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Saturday, April 18, 2015

Noisy Gorillas and Silent Evidence

A little girl pounds her chest in front of the gorilla habitat at the Henry Doorly Zoo in Omaha. The alpha male silver-back charges the window and hits it hard enough to crack the inside layer of the three-layered glass. It is an impressive display that makes the news and fills up a slow day on social media outlets.

I am fascinated by the pronouncements of all the "experts" in the wake of this (non) event. This is, one part-time pundit declares, the result of years of harassment by hundreds of mean-spirited little kids. The male finally had enough and reacted. I must wonder how many other small children (and the adults they were imitating) did precisely the same thing with no ill effects.

Another humble analyst proclaims that this is the result of taking these wonderful wild creatures out of their natural environment and subjecting them to the rigors of captivity. The alpha finally "snapped" and took out his frustration on the window and the little girl. I am assuming that this conclusion is drawn from post-event debriefing with the alpha male and other members of the oppressed local gorilla community.

Of course, it may well be that the gorillas suffer from their captivity. But again, where is the evidence that such stress has produced this particular incident? It is easy to see the things you already expect to see.

Yet others are sure that this result was completely unanticipated by the management and keepers at the zoo. Of course, this is harder to sustain in light of the fact that the glass was part of a triply redundant system that seems to have been designed for precisely such an eventuality. That small detail aside, we have calls for a thorough-going re-evaluation of the system for maintaining the gorilla enclosure.

Nassim Taleb reminds us that we are often victims of the "Silent Evidence" problem. This blind spot leads us to draw faulty conclusions from inadequate evidence. We see a problem in front of us. We are highly sensitive to that problem--a big bang and cracked glass will get a person's attention. We are not sensitive to all the times when this didn't happen. We have to think hard to put the event in a realistic context because that requires us to imagine non-events.

That's not our strong suit as humans. Thinking hard takes lots of work. Of course, without ignorance of the Silent Evidence problem, social media outlets would certainly be quieter and less dramatic places.

Instead, we over-read the specific event in front of us. That over-reading typically leads to over-reacting. And over-reacting usually has negative consequences that may relieve our stress but that rarely make the problem better. And we under-read the times that the event didn't happen. That under-reading means that we are insensitive to the things that actually work in our lives and in the world. And so we tend to under-support, under-fund, and under-appreciate these positive things.

For example, we will notice the one time our spouse might forget to take out the trash. We tend not to put that into the context of all the times that the chore actually got accomplished. So we over-react to the immediate stimulus, have a fight and spend some unhappy moments. We could choose to remember the positive side of the equation and have some happy moments instead. It is a measure of our predictable irrationality (thanks as always to Dan Ariely) that we so often choose the path to unhappiness.

Thank you, staff, keepers, architects, managers and supporters of Henry Doorly Zoo for building an enclosure that managed this unusual event. It would be best if the rest of us spend our energy gathering information and get less exercise jumping to after the fact conclusions.

Friday, April 10, 2015

Refund or Over-payment?

We are finalizing our 2014 federal and state tax returns today. And no, we won't get a "refund." If we did, we would have filed about February 15th! Pastors are regarded by the IRS as "self-employed." So we pay quarterly estimated taxes. We hope that our calculations will be a rough approximation of the actual tax liability. And this year, we (that is our very fine accountant, Nick Hill) did pretty well. In fact, we will apply a small bit to next year's tax bill and have a less painful check to write at the end of each quarter. 

We don't a get a refund, but we get to feel relieved.

Because of this, I can regard "refund mania" with a kind of bemused detachment. The airwaves are filled with commercials describing all the ways that businesses will help you spend your refund. You can buy furniture before you get your check from the government. You can borrow against that refund if things are tight. These commercials resemble the kinds of celebrations people might have if they win big in the lottery.

And that is precisely how most people experience these "refunds."

On my tax forms, I am told about my "over-payment." Then I am asked how I would like to manage that over-payment: apply it to next year or get it back. Perhaps that's why I don't get excited about the whole deal. I am struck by the emotional differences between getting a refund and making an over-payment. I wonder how excited people would be if we started calling refunds what they are: interest-free loans to the federal government.

People seem to treat refunds as "found money." Check out this advice to auto dealers during the "tax refund mania season." Instead of regarding those dollars as part of one's normal earnings, people treat them as lottery winnings or Christmas gifts from rich relatives. Thus these dollars are not encumbered by the need by buy groceries, pay the rent, or put tires on the family car. Since I haven't had such an opportunity in thirty-one years, I have trouble connecting to the emotions of this particular experience. 

Check out this good advice on dealing with refunds.

