A Case Study from Oak Grove United Methodist Church, Oregon
When COVID hit, many churches were faced with a stark reality: without people in the pews, giving tanked, and some churches have already closed… with others on the horizon.
But I’m taking the time to highlight the churches that have looked COVID straight in the face, and decided to think creatively about giving. I last spoke about my own home church and the technology we’re using, and how giving has increased over the past two years because of increased engagement across geographic lines.
Now, I’m going to share a story about a church that has increased it’s giving by GIVING AWAY MORE MONEY to the community, not less.
A church that embraced the abundance of God and decided not to rein in tighter, to save what they have, but rather to give it all away and help change the culture of two struggling schools.
A church that raised $40,000 for the community without affecting regular giving.
A church that then saw regular giving rise and ended their 2020 and 2021 budgets with over $20,000 in the black.
Many thanks to Rev. Heather Riggs of Oak Grove United Methodist Church, who was willing to share this story with me.
It began in March of 2020, when the pandemic started. The Rev. Leroy Barber of the Innovation and Vitality Team for Greater NW Episcopal Area told churches in the area that what people in poverty need the most is respect. Through that sentiment, he wrote a grant to fund grocery gift cards, to give out through schools so they can give to families.
After all, communities had been hit hard by COVID. Wage-based service industry jobs were shut down by the pandemic and families were left in the lurch.
For Rev. Heather Riggs, connecting to the local schools was something she had been starting to do since before the pandemic. And the connection started unexpectedly one year into her ministry: students from New Urban, an alternative high school up the street from the church, brought her a flier for a school event… and she showed up.
Rev. Heather Riggs then began asking questions.
“If you could ask for anything, what would you ask for?” she asked the Principal.
Their answer was simple. “What I want most is for people in the community to have a positive attitude about our school.” New Urban was the last chance many students had to graduate, and the perception of the school was not very positive in the community.
Rev. Heather Riggs then showed up, again. And kept asking questions, again. She was relentless and curious about the school, its community and its needs.
The church became a kind of extension of the school, and the church adopted the school and worked with them whenever possible. Students call the church “The Rainbows at the Other End of the Street” – because the church provided a space where the students’ pride parade could march back and forth from. Staying connected to the school took perseverance and dedication to keep up with evolving needs, but they did the best they could as a church.
Then Rev. Riggs shares her first misstep:
- We wrote a grant for $12,000 to create an after-school music program, and no one came. We talked to the kids about why it didn’t work, and it turns out they couldn’t connect to a program offered after school: the kids have jobs after school, don’t have transportation, or even have counseling after school.
- This was a classic “for, not with” mistake – we didn’t listen closely enough to the audience that we were serving. But we were able to pivot after returning to the question: “What do you need us to do?” The school doesn’t have a PTO. They have us. The families were under so much stress and we need to keep that in mind.
- So we repurposed the grant to work with their student government body to build relationships – part of which was hosting a prom dinner where church members dressed up and served the kids before Prom. Most of the kids couldn’t afford a fancy meal before Prom, we were able to give them that. We were asked to cook their Senior Breakfast, and stepped up to do that.
- That failed grant taught her an important lesson: keep asking the question. Find out what’s available and how you can fill a need. She started doing what I like to call Asset Mapping – that is, taking inventory of what already exists in the area.
Now let’s go back to March 2020, where this story started. There was a local school-based service center called the Wichita Center that serves local families. Rev. Riggs had access to these grocery store gift cards, but saw that the Wichita Center was already providing groceries and food to families. The gift cards just weren’t going to meet a need, because it was already taken care of.
But… they did need paper grocery bags for students. When families came to pick up school lunches during the pandemic, the Wichita Center needed paper grocery bags to distribute extra groceries.
So Rev. Riggs took the project intergenerational. It was time for the nearby retirement village to get connected. A 98-year old woman coordinated her entire retirement village to donate their meal bags (nice paper bags) for the past two years.
Ministry and service has no age limit, friends.
More service opportunities appeared. Before the pandemic, Clackamas Service Center’s building burned down and they needed bagged lunches to serve to those in need. Oak Grove rose to the occasion and made 100 sack lunches each month to deliver to Clackamas. It turns out so many people enjoyed making sack lunches – some people did shopping, chopped veggies, baked cookies, assemble, etc. All the church did was place little stickers on the bags that say “You are Loved by Oak Grove United Methodist Church.”
That meal ministry did not shut down during the pandemic. Rev. Riggs told me, “If you’re stuck home, you can chop veggies. We porch dropped bags of carrots and celery. We collected over 1000 paper grocery bags.”
