Faith in Our Future Together Recoverable Grant Program
Faith in Our Future Together Recoverable Grant Program
The vision for the Faith In Our Future Together recoverable grant program is to help selected local churches respond effectively to the disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, recognizing that the disruptions may be magnified by systemic racism in congregations of Black people, indigenous people and other people of color. Effective responses will depend on the circumstances of the local congregation. The goals are to help selected local churches to thrive and to strengthen the entire Southern New England Conference of the United Church of Christ.
The COVID-19 Pandemic is a Major Disruption
The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted congregational activities. The nearly universal approach to “being the church” has been facility-based, professionally led, and focused on Sunday morning worship gatherings. These gatherings almost always incorporate music created at and for the gathering. Other common, not as universal, congregational activities include faith formation programming, caring ministries, fellowship activities, and mission and outreach initiatives.
The pandemic suddenly made it impossible to gather in person or permitted only smaller gatherings subject to “social distancing” requirements. This has led to immediate and dramatic changes in how congregations are “being the church.” Most congregations have found ways to worship online. Many other activities have been halted or dramatically scaled back. Facilities stand empty and many staff are idled or are substantially limited in what they can accomplish. At the same time, new staffing needs have arisen and, often, along with the new needs a mismatch between the new needs and existing staff capabilities.
The pandemic also disrupted revenue streams, especially streams based on facility rental income and in-person fundraising events. The loss of income by congregation members is also likely to have a negative impact of personal giving. In some congregations this may be offset by increased generosity from those with sufficient income and/or assets.
Many congregations were already vulnerable prior to the pandemic. One sign was that congregations were consuming assets to sustain their facilities, staffing models, and programs while traditional metrics of membership, worship attendance and financial support were declining. For many people, church participation has become just one of many leisure-time options. Cultural norms promoting church participation have eroded. Many churches have been unwilling or unable to adapt.
A Simultaneous Reckoning with Systemic Racism
The intersection of the pandemic and racism manifests in congregations in at least three ways: Pre-existing vulnerability, magnified disruption, and undermined responses.
Pre-Existing Vulnerability. Congregations of Black people, Indigenous people, and other people of color have been harmed for centuries by white supremacist ideology, its living legacy, and systemic racism. For example, economic disadvantages meant that asset accumulation by non-whites trailed behind white people, limiting annual giving and major gifts, including bequests to establish endowments. White philanthropists created foundations and other endowed organizations that discriminated against people of color in their structures and operations, even as the exploitation of Black people, Indigenous people and other people of color were sometimes factors in the accumulation of wealth giving rise to philanthropy.
Magnified Disruption. The disproportionate impact of the pandemic on Black people, Indigenous people and other people of color is well documented*. This impact is surely felt by congregations largely made up of people from these groups.
Undermined Responses. The options for responding are also going to be constrained and undermined by the wider context of systemic racism. To name one example, organizations predominantly made up of and led by white people were more successful at applying for and getting approval for Paycheck Protection Program loans.
As a reflection of the mission, purpose and values of the Conference, we will deploy our resources, including $1 million of unrestricted funds currently functioning as endowment, to help selected churches move through the disruptions caused by the pandemic and emerge stronger. When we select churches, we will keep in mind the intersection of pandemic and systemic racism. We will do this work with selected churches in covenantal partnerships that draw on all of our resources – we are not going to just write checks. We anticipate that some of the selected churches will find paths to renewal, paths that reflect creativity and innovation, and that what is learned along the way will help strengthen the entire Conference.
Financial support will be in the form of recoverable grants. The vision for recoverable grants is that local congregations that survive and prosper will return funds to the Conference, allowing the financial resources to be redeployed in new ministries. Rather than creating a promissory note and legal obligation for repayment that may undermine the viability of a congregation, this will be expressed as a covenantal commitment.
Criteria for Evaluating and Selecting Churches for Covenantal Partnerships
Good stewardship and prudent oversight require that we identify the congregations that can make best use of the financial and other resources provided by the Conference. Best use does not mean lowest risk – our intention is to encourage boldness, creativity and innovation.
The criteria for identification are vitality, viability and alignment with the values of the Conference. Special emphasis will be given to partnering with congregations where there are opportunities to counter the impact of racism and work for justice.
Vital congregations are spirit-filled. Evidence of vitality – energy, liveliness, forcefulness – can be observed:
- A clear sense of identity and purpose, the “why” for the local church;
- A commitment to having an impact beyond the community of members and friends who participate in congregational activities;
- A sense of personal growth and transformation, of people moving towards stronger spiritual connections and growing as disciples of Jesus.
There is another aspect of vitality – being necessary to the well-being of the Conference; being indispensable; or being essential - that can be evaluated in terms of the congregation’s relationship to the wider church:
- The congregation is diverse or includes members who are underrepresented in the Conference, particularly among historically marginalized people;
- The congregation includes prophetic voices and bears witness to injustice;
- The congregation is located in a geographic area or community of people who might not otherwise have access to a United Church of Christ congregation; and/or
- The congregation has the potential to model or teach something significant to the wider church
While viability is often assessed in a financial context, the focus needs to be on viability within the context of financial vulnerability. Viability will depend on the being able to embrace transformation, which in turn depends on having capable leaders and processes. This is not something that is easily measured and there cannot be any absolute requirements. Reviewing the evidence of viability can help guide the allocation of available resources.
Alignment with the Values of the Conference:
Applicants will be asked to provide evidence of alignment with or a commitment to align with the values of the Conference:
- The congregation is making disciples of Jesus and welcoming all people unconditionally to share in this calling;
- The congregation is making God’s love and justice real by loving their neighbors, children, and all of creation through collective work, such as seeking racial, economic, and LGBTQ justice;
- The Congregation is bringing new life as agents of change and embracing and encouraging adaptive and transformative leadership as the Body of Christ; and
- The Congregation is forming covenantal partnerships with others who work for the common good in their local communities and throughout the world.
This is not meant to be a test of how well a congregation is expressing the core values of the Conference. Reviewing the evidence of alignment can guide the allocation of available resources.
Entering into Covenantal Partnerships
The Conference will enter into covenantal agreements with selected congregations. The covenant will be in writing and cover the responsibilities and expectations for the church and the Conference. (In other settings, the covenant agreement might be called a Memorandum of Understanding.) This document will include:
- The recoverable grant amount, initially up to $50,000, and any conditions for disbursement. (Covenantal partners may apply for additional recoverable grants based on the achievement of articulated objectives. Any additional grant requires the approval of the Executive Committee of the SNEUCC Board of Directors.)
- The conditions under which congregations agree to return at least some portion of the grant as the congregation is able. This ability may hinge upon the future sale of assets, receipt of bequests or other major gifts, the distribution of assets upon the dissolution of the church, or other events. The name of this program - Faith In Our Future Together – is intended to signify that the entire Conference will be made stronger as a result of this program.
- A detailed action plan, including objectives, resources to be deployed, staffing and oversight, and a timeline, for emerging stronger from the pandemic. SNEUCC staff can suggest formats to help create such a plan.
- The resources that each partner will commit to the relationship and to supporting the action plan.
- An evaluation plan for periodic review of the effectiveness of the partnership
Evaluation of Faith in our Future Together Program
The program as a whole will be formally evaluated after three years of operation. Evaluation will be based on:
- A comparison of the objectives and timeline included in each church's covenant agreement with outcomes for that church, and
- An assessment of the impact of the program relative to its racial justice goals as stated in this program proposal.
The evaluation will be guided by the Mission Effectiveness and Measurement Committee of the Board, and conducted by the FIOFT Committee and Conference staff as assigned by the Executive Conference Minister.