In fact, at least some of the dollars returned to people are worth about three percent less than when they were earned. Inflation may be low in the current economy, but it does exist. So these over-payments are to some degree negative interest loans. They are like the old Christmas club savings plans, except you pay the holder of your money a small premium for keeping your money.

I know what a genuine "refund" looks and feels like. A few years ago, a local government agency discovered that our water meter had been mildly malfunctioning for years. We have been overcharged at the rate of about five percent per year. More than a decade of that overcharging resulted in several hundred dollars in actual refund from the highly responsible folks at that particular office. If they hadn't done it, I wouldn't have known. I thought I was paying what I owed. I got some back as a surprise. That's a real refund.

So if you find yourself overcome with the irrational exuberance of refund mania, you might just remind yourself that it's really the return of an over-payment. And if you're still emotionally overwrought, you might consider giving some of your "found money" away to those in need. Here's a very fine place to share some of your returned over-payment.

Nudging Stewardship Ideas

A variety of wild and crazy (or not so wild and crazy) ideas that come out of reading Thaler and Sunstein's book, Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth and Happiness.

--Always suggest a giving level and/or increase to provide an anchor for givers. That anchor is more easily understood in terms of dollars than as a percentage of income. Don't be bashful about how high the anchor is.

--Take advantage of our natural aversion to loss. Periodically point to specific possible losses if people don't give. We tend to think that this is demotivating for church givers, but I don't think so. It works for televangelists and public television campaigns. I think people will pay attention if we note that air conditioning might not be available this summer based on the current level of giving.

--Give people "mandatory choice" options on estimate of giving cards. Create cards that allow people to mark, "Yes, I will give," or "No, I won't give." Don't make comfortable apathy the default choice.

--Remember that defaults are implicit endorsements. If our (unintended) default is "not giving," then we are providing an implicit endorsement to that default. And that is precisely how it works in most congregational giving. People must choose to give. The default is to do nothing. Construct stewardship tools to change that default.

--Defeat "pluralistic ignorance." Be sure that people know how many people in the congregation are giving and provide some contextual information about how much people are giving.

--Take advantage of the "spotlight effect." Remember that people believe their actions are tightly and regularly scrutinized by other people, even when that is not the case.

--Take advantage of the "mere measurement effect." Remember that simply asking people if they will give is one way to encourage them to give.

--Create automatic estimate of giving cards based on the previous twelve months of giving. Tell givers that this will be their estimate of giving unless we hear about an increase.

--Create events where higher commitment people interact and nudge one another. Get the generous people together as often as possible. And always give them chances to talk with each other about their giving and their hopes for the congregation.

--Make feedback to givers more frequent. Monthly contribution statements are better than quarterly statements. Quarterly statements are better than annual statements.

--Increase salience. Be clear and immediate about giving impacts. Connect offering opportunities with images and reminders of potential recipients. In this age of projectors and screens in sanctuaries, project images of happy children during the offering time.

--Overcome the money illusion. Remind people that one dollar in 1975 is equal to $4.52 in 2015. Twenty dollars per week in 1975 is the same as $90 per week in 2015.

I hope to have the chance to test these ideas in a variety of congregational settings. If you try any of them, I'd like to hear about your experiences. And I'd love to hear more wild and crazy ideas about stewardship for actual human beings.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Is Charitable Giving a Fraught Choice?

Soren Kierkegaard wrote “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.” So we routinely make decisions based on inadequate or incomplete information. How does this affect our charitable giving practices?

In Nudge, the authors describe our problems as what they term to be "fraught choices." A fraught choice is one that carries some sort of "freight." This means that the decision will have consequences or rewards, costs or benefits, that cannot be accessed or assessed when the decision is made. Thaler and Sunstein (Nudge, page 79) describe some classes of these choices:
  • those that have delayed effects
  • those that are difficult, infrequent and offer poor feedback
  • those for which the relation between choice and experience is ambiguous.
For example, I can ignore my dental health for some years before the effects of that apathy take hold. But the height of a raging toothache is not the time to begin regular brushing and flossing. 

Some people may retire several times and thus get some "practice" in such decisions. Most of us get one chance and then we live with the consequences of our decisions. 

And most of us make decisions about colleges without much clear sense of how one option might be better or worse than another. It may never be clear that our choice of that expensive private school trumped the less expensive state university, since we'll never have the chance to go back and test the alternative scenario.

Is our giving to a local congregation anything like these examples?

Giving to a local congregation can certainly be subject to a poor feedback system. Whether we give or not, it appears that the staff continue to do their work. Whether we give or not, it seems that the furnace runs and the air conditioning functions. The lights are on and the hymnals are in the pews. At best (or worst), the consequences of giving or not giving are delayed (or invisible).

