A circle is round, it has no end…

The newest fad in philanthropy is the Giving Circle.  This is a group of individuals who come together to discuss different needs and the organizations that work to meet those needs.  The group decides on a mission project to support and pools the members’ donations to make a larger gift and a larger impact than each could do individually.

Some circles are very large and well-organized with written “investment” guidelines, officers and meeting minutes.  Dining for Women has 140 different circles and raise $20,000 per month for programs that foster good health,education, and economic self-sufficiency in developing countries. 

But I think more typical is a bunch of friends sitting around a pizza concerned about their own zip code.

I think this is a fascinating concept, but in the church it isn’t a new one.  UMW and other groups have long had missions as a priority, using the meeting time to learn about mission projects and decide where money should be spent.  Our two children’s homes, Berea and Flat Rock, have long histories of these groups changing the lives of those in their care.

But in our society, fewer people are joining established groups.  From UMW circles to bowling leagues long-term members are tough to come by.  And as a result how people give is moving to the pizza parlor and out of the church parlor.

Giving Circles are popular because they are efficient.  Compatible donors self-select.  Information is gathered and disseminated, perspectives are offered and at the end of an hour a decision is made.  Oh if only every church meeting could happen so efficiently.

What would a giving circle in your church look like?  I’m sure you have a handful of members who are more passionate than others about certain mission projects.  Others may be excited about music and education within the church.  You could have a circle for Habitat with both financial and labor donors. 

The tough thing for churches is to give these circles the latitude they need.  While it should be the Trustees who decide whether or not to paint the outside of the church building purple with polka dots, we will need to allow groups to identify their own passions and realize that the missions givers may not have the same priorities as the Missions Committee.  (Maybe it’s time for the Missions Committee to rethink it?)

And, of course, there is the age-old concern that people will give less in the offering plate to run the church so they will have more to give to the Circle.  But stewardship research has actually shown the opposite to be true.

Some time in the next year, spend a month (or even 40 days) encouraging and building giving circles.  Divide your average attendance by 15 and that should give you a good guess on how many circles your church should have.  Accept suggestions for topics and mission projects and lift up the concept of giving to change lives.  Encourage them to have speakers come in, to visit mission sites and learn about the needs and opportunities.  Then get out of the way.

Will some circles shrivel up and die when no one joins?  Of course they will.  But others will grow and blossom and let your members change the world.  Some, especially younger people and recently re-churched may see the church as a place that really is about spreading the word and helping people.

A church that is relevant in the world will, I believe, have fuller pews and a healthier bottom line.

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