by Elizabeth Lynn, Project Director
On March 20th, just as this country was entering into what looked to be a long difficult spring of lockdowns, lost lives, and lost jobs (with no signs yet of the powerful movement for racial equity and justice that would come to define the spring, nor of the ‘summer of surge’ now unfolding across many states), theological writer Andy Crouch and several colleagues at Praxis published an article that talked insistently of winter instead.
Their thought piece, “Leading Beyond the Blizzard,” posited that leaders of Christian organizations would be wisest to approach the emerging crisis not as an intense temporary disruption like a blizzard, but as an extended season of difficulty like a winter, or even as a ‘little ice age’ that would change our lives and institutions for years to come.
“Leading Beyond the Blizzard” clearly spoke to leaders at a deep level. It rapidly acquired readers, and sharers, and re-sharers and reviewers. Crouch was widely interviewed about his ideas; in April he and his team even followed up with a related leadership article titled “Strategies for Winter.”
But what made “Leading Beyond the Blizzard” so compelling and conversation-worthy was not necessarily the authors’ leadership guidance, as good as that guidance may have been. What really captured people’s imagination, I believe, was the authors’ direct invitation to accept that we are in a period of profound change and live/lean/lead into it rather than wait for it to pass. This invitation appealed, at least in part, because leaders have known for some time that we are already in a period of profound change—for our religious institutions, our communities, and our nation as a whole.
The ground is shifting, in some ways that are long overdue and deeply welcome, and in other ways that threaten the foundations of the institutions themselves.
As readers of this newsletter well know, seismic changes to the landscape of faith and giving have been happening for several decades now. Levels of religious participation and affiliation have been falling, especially among younger generations. Meanwhile, patterns of giving to religious organizations—and to other non-profits—have also been shifting, with fewer people giving more, rendering donation-based organizations dependent on the generosity and interests of those fewer givers, while others give less or drop out of giving altogether. Even in years that have shown significant growth in charitable giving, like 2019 (when charitable giving increased 2.4 percent adjusted for inflation), the giving is increasingly coming from upper-income households and foundations.
Moreover, research suggests that changes in faith and giving may be linked, with even wider ramifications for our communities. Lower religious affiliation and activity may alter people’s habits of charitable giving and community engagement across the board, as noted in the Winter 2019 issue of Philanthropy Roundtable, which was bluntly titled “Less God, Less Giving.”
In short, American patterns of gathering and giving were already shifting before the spring and now summer of 2020. The events of 2020 have accelerated these changes and forced leaders to address them in the moment. But the changes themselves have implications far beyond the moment, ‘beyond the blizzard.’ They point us toward a much longer season of change, whether we call it a little ice age or not.
Lake Institute on Faith & Giving has been studying these changes for some time now and thinking about how best to support leaders to understand and navigate them faithfully and fruitfully. We recently launched a new project, titled Shifting Ground, devoted to developing conversational resources that can help religious and philanthropic leaders think and talk more deeply about the changes underway, in order to imagine and support a flourishing future for congregations and communities. Starting this fall, we will offer a series of online small-group discussions, “On Shifting Ground,” to introduce the first wave of these conversational resources and learn from your own engagement with them. We are honored to be embarked on this initiative and want to make sure our efforts speak to your needs and questions as courageous leaders amidst a world of change.
What questions do you wish you could more directly and deeply discuss with your own congregation or leadership team, related to the shifting ground of faith, giving, and community? What kinds of resources—empirical, theological, imaginative—do you wish you had on hand to start those conversations in your own context? As project director for Shifting Ground, I welcome your thoughts and reflections at firstname.lastname@example.org, and on behalf of all of us at Lake Institute, look forward to sharing more about this project with you in the seasons to come.
A version of this article first ran on The Faith+Leader blog.