This past summer my wife, our three kids and I visited Great Britain. It was, first and foremost, a vacation. Over the course of three weeks we logged some 2,500 km from the Scottish Highlands, through North Wales to meet up with family on my mother’s side (she’s a Jones), then on to Stratford and Canterbury.
I could not avoid mixing business with pleasure. Thanks to a grant from the Fellowship of the Maple Leaf, a British-based agency designed to encourage dialogue between the Anglican Church of Canada and the Church of England, I connected with colleagues in Oban, Scotland; Bangor and St. Asaph, Wales; and in England. My mission was simple: to learn of their experience with stewardship education and to learn about their vision of the church for the next 20 years.
The tone of our conversations was hopeful. Even in tiny Argyll and the Isles on Scotland’s west coast, where only 720 people are identified on parish rolls in 22 congregations, there is a feeling of optimism about the future. For Episcopalians here, it has always been about perseverance. The Church has maintained a presence here since St. Columba established a monastic community on Iona in 563 AD.
Stewardship is largely practiced in terms of time and talent – with a heavy emphasis on time. With only a handful of stipendiary clergy, lay people step up as readers, pastoral visitors, service providers and diocesan staff. Giving on the collection plate is not substantial, but thanks to outside grants the Church gets by.
Conversations about the need for discipleship abound on Argyll and the Isles’ webpage and in parish bulletins. More and more, evidence seems to confirm that stewardship follows discipleship, as several parishes have experienced numeric growth in recent years. A couple have even added part-time youth ministers. In a part of the Church where numbers matter, discipleship is making a difference.
A similar experience can be found in North Wales. Discipleship is all the rage here, too. On top of that, efforts to increase on-plate collections have resulted in a near doubling of per-person giving over the past decade. The reason for the growth is two-fold: each congregation needs to be self-sustaining, as there are few external granting opportunities, and Pre-Authorized Remittance (PAR) has made giving very easy (and ensured support for ministry goes on even when people are away from church).
As you have read in my column time and again, I am a huge proponent of PAR. The Welsh call it planned giving, and it has helped sustain and even grow some congregations in the past few years. When I attended a church service in Betws-y-Coed, I was pleasantly surprised by the size and diversity of the congregation – the vicar said attendance was lower that Sunday (they must have known that the director of Stewardship from Toronto was coming)! All kidding aside, there was optimism here that the Church must maintain a Christian presence in every community.
My final conversation was with John Preston, the national stewardship and resource officer for the Church of England. He has an office in London, though like most resource staff, he is on the road most of the time. Fifty years ago, he tells me, people in the pew were not required to support ministry. This changed in the 1970s as Church investments were hit hard by declining financial markets. Despite the chaos that it caused at the time, the collapse of investment values had a positive outcome, as it forced church members to become more actively involved in the life and ministry of the Church. Among active members, proportionate giving is about 3.5 per cent of household incomes, and the proportion is nearly double that for those who use direct debit (no surprise here).
The biggest challenge for the Church of England is discipleship. Adult formation is weak, as the Church has tended to rely on its schools to teach about Christian living and to provide sacramental preparation. Fresh Expressions of Church has resulted in positive outcomes, though growing the Church is hard work, especially as society becomes more secular.
My encounter with colleagues across Britain helped confirm my own assumptions about giving and provided optimism that growth is possible when we focus on disciple-making.
One thing I took away from my journey that was completely new was a national giving program called Gift Aid. Simply put, it is a reverse tax credit arrangement where the donor designates their tax credit to a charity of his or her choice. Up to 25 per cent of any gift can be re-gifted. How ingenious!
To put this in Canadian terms, the average donor in Ontario who gives more than $200 annually is entitled to a 40.16 per cent personal tax credit. In effect, a gift of $1,000 over the first $200 “costs” the donor $598.40. This credit is used to off-set tax owed.
While I do not believe that a tax advantage is the leading motivator for giving, it might be a consideration for giving more. Consider that a donation of $1,667 would be necessary to actually “cost” the donor $1,000.
December is the most popular time of the year for people to make charitable donations. Many organizations, including churches, receive up to one-third of their annual revenue during this month. If you are able, can you Gift Aid the Church this year? While the procedure does not exist on any tax form, you can make it happen nonetheless. Up your gift by the value of the tax credit. This way charities will experience their own Christmas bonus and you will feel better knowing that your gift has had an even bigger impact.