Once again, the stories of service from Oak Grove United Methodist Church spread. Rev. Riggs described both their pre- and post-pandemic service as the opportunity to “give everything from stuff that will cost you nothing (like the paper bags) to donating serious amounts of money… to making sandwiches, which is something that can be done intergenerationally.”
Stories are powerful. They build your church’s reputation and get people to trust you when you seriously ask what they need.
The school and community finally came to Rev. Riggs with a crystalized answer: “What we really need is to help our neighbors.”
The school said plainly to Rev. Riggs, “we don’t need food gift cards. What we really need is to help this family, that can’t find assistance anywhere else… and just needs to pay a bill to keep the power on.”
The community (including teachers) reached out to the church and said, “I want to help my neighbor – can we give you the money and you give it to them anonymously?”
So the Corona Relief fund was born.
The Finance team was really energized about the idea of creating a separate fund to help community members in need. But how would the fund actually be distributed? Donations were coming in already, and Rev. Riggs made a really interesting decision. She went through the school, who had stated the need, but gave them full jurisdiction over who got the funds:
“You know these people. I want you to do the social work. You send me a copy of the bill. You determine the need, or if other resources have or have not been tapped. You send me the bill and I’ll just pay them.” Rev. Riggs got out of “the social work weeds” that comes with choosing families, and counselors loved the idea of paying bills for people each week. Counselors at the school had ownership over where funds went, and the church just got to hear stories about the families that were being impacted.
Most bills that come in are under $300, and make a world of difference for a family in need.
The story spread even further, and once again the local retirement communities got involved in a big way: “When stimulus checks were coming in, these folks decided they didn’t need the funds. We gave them the opportunity to give the money away to someone who did need it,” Rev. Riggs shared.
Pretty soon, school counselors started telling their friends – counselors asked if a second school could get involved. “Would you be willing to help them out occasionally?” they asked Rev. Riggs. Instead of shrinking inward and being afraid of scarcity, she answered with a resounding “Yes! We have the resources!”
Rev. Riggs started telling the story of the church’s impact on the community when she decided to film the truck with the shipment of “our bags” to start telling the stories of folks who got food deliveries.
Community members began to see what was happening, and so did the school. Volunteers became more energized as the story spread, and the spirit of service was catching on to others in the mid-sized congregation (90-130 in worship in the “before times”).
But it was important to Rev. Riggs not to exploit the people being served by having them tell the stories. She was insistent that staff share stories – and continues to be insistent upon that.
For school family assistance, that means the counselors and administrators are the ones who continue to tell and share the story.
Watch this video to hear from some of the counselors about families impacted by the fund.
And donations keep coming in. Because they have kept telling the story and doing something that matters to the whole community: helping families with young children.
Rev. Riggs stated it plainly: “The real evangelism is that people want to be part of a group. Relationships are built from there. You can come volunteer with us. The real invitation is, do you want to be part of a church that does good in the community? Here I am, in the heart of the none zone, and my church is growing. That’s the power of the story.”
Don’t Be Afraid
Rev. Riggs was clear: “we’ve made mistakes along the way. We’ve learned things. Churches are often filled with insecure people who are afraid their church will die – it’s our job to help them let go, learn from failure and decide which direction to go in next.”
“We’re also not a rich church. We didn’t even have online giving until the pandemic began. Thankfully we set it up when we did, because when the fund was created, we had people from the community giving (to both the Samaritan and General Funds) that would never come into the church. It was easy enough to add a new giving tab through our Vanco account.”
“Having an online donation fund has made a big difference. That way people don’t have to come inside the building to be a part of “neighbor love.” We even have a pre-recorded video that we show every Sunday to remind people how to give, and show it every Sunday. People haven’t gotten tired of that yet because this way they don’t have to remember how to give.”
“Most churches are afraid to start separate funds because it takes away from regular giving, with people splitting their gifts. That didn’t happen here. The more good we did, the more people said “I want to be part of that” and our regular giving went up.”
None of the $40,000 that has been raised for what is now called the Samaritan Fund (previously was the Corona Relief fund) has gone to the operating budget.
Plus, the church operating budget has finished 2020 and 2021 in the black by $20,000 because more people decided they wanted to support the church. And people who don’t go to church decided they wanted to support the church “because we’re important to the community.”
Don’t be afraid to give money away. Don’t be afraid to open your doors and start asking questions. That’s it… don’t be afraid. There’s more than enough of God’s abundance to share what you have – and the seeds of outreach, generosity and storytelling that you plant now will grow for years to come.
Do you have questions about how Oak Grove made this happen? Rev. Riggs is happy to share more about the story; email her at pastor @ oakgroveunitedmethodist.com
Do you want to learn more about ways to increase giving at your church? Reach out to me at Affirm Fundraising and let’s schedule a call.