Laura Ullrich and David Brown: Why pastors should understand economics

In their long friendship, economist Laura Ullrich and pastor David Brown have talked a lot.

“We like to meet for coffee and talk about deep things that other people may not find as exciting as we do,” Ullrich said.

Ullrich, who is the senior regional economist for North and South Carolina for the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond, met Brown when she moved to Rock Hill, South Carolina, and he was the pastor of the church she attended.

Brown worked as a pastor for two decades before becoming a consultant and coach as well as a registered representative with New York Life. He also is the founding pastor of a community of disciples in Rock Hill called The Welcome Table.

So when Brown began teaching in the D.Min. program at Duke Divinity School, he invited Ullrich to come to his strategy class to talk about economics.

Ullrich talked about trends and data; Brown put the information in context as a pastor.

Following that model, Ullrich and Brown share their thoughts on economics, ministry and Christian life in this interview with Faith & Leadership’s Sally Hicks. The following is an edited transcript.

Faith & Leadership: Why do you think pastors should understand economics?

Laura Ullrich

Laura Ullrich: I would argue that economics can explain just about anything, because it explains how people and firms and organizations — which could also be a church — make decisions in the presence of scarcity. Scarcity of resources, scarcity of time.

How are people making their decisions [about] where they attend church, whether they attend church, how often they attend church? When they’re making decisions about how to allocate their time, that’s economics.

Another issue is the racial wealth gap. I personally think this is an important topic for everybody to understand — that some of the structural foundations of the economy since the founding of the United States prevent some families from growing the same kind of wealth that other families have.

Pastor David Brown

David Brown: I would add to that, I think that theology can be a lens through which a lot of how we experience things can be understood.

The sort of economics that Laura deals in from day to day is built on that idea of scarce resources. From a Christian point of view, we worship and follow a Jesus who was inaugurated in a kingdom where the bottom line was abundance.

It’s not an economy, perhaps, that we will experience on this planet. But our calling as Christians is to move our lived experience in this world toward that ideal.

That interplay between the scarcity that we actually experience in our economy versus this vision of what human flourishing might be — I think that’s the tension in which we live as followers of Jesus.

F&L: How can pastors or congregants or Christian individuals use this information?

DB: I would say that for those of us who are Christians, and Christian leaders, it’s a spiritual crisis as well. How do we respond faithfully to the volatility that’s going on around us?

What do we actually learn from in times of volatility? Can we sense new directions of God’s spirit that are moving us into new ways of being through disruptions? Are disruptions actually a learning opportunity for us?

Moving into the future, all leaders are going to have to intentionally increase their capacity to deal with change, uncertainty, volatility.

I think the other way to come at it is through the best of our tradition and heritage and history. How can we not be paying attention to economics and the situation in which our neighbors are living?

I think Jesus talks more about money than just about anything. The law and the prophets really talk about how we order society to lead toward human flourishing.

Our goal, our telos, our end goal in Christian leadership, what sets us apart from other types of firms or businesses or other types of leaders, is that we’re framed by the beginning and the ending of the biblical story.

We’re framed by the goodness of God’s creation in the beginning, and we’re framed by the re-creation we believe is in process and will come to completion one day.

F&L: What would you like people to understand about economics?

LU: I think that leaders of churches have a responsibility to try to make people aware of what the world looks like outside the walls of their particular churches, because even on the same street, it can be very different. And data can help with that.

A big part of my job is educating people about what’s actually going on. It’s really easy to get tunnel vision. If you live in a community with people, including in your church life, that look very much like you, have income levels that are about where yours are, you really can be in a place where you do not realize what the data actually show.

Has the wage gap between men and women or Black individuals and white individuals narrowed? Yes. But what are the data around what’s actually going on in terms of wealth?

The most recent data show that Black families are 20 times more likely to have zero or negative wealth than they are to have a million dollars in assets. That comes from the Institute for Policy Studies.

So a church that relies on white membership might have a pretty constant stream of money from people leaving money to them in their wills and things like that. They’re also getting regular large gifts from people as they start giving away assets as they get older.

A church with predominantly Black membership may struggle from a financial point of view in a way that’s likely different from a white church simply because of that statistic.

On the behavioral economics side, there are things that leaders within churches can do to encourage tithing or increase tithing. There are ways that they can practically impact the financial viability of their churches by thinking through how people make decisions.

What engages people at a deeper level than they might be giving otherwise?