By contrast, if I don't pay my own utility bills, the lights go out and the garbage accumulates. It would seem that giving may be experienced as all upfront cost and little experienced benefit. So giving sounds like a fraught choice.

And I may not be all that clear about what I expect to get by making the giving choice. Do I expect a certain level of "service" for my money? Many of our regular givers would resist such a notion. But if the sermons are unsatisfactory or the pastor is a pain in the neck or the denomination makes unpopular decisions, giving is going to decrease. Congregational giving is a "trailing indicator" of member satisfaction.

So parishioners may have the same relationship to "bad service" that Justice Potter Stewart had to pornography. They may not be able to define it, but they know it when they see it. And when they experience dissatisfaction, they are likely to respond. Once again, giving sounds like a fraught choice.

Now, why does this matter? If Thaler and Sunstein are right (and experience shows that they are), fraught choices are those most in need of helpful nudges. Anchors and primes, context and commitment, reports and guidelines are all designed to be such helpful nudges as people make their (fraught) giving decisions.

More than Mere Measurement

When we think about congregational stewardship, we need to take into account what has been labeled the “mere-measurement effect.” When people are asked if they are going to vote in an upcoming election, for example, “they become more likely to act in accordance with their answers” (Thaler and Sunstein, Nudge, page 70).  So, if we simply ask people to indicate their giving intentions, we will increase the likelihood that our members will indeed give.

We need a bit finer description at this point. The subjects in the 1987 Greenwald, et al, study that the Nudge authors cite, were anonymous. So they were not likely concerned that someone else would notice if they didn’t follow through on their stated intentions. The mere measurement effect is about psychological priming more than it is about social pressure and expectation. 

The study authors refer to our need to erase potential errors in predicting our own behavior. When we say that we will do something and we do not do it, we experience some real tension. In effect, we made a prediction about our future behavior and we got the prediction wrong! So once we make such a prediction, we are far more likely to follow through in order to prove ourselves right about ourselves.

Aren’t we such interesting creatures!

Thaler and Sunstein note that the mere measurement effect works with stated intentions to diet and to exercise, to purchase a new car, and to floss one’s teeth. We can safely surmise that the mere measurement effect will have a positive impact on giving behavior as well. So we come to real importance of “pledge” or “estimate of giving” cards and forms. When people indicate their intention to give, the likelihood that they will give may well increase by twenty-five percent or more (extrapolated from studies of the behaviors mentioned above).

The first priority in encouraging people to indicate their giving intent is to leverage the mere measurement effect. This is not some sort of manipulation or coercion. When we encourage people to indicate their intent in advance, we are helping them to carry out their intentions. If we are concerned about exercising undue pressure on our folks, we may encourage them to complete estimate of giving cards and place them in sealed envelopes. If the research is accurate, the act of completing the intent forms will have a significant impact on giving follow-through, even if no else sees the completed form or card.

If people are encouraged to attach plans to their intentions, they will be even more likely to follow through on those intentions. “The nudge provided by asking people what they intend to do can be accentuated,” Thaler and Sunstein write, “by asking them when and how they plan to do it.”  Asking people for specific plans will ratchet up the internal pressure to make accurate self-predictions. And when we plan something, it has almost the same impact on us neurologically as when we actually do it.

In fact, functional magnetic resonance imaging has shown that the same areas of the brain “light up” when we make plans to do something and when we actually do it. This is why it is important that we encourage our givers to be specific in how they will give. Will it be weekly, bi-monthly or monthly? Will it be a fixed dollar amount, a percentage, or a progressive dollar amount? Will it be an electronic contribution or with paper checks or money? Encouraging pre-commitment plans is a way to help people carry out the commitments they want to make. Declared intentions and formulated plans will prime people to be more reliable and faithful givers.

We can extend this dimension of the mere measurement effect to other parts of congregational life. One of the surest ways to increase attendance at a congregational event is to contact people the week before to see if they will be coming. This is a critical element of those stewardship methods which rely on a commitment dinner or other celebration event. Asking for a commitment to attend will increase attendance measurably.

This is true for regular worship attendance as well. I had a colleague who spent the great majority of his working hours in the community connecting with members of the congregation. Many of these contacts were three to five minute conversations at the grocery store or the post office. But these contacts created subtle pre-commitments on the part of the parishioners. When I interviewed some of them, many confessed that the contact with the pastor in the previous week had been a significant factor in their decision to attend worship the following Sunday (I have to wonder if social media contacts can have a similar effect—I am not so sure).

