It was a shockingly wonderful gift.
The church I was serving as interim pastor was notified that a long time member left her house to the church’s foundation upon her death. The donation was given with no restrictions on how it was to be managed or to be used.
This was no ordinary house. It sat along the “Gold Coast,” the three most expensive blocks in San Francisco. We were told the house would sell for close to $16 million. This was a game-changing gift.
We quickly discovered that the second half of Jesus’ saying to which this article’s title refers applied to our situation: “From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required.” This marvelous gift also presented many challenges as the church decided how to manage it and for what purposes it would be used.
We faced a whole range of issues:
- Will real estate agents within the church be invited to make proposals to represent us or only non-member agents?
- Who will make the final decisions about how the gift will be used: the foundation’s board or the church’s Session (main board)?
- Will all the proceeds from the sale of the house be held as an endowment or can some of it be used to pay for immediate needs?
- Even though it was an unrestricted gift, did the church have an obligation to try to figure out how the donor would have wanted them to use it?
And even more importantly:
- What impact will the gift have on the giving patterns of the living congregation? Will people now think of us as a “rich church” and cut back on their giving?
- How can leadership assure the congregation’s members that the decisions made are in the best interest of the church as a whole?
- How does a church that receives such a significant gift serve the purposes of God’s Realm in how it uses that gift?
“Much will be required” indeed!
Because the foundation was a separate non-profit not under the oversight of Session, that meant both boards would need to play a role in making these decisions. The church’s leadership wisely decided to set up a task force made up of an equal number of members from each of the boards.
The first commitment the task force made was to be as transparent as possible about the process to both boards and to the congregation. This also meant a commitment to over-communicating their process and their decisions as time went on.
They decided that whatever recommendations the task force made, they would only take effect if both boards approved them. This assured that the church’s leadership would be united on the way forward.
The task force engaged the services of a denominationally affiliated consortium of endowed churches to develop a best practices conversation with congregations of similar memberships, endowments, and operating budgets. This enabled them to learn from both the good and the not-so-good decisions other churches had made.
The church also wrestled with whether or not they wanted to wait for their new permanent pastor to arrive before making final decisions. They decided they wanted to allow the new pastor to add his/her own thoughts before setting them any decisions in concrete.
I recently went back to the church to ask the pastor and two of the chairs of the foundation’s board what their experience had been over the three years since I had left the church. They told me the boards ended up deciding to use the income from the gift to address the systemic causes of poverty in the city of San Francisco (which was in line with the task force’s recommendations). They also decided to use some of the gift’s principal immediately to help pay for a stained glass restoration project (which was not in line with the recommendations).
They said the “rich church” syndrome had, in fact, arisen (though overall giving grew over the three years). They were surprised that it was not the smaller pledgers who had cut back on their giving. Some wealthier donors decided they would redirect some of their giving away from the church to non-profits in the area “who didn’t have the benefit of this large gift.”
All of this is to say that being good stewards of a significant gift requires a lot of planning and intentionality, especially about the process you will use to decide how to manage and deploy the gift for the church’s mission.
At the Center for Healthy Churches, we are able to use experiences like this one to help your congregation think through how you will be faithful stewards of a similarly “shockingly wonderful gift.” Whether you’ve just received such a gift, have learned that a member has an estate plan that will include a significant gift in the future, or want to develop policies in anticipation of the possibility of such a gift, we are glad to assist you in developing a process and policy for your congregation. Get in touch with us, and we’ll explore the options together.