer Slump letter from Presbyterian congregations--in some ways I think it's more of a leadership and perspective issue than a money issue. I'm guessing that as an accountant, you have done well offering perspectives about anticipating the ebbs and flows of giving!