Generosity, Focus and Service: Being Relevant Today, Staying Relevant Tomorrow

Published on: August 27, 2015

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Oh! The joys and the challenges of ministry. There is so much to love and celebrate about spiritual community, but there are also very real problems we address regularly. Many of them have to do with the changing nature of people and society today. As a natural part of evolution, some things that worked before just don’t work as well. I have found it helpful in my brief, yet somehow quite long, three years in my spiritual community to take stock of what is changing so we can adjust and respond to the new reality.

On a good day, I embrace the changes and see new ways to meet them. I can even be excited about where this new world will take us. On a bad day, it’s so frustrating. I resent having to constantly shift our approach and play with how we say things or what we offer. I get discouraged about the institution of church overall and with my specific individual ministry as well.

Perhaps that is one of the first changes we can make. Acknowledge what is actually happening and that it can be both wonderful and difficult. Most of us have probably heard the phrase “spiritual bypass.” Unity is sometimes accused of being too positive and not realistic enough. We want to skip over the part where we admit our unpleasant feelings, whether sadness, anger, frustration or hopelessness.

One of the wonderful shifts I’ve experienced in recent years is to finally admit those feelings in Unity settings and to be validated and supported instead of shunned or corrected. I see that welcoming of all our feelings as one of the first things we can change in ourselves, our spiritual communities and our movement. We can honor the full human/spiritual experience. Doing that better equips us to then address some of the other more practical issues we all face.

Navigating the Waters of the Change in the Church’s Role

Perhaps the most pressing issue many of us face is the changing nature of religion and spiritual community in the world and how this impacts our numbers—attendance, membership and financial. Every new Pew Research Center study alerts us to the continuing decline in Americans’ interest in religion. And while it seems like Unity would benefit by the increasing number of “spiritual but not religious,” we aren’t. They don’t want to come to our spiritual community either. So like the rest of the denominations, most of our numbers, in general, are down.

Now that we’ve admitted that, we can deal with it. The question is how? What works to successfully staff and fund ministry today? I find the theories espoused just a few years ago are already outdated. The world is changing just that fast. I am making it up on a daily basis sometimes. It’s liberating and crazy-making.

The biggest area of change in my community is around money. People give differently, usually less, than before. So, we changed our language, our perspective, our approach. And it’s working. We focus on the teaching and the word generosity now. Chris Willard and Jim Sheppard say in Contagious Generosity: “Generosity at its core is a lifestyle … in which we share all that we have, are, and ever will become as a demonstration of God’s love. What makes generosity a real and powerful witness to God’s love is our action.”

I see generosity as an extension or perhaps an evolution of our teaching of prosperity. In some ways, we are saying the same thing. Yet, I find the word generosity shifts us more naturally from an attitude of getting to giving. And let’s be honest, most of the world is focused on the getting part. Until they are deep into our prosperity teaching, people usually focus on how they can treasure map to get the new car. Rather than having to shift them from that, a teaching of generosity already starts at the more difficult and more impactful side of the equation.

I’ve been blessed to work with a generosity consultant this past year, and he has helped us make tremendous strides in our spiritual community. Our board and leaders have shifted. I preach on the topic more often and more easily. Money is not as difficult a topic as it once was. I think this is something we must get comfortable with if we are to thrive or even survive. As people come less and give less and feel the pull of endless other charities, speaking in a way that helps them see the impact of their gift is crucial.

As a result of all this work, we conducted a hugely successful pledge campaign. Seventy percent of our members stepped up with an annual pledge amount, so we can now budget in a more grounded way. The result? Our giving is up 50%.

While that dollar increase is amazing, and believe me I am grateful beyond measure for it, what is more important is the inner change it represents. There is a commitment in our members like never before. People are excited about our progress and ask about the status of the campaign. More attend our town hall meetings. We have events to recognize them. We celebrate how generous we are and the gift it is in our life and our community. It is a real shift in consciousness.

Along with the change in financials, the other challenge many of us face is on the human side. People just don’t come to church or volunteer like they used to. On the attendance side, I have first worked to simply accept it. Oh it hurts some Sundays. Yet, because we’ve worked so hard on the generosity issue, the drop in attendance has not affected our bottom line. Less people, more money. The principles Gary Simmons has taught for years do work.

While I accept it for now, I admit my great hope is this is a trend that will eventually reverse itself. We may never get back to the attendance levels of our heights years ago, but I still believe people will wake up and realize they really do need spiritual community to walk a spiritual path. They will discover, as Thich Nhat Hanh says, “If you are without a sangha, you lose your practice very soon.”

A spiritual community supports the spiritual life like nothing else. We have something truly amazing to offer all those who think they are fine on their own. Meditating with Oprah and Deepak is nice, but they aren’t there for you every Sunday of the year with an inspirational message. They can’t give you a hug when you need it. They aren’t teaching metaphysics in a small group setting where you can wrestle with deep truth teachings.

This is an area where we need to keep holding the faith. It may look like people are leaving and don’t need us like they used to, but if we keep knowing how much we can help the world, and keep listening to their needs, I believe they will find their way back. On this front, it is crucial for us to keep up with the times. It’s no longer enough to offer the same events and classes we used to. We need to be laser-focused on activities with impact. Are we offering things that change lives?

In our ministry it looks like this. We always conducted an annual health fair. It was a sweet event, but it took tremendous effort and stressed out our teams. It made a bit of money, but no new people ever came to our spiritual community because of it. But oh how we loved the idea of it. Suggesting we let it go almost got me run out of town. It took me two years, because I was new, but we finally let it go. We now take that energy and use it for other more impactful things, such as generosity dinners or additional guest speaker workshops, which bring more people into our community.

Focusing on the most crucial events also helps address the drop in volunteers. By removing the “busy work” of events that don’t have high impact, the demand on our teams is less. When folks start complaining that people aren’t stepping up for something, that is usually a sign the event needs to be reviewed. If it’s hard and we struggle to do it, then maybe we don’t really value it, or maybe there is a simpler way to do it.

The other change that has worked for us is another shift in language, perspective, and approach. We transitioned from a volunteer mindset to one of service. Awkward as it is, I strive to always refer to the time people give as service. I want them to see their time as a gift, not an obligation.

We teach our team leads that the personal approach is the most effective way to enroll people. Announcements and e-blasts rarely work. People crave connection and value. They may want to try out a team before joining. Let them know you noticed them, get to know them, and invite them to a small step of service, and you will have much better results. As Jonathan and Thomas W. McKee share in The New Breed: Understanding and Equipping the 21st Century Volunteer, people are volunteering differently and we need to change how we recruit.

It’s a new day for spiritual communities. There are exciting aspects, like the popularity of spiritual books, and there are discouraging aspects like declining numbers. But when we have the courage to look at ourselves honestly, we can then respond and meet the needs around us. It’s our time to evolve and grow into something even more meaningful. Spiritual community matters. There is nothing like it. We are a gift that matters in the world, and that makes our struggle and our joy worth it.

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Mora Elizabeth

Elizabeth Mora, MDiv, is senior minister at Unity of Montclair, N.J.

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  • Pat Bell

    Elizabeth, this was a great article. I sent it to the other members of our board as soon as I finished reading it. Really powerful. Thank you! And was just fun to see your name and connect with you in the reading. Loved connecting with you during our search 4 years ago. Glad things are going well with you. Pat