Outlook forum on special offerings: A bold goal: $20 million by 2020


We have a problem. Special Offerings giving is down. In 11 years, giving has slumped 25 percent. In the last four years alone, contributions plunged 17 percent.

We can do better.

The General Assembly’s Special Offerings Advisory Task Force has studied the decline, researched commitments and passions within the denomination, and proposed solutions for change over four years. The Task Force loves Special Offerings and wants passionately to unleash their potential. At the Task Force’s urging, the GAMC has adopted a bold vision to reverse the trend and raise Special Offerings receipts to $20 million by 2020. It’s a daring goal, and reachable, but our denomination must make changes now.

The GAMC recently approved three recommendations: embracing the $20 million by 2020 goal; hiring a staff person singularly dedicated to increasing giving; and adopting creative use of new technologies and communication tools such as social networking, the Internet and electronic funds transfer.

Now it’s the General Assembly’s turn to weigh the proposals.

Special Offerings are unique in that every Presbyterian and Presbyterian family may choose to participate. Through focus groups and surveys, the Task Force has asked what Presbyterians care about most.

First, Presbyterians like to designate our gifts and we expect accountability. If we share dollars for community development, we want them spent there. When the Board of Pensions shares our donations with retired church servants as we intend, we smile.

Second, Presbyterians prefer to designate gifts for specific causes. Our Task Force proposes moving the PC(USA) towards best practices learned from the broader world of philanthropy. These days, givers choose causes over programs or institutions. Presbyterians in the pew are keenly interested to help disaster victims, specifically concerned about racial ethnic church leadership development, and stridently committed to the least of these. So, the proposals eliminate percentage designations to particular programs in favor of designations to specific areas of ministry — to causes.

We will build upon our historic commitments by raising additional dollars for the causes they support. Elected leaders on the GAMC will direct these dollars to designated causes. Presbyterians in the pew will rest assured that their money is spent on causes they choose. Not only is this cause-based model now prominent in the philanthropic world; six of our eight One Great Hour of Sharing partner denominations already use it.

Some have asked if this change would dilute Special Offerings into another GAMC funding stream. It won’t. Designating for causes rather than programs is still designated giving. In fact, from the giver’s perspective, cause designation is even more focused than program designation. Among those who understand Louisville’s alphabet soup — PDA, SDOP, PHP — there is great trust in these programs and pride in supporting them. That said, most in the pews are more excited by the work done than by the programs which do it.

Next, the Task Force has proposed a new World Communion Offering — 25 percent for local witness and outreach, 25 percent for presbytery shared witness and outreach, and 50 percent for witness and outreach beyond the United States. As the world grows flat, our Christian responsibilities and opportunities grow more obvious. Presbyterians yearn to share faith and do justice around the globe and want a special offering for this purpose. Within the World Communion Offering, congregations may also continue to designate their offering for peacemaking ministries. We suggest further that peacemaking ministries be funded within the One Great Hour of Sharing and also from other sources.

Taken together, the SOATF’s recommendations constitute the first major reconsideration of Special Offerings since reunion in 1983. The proposals are sweeping and broad. Not surprisingly, the proposals have stirred conversation and drawn fire. The Task Force asks Presbyterians, especially General Assembly Commissioners, to read the report for themselves on pc-biz. They will discover that the

disagreement is not about values. The Task Force’s recommendations are fiercely loyal to the denomination’s commitment to care for the undervalued and forgotten. The disagreement is not about values; it is about accountability, technique and impact.

It is time to look forward, adopt abundance thinking, embrace our connectionalism, trust elected leadership and trust God to provide the resources to succeed.


KARL TRAVIS is chair of the Special Offerings Advisory Task Force and pastor of First Church, Fort Worth, Texas. SARAH SARCHET BUTTER is vice chair of the task force and pastor of First Church, Wilmette, Ill.