This runs against my personal psychology. I feel like I’m “bothering” people when I seek such pre-commitments. So I have to remind myself repeatedly that I am helping people to keep the commitments they really want to make. Those who don’t want to keep such commitments will likely not be affected by regular connections, invitations, visits and other contacts. And those who are not in the habit of regular attendance and giving—such as people new to the congregation—will need even more attention and invitation since they are forming new habits that have not yet been solidified.

Giving: Everyone's Doing It

I'm back at my research for a book on the positive psychology of stewardship. Whenever possible, givers should be equipped with ways to accurately understand their personal context. When our folks tell themselves stories about why they give what they do, those stories work best when they are built on real information. 

For example, many researchers refer to a study done in 1996 by Stephen Coleman for the Minnesota Department of Revenue. The report of that study is available at this site. It might take a few seconds for the report to come up.

In that study, four methods were compared for their impact on improving tax payer compliance and tax revenues. Some subjects were reminded of heightened audit threats. Some subjects were promised and given greater levels of customer service by the department. Some were encouraged to use a new, simpler and clearer basic tax return form. None of these methods had any cost-effective impact on tax payer compliance and increased revenues for the state.

The fourth test method provided information to the subjects. One letter reminded tax payers of how much good their dollars were doing and how people would suffer if they fudged on their tax returns. That letter had no effect on tax payer behavior. The other letter reminded tax payers that ninety-three percent of their neighbors regularly completed accurate tax returns and paid the required amount of tax. This countered widely held perceptions that many people cheated on their taxes. The research described this method as the most cost effective and least objectionable intervention by far. Simply providing tax payers with accurate information about the behavior of their neighbors was enough to improve their own tax paying behavior.

Information about the giving (or paying) context is what Thaler and Sunstein describe as a “social nudge” (Nudge, page 66).  We are affected by our community context when we make our tax-paying (and giving) decisions. So context-based information is likely to have a positive impact on giving behavior. 

More than that, a positive message about the behavior of others will have a far greater impact than a negative message. Most churches send contribution reports to members. Often those reports are nothing more than a machine-generated summary of the member’s giving in the previous quarter. That is a missed opportunity. First, the report should be accompanied by a letter of thanks. Our members could certainly give to other causes that are important to them. No gift should ever be received without grateful acknowledgment. And such gratitude will make future gifts more likely.

Second, these contribution reports should include some mention of how many households in the congregation gave in that previous quarter. We should imitate the Minnesota tax folks and remind people how “normal” it is to give to our congregation’s ministry. Too often we provide information about budget shortfalls and tight financial situations. So we create the perception that people are not giving. We make that the most available piece of information for our folks. And that availability will lead people to give less. After all they don’t want to be the exceptional suckers who are footing the bill for everyone else.

Third, these contribution reports should include information about how much people have given in the last quarter. There is no reason that this information should be shared with members only once a year (if at all). That information might include a “giving level pyramid” that demonstrates how many households in a congregation give within certain ranges during that quarter. Of course, many of us will assume that everyone else is richer than we are. Therefore they can all give more. So if possible, try to put those giving ranges into a household income context as well. That information may be based on demographic reports for the area. Again, many of us will assume that everyone else is richer than we are. But these reports make that assumption harder to sustain.

Many people in our congregations give regularly. That's good news that should be shared!

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Where All The Givers Are Above Average

It's known as the "Lake Woebegon Effect." It is our tendency to believe that in many areas of our lives we are "above average." The name comes, of course, from Garrison Keillor's description of all the children in the fictional Minnesota town as "above average." 

We believe that we are above average drivers. We believe that we are above average students. We believe that we are above average lovers. We believe that our sense of humor is above average as well (even if we do seem to be a bunch of old grumps).

We have highly optimistic estimates of our own performance and competence. Of course, it cannot be the case that everyone is above average. An average requires that some people are below and some are above. We simply believe that in every case we are part of the "above" crowd. And typically we believe that we are in the "well above" crowd. 

This isn't due merely to hubris. In fact, we live with an optimism bias and a self-justification bias. We are wired to see ourselves as above average. And we have to think hard in order to see ourselves with more realism.

So we believe that we are more likely to succeed where others have failed. We believe we are less likely to suffer from illness or injury than others. And this can even impact our physicians as they advise us. We believe that we can take greater risks than others because they are the ones who will make up the bottom fifty percent of the average.

This is all true unless we have been made aware recently of something bad that has happened. Then we are likely to overestimate our chances of something bad happening to us. The insurance industry lives off this negativity bias created by what is called the "availability" heuristic.

I wonder how this impacts people's giving behavior. I'd love to find a way to survey people in congregations about how they see their giving relative to the average in a congregation. I hypothesize that many people would see themselves as "above average" in their giving. That would be true until they were exposed to the actual average number. I am quite sure that most people underestimate that number and therefore overestimate their relationship to that number.