So I think there’s a practical side of it, too, just from actually funding your organization. I’m sure it’s something pastors don’t feel as comfortable talking about, but it’s a very important part of running a church.

DB: I think No. 1 is the ability to look up from trying to preserve our institution and to see what God is up to in the world around us. And to believe that the Spirit is already at work, that God is already on a mission in the world outside the institutions of our churches.

Listening, asking questions, really assuming that we have something we can learn from our neighbors who are similar to us in some ways and different from us in other ways.

Take an asset-based approach to our neighborhoods, and to our ministry alongside our neighbors. Instead of focusing on problems we might solve — especially white, resourced churches — really look at what assets are in the neighborhoods around us. How can we invest out of our resources in those assets?

And when we share those things that we have with one another, and when we build on the assets that God’s planted in the community, that’s really where this vision of God’s kingdom begins to take root and bloom.

F&L: Does a policy focus make sense, or do you see other ways to effect change?

LU: Churches and all organizations have to be careful with policy, because you don’t want it to be overly political.

But there are certain policies that really aren’t political in nature. There are some policies where it’s pretty clear that if there were relatively small changes, it could have a big impact.

An example was the GI Bill. When the GI Bill was passed, years ago, on paper it looked like it was this amazing opportunity for all veterans.

But then when you actually dug in, there was a major push in the South, specifically, in Congress and the Senate, to get the GI Bill to be locally administered versus federally administered. And the impact of that ended up being pretty significant discrimination at the local level.

And so the reality was the GI Bill could help you buy a house as a veteran, but those opportunities were not equal across race and gender. Redlining was in place with banks, so you couldn’t get a mortgage in a lot of the predominantly minority neighborhoods. And in the South, many of the white neighborhoods had covenants that said minorities couldn’t live there.

So the practical application of this local policy, the fact that it was locally administered, resulted in some pretty significant discrimination.

So that’s an example of a policy where decisions that were made led to generational outcome differences. At the time, if people had been more aware of how these decisions were made, maybe something could have been different, right?

DB: There’s a good bit of variance across denominations in this area. There may be specific ways in which denominational structures either encourage or discourage that.

You can hardly read Scripture and not be called to act for, not just the common good, but the flourishing of all people. So I think our faith requires us to be political but not partisan.

I think there are two things that are helpful here. One of them is oriented toward the past; one of them is oriented toward the future.

Oriented toward the past, I think that particularly white Christians and churches who have been a part of the power system in the United States can acknowledge and repent. And repentance isn’t just something you say; it’s something you do.

And then the forward-looking piece: I’m teaching strategy, where the rubber hits the road for ministry. There’s this interplay between theology and economics and Christian practice.

One of the ways we define strategy in the class is “what we are doing in the present.” Everyone has a strategy; how well thought out, how intentional it is, is the question.

I think that to be more intentional about that would be to say, “Who is it that we are as churches? What are we called to do? What is God’s intention for us? And how are we living into that?”

I think that’s more than just, “How do we keep the lights on in the church building or pay down the mortgage or increase our budget?”

F&L: What is your advice for folks struggling with whether there is going to be a recession?

LU: There are a lot of people that were literally taught in school that the definition of recession is two quarters of negative GDP growth. That’s not true. There’s no true definition of a recession. However, because so many people believe that definition, that changes how they make decisions, right?

I think people are right to feel unsettled right now. We have the highest inflation we’ve had in 40-plus years. The last time inflation was this high, David and I were in preschool.

And for a large percentage of the population, this is truly causing them stress. It is difficult for them to maintain their lifestyle right now compared with how it was six months or a year ago. So the discomfort is understandable and real.

On the more positive side, for most of us, the only recessions we remember well are the COVID recession, which was a bizarre situation, and then the Great Recession, which is called the Great Recession because it was so significant.

A lot of people who are working today don’t remember the recession in 2001, or in 1992, 1993. They were recessions but were not as significant. So when a lot of people hear “recession,” they think of something more extreme than it might be in the end.

As of right now, employment remains very strong. We are adding an impressive number of jobs in the U.S. each month. Until that pattern changes, it is less likely that we will officially be in a recession.

F&L: David, what do you think church leaders should do in this period of uncertainty?

DB: Pastors and other church leaders have to intentionally cultivate a sense of hopeful realism.

