Pastors play a pivotal role in engaging parishioners to embrace the Church’s work and mission. These discussions may be unfamiliar for some pastors, yet it is valuable to emphasize this can also be a unique opportunity to bring parishioners closer to God. In this piece, Reverend Anthony Cutcher, Reverend Monsignor William J. Belford, and Reverend Cosme Fernandes share how they have successfully engaged parishioners to give their time and treasures to the Church. Their insights reveal three interconnected elements of successful Catholic philanthropy: stewardship, personal requests, and ownership.

Fostering Stewardship

All three pastors recognize that fundraising is part of their pastoral mission. Father Cutcher, President of the National Federation of Priests’ Councils and pastor of four parishes around Dayton, OH, sees fundraising as a means to an end, saying, “As a pastor, my job is to preach the gospel, sacraments, and educate the next generation of Catholics. In order to provide the means and atmosphere to spread the gospel in the 21st century, you need adequate funds.”

It may be helpful for pastors to compartmentalize their fundraising work so that they are in the proper mindset to perform sacramental duties. Monsignor Belford, former Chancellor of the Archdiocese of New York and current pastor of St. Teresa Parish in Staten Island, NY suggests working stewardship into a yearly routine and focusing on it from after Christmas to Easter or the start of Pentecost so that priests don’t burn out. Father Fernandes, pastor of St. Martin of Tours in the Bronx, NY, prefers to look at every interaction as part of each family’s spiritual journey. According to him, “Parishioners are managing their families, day in and day out, but to make this parish part of their family, that is stewardship.” He calls this ongoing process “living the ask” and it requires thoughtful promotion of parish needs. Monsignor Belford’s experience has taught him that fundraising must be integrated into the pastoral mission. Otherwise, it is challenging to attend to parishioners’ needs and easy to miss   opportunities to genuinely engage.

Making Personal Requests

Personalized engagement is another important part of the equation. Father Fernandes says he is confident when making a request because he constantly makes his parishioners aware of the good work being done to build up the Church, as well as the needs that must be addressed. This puts into practice Father Cutcher’s belief: “If you’ve done a good job at your parish so people see beyond the basket to what you’re raising funds for, you will be successful.”

All three pastors emphasize the importance of making personal, one-on-one requests because—as Monsignor Belford recognizes—”People give to people.” Too often, Monsignor believes, priests and stewardship and development professionals rely on large events which, Father Fernandes affirms, is an idea that is very prevalent in Spanish speaking parishes. Still, people like to be approached individually. Father Fernandes has found a great deal of success building relationships with parishioners who then respond generously to a direct ask for financial support, not because of their allegiance to him but because they are now informed stakeholders who take ownership of their Church. Stewarding parishioners through personal engagement reduces the stress of the essential task of making a direct request.

Encouraging Ownership

Empowering parishioners to accept ownership of their Church is a crucial last step. Whether it was Monsignor Belford building a church, Father Cutcher entering a capital campaign shortly after taking over four parishes, or Father Fernandes rallying a community without a pre-established base of wealthy donors, philanthropy without community engagement is unsustainable. Monsignor Belford cautions against relying on cornerstone parishioners without building up the next generation of leaders.

Father Fernandes leads a parish with many capital needs. After taking time to familiarize himself with these priorities, as well as the people involved, he launched several small campaigns in which 90 percent of a project would be funded from parish reserves or a manageable loan and 10 percent would come from parish donors. He used these campaigns to identify and develop lay leadership and demonstrate progress to the parish. By the time he began a campaign to build a community center, he was confident in his parish’s ability and willingness to respond. Father Cutcher, beginning an archdiocesan campaign early in his tenure, did not have time to build up infrastructure the same way. Instead, he approached the campaign as a vehicle to bring the people together around a common cause. His leadership inspired carefully selected parish leaders to become powerful surrogates who took pride in the effort and rallied the community. The campaign itself became the catalyst for active stewardship.

Bringing it All Together: Advice for Stewardship and Development Professionals

Working with pastors to help them master these three elements will help them engage parishioners in a deeper and more meaningful relationship with the Church. Father Cutcher also recommends a straightforward approach when working with pastors. “Avoid the salesman patter,” he says. “Level with pastors and they will be more likely to take recommendations.”

Father Fernandes also points out how important it is to involve the entire Church, in all of its diversity, in each campaign. “Campaigns need to be customized, but remember that direct engagement is important for all people regardless of background or financial capacity.”

And finally, Monsignor Belford encourages stewardship professionals to develop relationships with pastors themselves. “Go to Mass or otherwise engage with your pastor outside of fundraising. This builds trust, gives you an idea of the pastor’s strengths, and reinforces the spirituality that should be at the heart of every Catholic campaign.”

This article was originally published in the March 2017 edition of “Wisdom from ICSC Strategic Partners,” a monthly publication of the International Catholic Stewardship Council (ICSC). CCS is a proud partner and supporter of the ICSC.

About the Author

Griffin O’Shea is a Vice President at CCS. He has launched and guided parish campaigns throughout the Archdiocese of Cincinnati and Archdiocese of New York. He received his Bachelor of Arts in International Relations and Geography from Colgate University.