“Say thank you.” I can hear my mom telling me those words even now as I type this column from a coffee shop along my Conference travels in Marina. When I was a young child, it was spoken in a calm, instructive tone, urging me to thank a family member for a gift during the holidays. A different tone emerged later in life during my teenage years, a little more sarcastic than instructive, seeking to combat the mixture of indifference and rebellion that only a teen can muster. (And since Mom is a subscriber to the Conference newsletter where this is published, I can only imagine the myriad other times she will now recall having told me these words and soon inform me of my “convenient forgetfulness”!)
From an early age my truth has been manners were taught while details were caught. I might not have innately understood the power of manners within my being, however I’ve always noticed the details. My dad has worked in various technical/engineering capacities through his vocational life, and he used to occasionally bring me along to his work sites while installing cabling or other equipment. It was a special treat for me; I felt special and grown up when Dad would teach me about some of the equipment or let me punch down wires or install the plugs on the ends of cables.
I remember one of those work days, during the summer school vacation days somewhere in my later grade school years. He had finished the design of a new telecommunications system for a customer and was installing the core equipment. It required some new cabling and that was the project the day he took me with him to work. Dad opened up one of the cable closets and sighed a long sound of exasperation as he looked at the spaghetti bowl of cables tangled with one another. I asked him what was wrong with it and he told me that it was simply a lazy mess.
A few months later, during another school break day after the cabling had been done and Dad was configuring the equipment, he brought me along to work again. It wasn’t as exciting sitting in those equipment rooms, watching as he typed lines of code into terminals or clipped in his test phone set to different wires. But this particular day, we had to walk back to that same cable closet – and when Dad opened it up, I saw a dramatically different sight than what greeted us the last time.
Instead of cables seemingly coming from nowhere, through the ceiling and holes in the wall, they were carefully tied together, labeled, and followed specific pathways through the space. Immediately it made sense to me – details mattered. I could appreciate the extra effort that had gone into finishing this part of the project and understood how it would make work easier for anyone who had to manage the system from then forward.
Sure, I’m sure there was a difference in the guts of the communications system. But to me, the difference was in the details.
Last column I shared a sample of the different places I choose to support financially with my personal tithe and other donations. Over the years, this has given me a pool of comparison to consider the manners and details of the different organizations.
I’ve discovered there are three different types of organizations when it comes to donations, which I will categorize as active, functional, and mysterious.
Active organizations receive a donation and consider the details of proper manners in response. Most of the time this includes a personal thank-you to me from a key leader in that organization, usually in writing but also occasionally with a telephone call. The thank-you is separate from the actual donation receipt. And a few months after the donation, I usually get yet another follow-up letting me know how my donation was used through a story or illustration of the organization’s mission. Manners and details are important and clearly thought through in active organizations.
Functional organizations, on the other hand, receive a donation and properly acknowledge the donation with a donation receipt. Sometimes this is in the form of a quarterly or year-end statement. The engagement is cold and impersonal – it completes the necessary function of financial tracking, but as a donor I’m left wondering how the organization used the money. It doesn’t engender much connection with the organization or its mission, I don’t really feel included, and if I gave money at the beginning of the year and only receive the statement at the end of the year, I might even already have forgotten about them altogether. The details are missing, and it kind of feels like a grudging “thank-you” that is simply implied.
Mysterious organizations are, as their name implies, a total mystery. If I wrote a check or donated electronically, at least I can know that they received my money by the change in my bank account. But if I gave cash (and, of course, my contact information), I won’t even know that they really received my donation. There’s no communication whatsoever: no thank-you or donation receipt.
I’m sad to say that functional and mysterious organizations are, in my experience, the predominant types present in our Conference churches. (Yes, I have been testing you in my Sunday travels, writing checks for your offering plates or enclosing cash in your pew envelopes with my full name and address over the past two-and-a-half years!)
The bad news is that this leaves a donor – even one who is obviously faithful and loyal to the institution of church – feeling kind of wasted and used. When I don’t receive a follow-up, or I only receive a giving receipt, it makes me feel excluded and wonder if the congregation feels entitled to my money. At best, it feels kind of lazy, rushed, and lacking details.
But the good news is that abundance and grace are intimately intertwined. The past ways can be changed. Details can be recovered. Just the simple power of a personal thank-you note from your Council/Consistory, pastor, or another key leader when you receive a donation or pledge, distinct from a giving statement or receipt, is the type of detail that really goes a long way in
building a positive relationship between your congregation and those who make financial expressions of covenant with the church.
After all, our moms taught us to “say thank you.” So: thank you for the amazing witness to justice, reconciliation, and community you all are in our shared ministry as Conference.
And to those congregations which make annual financial commitments to Our Church’s Wider Mission, and the individuals who choose to be Friends of the Conference – a special thank you to you, as well.
Thoughts From the Road is a monthly (-ish) column from Associate Conference Minister Daniel Ross-Jones exploring topics of stewardship, philanthropy, and organizational leadership. Follow him on Instagram @uccdrj.