As pastors, part of our calling is to be companions and shepherds of our congregations as we move through life together. You can’t do that with either a Pollyannaish sense of optimism or a sense of cynicism.

The place that I would start is with a core belief statement, that the God that we believe in is a God who has guided God’s people through all sorts of times of uncertainty and challenge. God invites us to be active participants in that story of ongoing redemption. God’s grace and love will sustain us no matter what.

Even in the midst of all that’s going on, and the real actual pain and uncertainty, God is still present in the lives of God’s people. And so we can find reasons for hope.

When we share those things that we have with one another, and when we build on the assets that God’s planted in the community, that’s really where this vision of God’s kingdom begins to take root and bloom.

The Rev. Ted Barbas, the chancellor of the Greek Orthodox Metropolis of Boston, had built a strong relationship with a quiet, unassuming donor over the years. As parishes in the region closed in response to COVID-19, this donor reached out. After speaking with Father Ted, the donor decided to give a “gift of love.”

He sent $5,000 checks to each parish in the Greek Orthodox Metropolis of Boston and communicated that he wanted his financial support to give the congregations an opportunity to “catch their breath” while navigating online worship and digital giving.

Father Ted is a past participant in the course I teach, the Executive Certificate in Religious Fundraising, and he shared this story with me in April because he wanted to affirm for others the blessing that comes from fundraising that is built in relationship and conversation.

Lake Institute on Faith & Giving encourages religious leaders to embrace relationship-focused fundraising. We believe that fundraising is not about the pitch but about inviting others to join in an organization’s mission. In relationship, fundraising becomes a practice of hospitality, honoring the gifts of generosity and helping faithful givers live out their faith.

Even in the best of times, many religious leaders actively dislike fundraising and avoid it. Often, it’s relegated to the business operations of an organization rather than being integrated as a robust part of ministry. With multiple crises facing our communities, the pressure is even more intense.

That’s not surprising. If “stewardship” is just the religious word for transactional fundraising — and let’s be honest, too often that’s all it is — it can feel disingenuous to make a spiritual case for giving. In the transactional mode, fundraising can feel like sales. The resulting sense of disconnection and missing integrity is at the root of many leaders’ dislike and distaste for fundraising work.

But what if fundraising is not about sales at all? What if, in fact, fundraising is about forming relationships that nurture faithful discernment, sharing the mission of your organization, and inviting others to participate in that mission?

Seen in this way, fundraising is not even primarily about money but truly about inviting others into deeper relationship with God and with their own vocation. As Henri Nouwen says, fundraising is ministry, and there is a deep spirituality connected to this aspect of our human lives.

So what does that look like now, in the midst of catastrophe, uncertainty and upended plans? Ideally, you have been inviting people to give in the context of relationship all along, and you feel confident that there is strong alignment between your organization’s mission and the motivation and vocation of your donors.

But it’s never too late to frame your appeal to donors in relationship, and the changed circumstances of a crisis can create an opening for that connection to deepen or develop anew.

Consider the following ways of practicing relationship-focused fundraising.

Nurture relationships

Above all else, fundraising is about relationships, which are nurtured and developed in one-on-one conversation and connection over time. Call your donors — to see how they are and to express your concern and care for them.

Most of the work of development is about that relationship, and this crisis may create an opening for you and your team of leaders (both staff and volunteers) to strengthen it. Reach out, without an agenda, and that conversation may lead you to the opportunity to invite a gift.

When you have the opportunity to talk with donors about their giving, you become recipients of their hospitality as well. They’ve invited you into their lives in a particular way. Relationship-focused fundraising is, in this sense, about mutuality and connection.

When you really know your donors and have a clear sense of their hopes for their philanthropy, you are then in a position to ask for a specific contribution with both confidence and humility.

Acknowledge that this is a time of crisis

Most faith-based nonprofit organizations, including congregations, rely on a base of individual donors who provide recurring, unrestricted financial support. We know that everyone is thinking differently today compared with just a few months ago.

When communicating about the regular, annual fundraising efforts of your organization, be attentive to the changed context in which you are asking for support.

Acknowledge it, and connect the change with your organization’s mission: Are you responding to some aspect of the crisis? Are you carrying on with your regular work in a challenging circumstance?

Celebrate the value of what your organization contributes to the world, and be specific.

Tell stories about your impact

Stories that illustrate the impact of your mission will be remembered long after facts and figures are forgotten — that’s why I shared Father Ted’s story. Impact is compelling; donors are more interested in making a difference than in understanding an organization’s operations.

