UTO study group reorganizes for triennium Group hopes to build on legacy of 'thankful giving'
Mark Harris, the new chair of the Episcopal Church's United Thank Offering study group, grew up watching his grandmother put coins into the UTO blue box she kept on her dining room table while she said her daily prayers.
It's that legacy of thankful giving that Harris wants to help UTO build on as the organization that has helped the Episcopal Church expand its mission for the last 120 years by making grants to ministries that address human needs faces the 21st century.
"One of the things that everybody agrees with is the UTO has had an extraordinary impact on the church over the years and that impact is not something we want to see disappear or dissipate, but as the church itself changes and finds new ways of working, its relationship to UTO and UTO's understanding of its own role need to be looked at and examined," Harris told ENS recently.
In 2009, UTO received 123 grant applications asking for just more than $5.9 million. The organization granted close to $2.1 million in 63 grants. There were 28 grants to domestic Episcopal Church-related groups amounting to $528,222 and 35 international grants that totaled $1,537,520. In addition, UTO granted $621,105 in 17 companion diocese grants. Grants for 2010 are due to be decided on during an April 7-17 meeting.
UTO was established in 1889 as the United Offering by the Women's Auxiliary to the Board of Missions and primarily supported the work of women missionaries. UTO later broadened its emphasis to include all areas of the church's work. More information about UTO's history is available here.
UTO suggests that people should daily pray and give in recognition of their daily thanks for what God has given them. Oftentimes, the people whom the UTO calls "thankful givers" supplement their daily contributions before sending the money to UTO either individually or through a process known as the diocesan in-gathering. The UTO believes that thankful giving spiritually unites the givers with the people who benefit from their gifts.
"UTO has never been just a matter of donor participation, but really prayer participation, [so] the question comes up of how do you attract more people into the prayer life of UTO," Harris said. "UTO says that it is essentially a prayerful organization and out of that prayer grows funding for mission. So the question then is: how do we engage more people in that prayerful activity and, hopefully, in more mission giving."
The group that Harris will lead in the 2010-2012 triennium was asked in October 2008 by the church's Executive Council to conduct a "serious and extensive" study of the UTO. The council's request (via Resolution INC055) resulted from a series of conversations that began in January 2008 and centered on the need to clarify the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society's legal relationship with UTO. (The DFMS is the church's corporate legal entity.)
Other issues included exploration of ways to increase giving to the UTO, ways to make UTO better known to others in the church and ways to expand the organization's approach to funding mission activities.
"When these issues first arose, I think they were difficult questions to state and I think they were difficult questions to hear, and so there's been some awkwardness at first about either stating the questions or hearing them," Harris said. "I think we're beginning to get through to the level of being able to talk about the questions."
Executive Council member and Diocese of Connecticut Bishop-elect Ian Douglas headed the study group in 2009 and told Executive Council during its February 2010 meeting that Harris would take over chairing the committee. Douglas will continue as a member.
Harris said that Douglas had gone a long way toward helping the parties get to where they are now by "being able to get people to slow down, talk together, build some confidence with each other and I think we're at a place where we might be able to do some really creative work."
Sarita Redd, president of the UTO Board (formerly known as the UTO Committee), told ENS recently that the board, including seven new members, and the study committee have been "able to sit down and just put the facts on the table and to give them a clear understanding of structure and what had taken place that was in writing and how we were going to proceed."
"I think that door being opened for the study group to come in and collaborate laid the foundation for trust," she said. "It was not a distant relationship; it's more we're going to walk hand-in-hand."
To that end, the study committee will divide itself into five small groups made up of UTO Board members as well as study group members. The groups will delve into UTO's history, its theology of thankfulness, new technologies, Anglican Communion matters and organizational structures and relationships. The groups will have their first meetings between mid-April and mid-June, according to Redd.
"Once we get down to the nuts and bolts of each one of these areas, then all those ends will be tied up and I believe there will be a bright future for UTO," she said.
The study group, of which Redd has been a member since the start, is due to make a report and recommendations to the Executive Council and the 2012 General Convention.
Douglas, saying that he gave thanks to God for what he called "the relationships of trust and mutual understanding that have developed and are deepening" between the study group and the UTO Board, told ENS that he is "very hopeful -- given these developments -- about our work over the next triennium and I trust that we will bring a creative and positive report and recommendations to the 2012 General Convention."
Harris, who has not yet met with the study committee, said he's been thinking about how to translate his grandmother's commitment to UTO so that a changing Episcopal Church and a changing society can adopt its legacy and its attitude of prayerful giving.
"Suppose we really encouraged members of the Episcopal Church to have a household context for prayer and giving," he asked, adding "[suppose] we encouraged people to do simple daily prayers" such as a prayer for mission, a prayer for the church, the Lord's Prayer and some scripture reading, culminating in making an offering to the UTO.
"Encouraging households to spend even five minutes a day in common prayer and offering -- that would be dynamite if we could get people to do that," he said.
More information about the conversations that led up to the study group's appointment is available here.