[Episcopal News Service] Every organization needs money to carry out its mission. Churches, too, but Christians sometimes have a lackluster spirit when it comes to raising money. Add to that the pride of being in charge, the feeling that you can’t change anything lest the event chairpersons of the past will haunt you, and the unspoken fear that if you don’t raise so many tens of thousands of dollars you’ll disappoint God, your rector, and the entire community, and church fundraisers often have more drama than daytime TV.
Let’s be honest: People of faith are lousy at fundraisers.
People of faith are good at inspiration, compassion, and celebration, however. That’s what it means to be animated by the Holy Spirit. What if we took our fundraisers and turned them, inside out, into celebrations of ministry? Or opportunities for fellowship? Or a gift to our community? What if we set out to raise fun; fun-raisers instead of fundraisers?
Actually, this thought occurred to me at the very moment I needed it. The church I serve in Maryland has a tradition of an annual crab cake dinner. Every year we beg, plead, and drag someone into the role of dinner chairperson. Then, for the next six months of their once blissful life, they fret about beets and crab meat and hear everyone’s opinion about everything else. After it’s all over we wonder why they look so exhausted or why we seldom see their chipper face.
Around the time of the annual solicitation, er, cajoling for a chairperson, the parish historian shared with me some anecdotes about crab cake dinners of the past. I read stories about people bringing what they had – farmers bringing chickens, watermen crabs, others produce from their gardens. The week was spent picking crabs (and probably gossiping) and making sure the chickens kept cool hanging in the well. On the appointed day, everyone came and the church charged a nominal fee. At the end of the dinner the kids were taken home, at which point the adults danced and sang, probably accompanied by a few bottles. Some of these stories were told by parishioners who remember, as children, sneaking back to the hall and peeking through the curtain at their moms and dads doing a jig and having a blast.
To me, it sounded like fun. Over time, we turned what was a potluck-homecoming-fellowship dinner into an all-you-can-eat fundraiser. Besides the bit about chickens hanging in the well – about which today’s health department would have something to say – I saw no reason why we couldn’t return to the fun and celebration that marked the historic dinners.
We ditched the crab cake dinner and started to plan a new (but actually old) Crab Cake Festival. The crab cakes were the same, and we served in boxes a simple but ample dinner – which not only brought down the price but also cut down on the number of required staff, given that we no longer needed table servers. Preparation days were reduced from four to two. Tasks were delegated in advance, which left no one person doing everything. We found local bands, and friends of the parish donated inflatable moon-bounces for the kids and other fun outdoor games. Homemade desserts were offered for rock-bottom prices, and beverages sold for just over cost. All day long people enjoyed food, fellowship, conversation, and fun. By the end of the day, we nearly sold out of crab cakes, and what was leftover was bought by noon on Sunday, ironically making it one of the most successful crab cake dinners in recent memory.
Recently, a colleague reminded me of a line from a book I’ve never read but see quoted a lot. In the 1958 novel, Il Gattopardo (The Leopard), the character Tancredi urges his nobleman uncle to support a rising political power: “If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.” We sold our dinners, raised lots more money than we thought possible, and had fun together, celebrating the gift of Maryland’s finest seafood and the treasure of Christian community under the auspices of the Episcopal Church. People are talking about it with their friends in the congregation and, most likely, with their friends and co-workers who didn’t show up: “That was just a perfect day,” one said. Or: “When we do this again next year, I’d like to…” They say those things with a smile because they’ve experienced, once again, the work of the Holy Spirit in their midst. And they want more.
— The Rev. Greg Syler is rector of St. George’s in Valley Lee, Maryland, co-chairs the Collaborative Ministries Exploration Group of Region 6 of the Diocese of Washington.