A group of people connected to my congregation, for example, leveraged financial resources and social capital to prevent residents from having their utilities turned off during a shelter-in-place mandate.

Learning that this group of neighbors helped a mother keep her kids safe at home says much more to me than listing the number of people who were helped or the dollars given.

Communicate in every way you can

Use every mechanism you have to communicate clearly, positively and with a warm welcome to your partners, constituents and stakeholders. Remember that this group supports your work, and it is natural to ask them to participate however they can.

Social media, email newsletters, mailings and video all create opportunities for you to invite others to join in your mission. Remember that this is part of relationship, and an expression of hospitality.

Further, make the process of giving easy. Online options reduce barriers to giving. Put the donate button where people expect it, in the upper right corner of your website, and employ a user-friendly platform.

While being sensitive to the changes wrought by this crisis, you can still create meaningful invitations for contribution. Remember that your existing donors and friends may be looking for ways to make a difference in the world, given all the suffering and uncertainty around us.

How to ask for a gift

Asking for a major gift — however that’s defined in your organization — can be nerve-wracking. But inviting a contribution actually involves a few simple steps.

First, do your homework. If you’ve taken the time to invest in this relationship, you’ll have learned about the donor’s previous giving and general capacity to give; you will know the donor’s priorities and what gift is reasonable to request.

Second, be clear about the relationship. Who is in the best position to ask the donor for a gift? Is it the committee chairperson, the development director, the pastor or executive director? Don’t be shy in enlisting help.

Then ask the prospective donor for a meeting (in today’s circumstance, a phone call or video meeting), transparently indicating that you’d like to discuss the work of the organization and ask for financial support.

In your conversation, listen to the donor. Really pay attention. How does your current need connect with the individual’s long-standing interest in your organization?

Ask the donor to tell you more. Get a sense of what he or she is excited about. This is part of the work of developing and deepening relationships.

At the same time, you are the expert and champion for your own mission, and your commitment to that mission positions you to ask others to join you.

Once you can see how the prospective donor’s interest aligns with your organization’s work, you’re ready to invite the donor to make a gift, clearly and specifically.

Practice what you want to say beforehand so you won’t stumble. For example, an Orthodox church I know of lost $100,000 of anticipated revenue when it was forced to cancel its Greek culture festival. If I were fundraising for this church, I might prepare to approach longtime members with a request framed in this way:

“James and Mary, you have been faithful supporters of our work for years. I am so grateful for your generosity and partnership. We are now in a new circumstance, given the crisis created by the coronavirus, but our mission remains the same. Will you consider making a gift of $10,000 this spring to help us maintain our focus and meet the new challenge?”

Once you’ve asked the question, listen to the response. Treat your request as a real question, one that requires thought and consideration. Be patient, with yourself and with your donor. Take a deep breath.

Most donors are glad to be asked, even if they are unable to make the gift you have requested; otherwise, they wouldn’t have accepted the meeting.

They may have questions. Go in with some prepared answers — about the scope of the work ahead, about where you are in the fundraising process, about how they can make or structure a gift.

And be prepared to follow up, if they are looking for information you don’t have at the ready or would like to consult with others before making a decision.

Finally, the most crucial aspect, regardless of the response to this immediate request: express your thanks. Thank them for their engagement with your organization and its mission. Thank them for their time and openness to the conversation, and thank them for considering your invitation.

If they’ve said yes, follow up with a letter or email confirming the gift, providing any information they might need and once again expressing your appreciation.

Relationships and results

When we focus on relationships and see development work as part of our ministry of connection and partnership, the bottom line recedes as the mission is brought to the fore.

As I said earlier, fundraising is not about money — although it requires us to talk about money openly, confidently and practically. Fundraising advances the mission of the organization, and developing robust stewardship is part of discipleship.

Father Ted celebrated the faithfulness of his donor in Boston, whose “gift of love” offered encouragement and affirmation as well as financial support. And it would not have been possible if he had not tended the relationship.

Religious leaders who operate in this way will find the work of fundraising rewarding and meaningful. The gifts you have in ministry will all serve your work of fundraising well: leading an organization, nurturing discernment, listening attentively, and seeing and celebrating God’s gifts in the lives of others.

Don’t hold back. Because of the investment you’ve made in connecting, others know that the mission you serve is important. Invite them into that mission with confidence.