Certainly a few people would underestimate the average. These are the folks who give significantly more than the average and raise that number. Their estimates will be influenced by their available experience. The other exception would be those folks who actually deal with contribution information in a congregation. There may be no better stewardship education than to be church financial secretary (if one can resist the temptation toward bitter judgmentalism).

I am guessing that if we did actual surveys in congregations, we would irritate and offend many people. In some places, even the mention of "giving" verges on uttering an obscenity. So, short of that tactic, I would suggest that churches need to publish several times a year numbers that reflect simple giving benchmarks. Average household giving is one benchmark. Median household giving would be another. Giving ranges could provide some additional context.

We don't like to be below average for a number of reasons. I think congregations could use our natural tendencies to help us feel realistically above average and to stop living in Lake Woebegon.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

For Maundy Thursday

From Emanuel's Lenten Devotional project, Devoted:

Thursday, April 2
Lowell Hennigs
Maundy Thursday
Read 1 Corinthians 11:23-26

For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you…” (Verse 23a)

Today we are privileged to be the next links in a great chain of faith.  Young people and their parents have been studying what we believe about the Lord’s Supper, Holy Communion.  They have experienced many dimensions of that Sacrament in class and activities. If you want to view the messages that have helped them prepare for First Communion, you can go to our youtube channel.

Today they will join our Eucharistic fellowship as full participants.  We get to be the people who hand on to them what we have received from the Lord.  We get to be the people who invite them to receive the benefits of the Sacrament—forgiveness, life and salvation.

Those young people first will experience the Rite of Footwashing.  We are not their masters.  We are their servants.  It is our privilege to wait on them in this way.  It is our privilege because we get to imitate our Lord Jesus in this rite.

We wrap ourselves with towels and kneel at their feet.  We wash their feet in part to remind them of their baptismal covenants.  And we dry their feet to prepare them for the journey of faith to come.

Perhaps you can remember your own First Communion celebration.  Think back and give thanks for those people who handed on to you what they also received from the Lord.

And then think back to that first Lord’s Supper.  We remember that meal in our thoughts.  We re-enact that meal in our worship.  We embody that meal in our witnessing and serving.  We get to be those who hand on what our Lord has given us.

But this isn’t a one-night thing.  Week in and week out we get to pass on the faith to the next generation.  If you aren’t teaching a class or mentoring a young person or encouraging a child, you are missing out on great opportunities in being a follower of Jesus. 

We get to hand on to others what the Lord first handed to us.  And in the handing on, it becomes most fully ours.

Let’s pray.  Lord God, thank you for those who handed on the faith to me.  Use me to hand that faith on to the next generation of believers.  In Jesus’ name.  Amen.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Sustained by a Word

From our congregational Lenten project, Devoted.

Wednesday, April 1

Lowell Hennigs
Wednesday in Holy Week
Read Isaiah 50:4-9a

The Lord God has given me the tongue of a teacher, that I may know how to sustain the weary with a word.” (Verse 4a)

Have you been sustained by the words you find here?  I hope so.  We are blessed with many fine teachers in these pages.  They have been willing to share their lives, their faith, their questions and their words to sustain you and me in this Lenten journey.

Sometimes we may forget that our Lord Jesus was sustained as well by the power of God’s Word.  He knew the Hebrew scriptures intimately and charted his earthly course based on God’s word—especially in the Psalms and the prophet Isaiah.

For example, when he suffered violence and torture, he knew that this was the fate of an honest prophet of the word.  He understood that his course would take him from the safety of the Galilean hills to the hands of the executioner in Jerusalem.  He knew that this was the path of the Suffering Servant, the real Messiah, who would bring peace and life to a warring and dying world.

He read those Scriptures.  He prayed over them and through them.  And then he embodied and enacted the mission contained there.  Those around him did not understand what was happening.  But he was fulfilling Israel’s vocation as the Suffering Servant for the sake of all.

We too can be sustained by the Word.  Regular and careful study will shape and nourish our faith.  Daily prayer and reflection will make that word a part of our breath and our thought.  Weekly worship will reconnect us with the Word and with the community formed by that Word.

I pray that these meditations have fed you well on your Lenten journey.  I pray even more that they leave you hungering—hungering for daily devotions when Lent is over.

If you need more devotional resources to carry on after Lent, please contact your church office.  They will be glad to help.

Let’s pray.  Thank you, God, for sustaining us with your Word in the midst of trials and troubles.  In Jesus’ name.  Amen.

Christ In Our Home devotional resources, click here.

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