Friday, October 9, 2020

We will never die. . .

In conversation with a small parish growing smaller, I suggested that the parish was dying and the day might come someone will turn out the lights, shut the door, and lock it for the last time.  At the end of my speech (not about changing but about embracing new people), I was told.  "We will never die."  Why not?  "Because we have $2.7 Million in our endowment fund and this will guarantee that our church will never shuts its doors."

Indeed, the most important parish meeting there was the annual meeting to review the earnings on their endowment and to decide how the interest was to be spent.  It was nearly always on some building repair.  The most predictable thing about this parish was that the building needs would be taken care of above all else.  On one hand it was laudable how committed they were even if it was sad that the thing they were committed to most of all was brick and stone, wood and glass.

I well recall another parish, fairly large and with a school, that ran deficits, large deficits, but financed their deficits with a very large endowment fund.  In fact, at one point taking $400K to pay off bills and bring their books into balance.  How long had they been doing this?  Long enough so that no one could answer my question.  It had become their normal practice. 

In my hometown is a parish that has had a very large endowment from a frugal brother and sister and even though the parish is dwindling in size, nearly every part of their building has been remodeled, air conditioned, and they even have a cappuccino machine in the Fellowship Hall.

It all leads me to my mixed feelings about endowments.  Perhaps I should admit that I hope we have one some day.  But I wonder sometimes if they are worth the trouble.  I do know that the costs of maintaining wonderful but aged structures is great and the largess of the dead helps the living handle the legacy of those who have gone before.  But I wonder what it all does to the living.

We complain that bishops have become managers and in part it is because dioceses have assets to be managed and people to manage.  They are corporate structures with financial needs, financial responsibilities, and financial trusts.  Yes, they need cash flow and they need people to make sure the cash flows where it needs to go.  So, it would seem, along with being good pastors, good bishops are also financial whizkids who can keep the flow moving in the right direction.  Sometimes that happens in the parish.  Parishes have assets and responsibilities and costs and the duty to keep things going and how often it steals the attention away from what it means to be the Church.

I must also admit that I have been in a parish that did not have the money to pay the bills and it can become and equal diversion from the things of the Kingdom.  Everyone who has been in a poor parish knows how much time and attention is given to fundraising to keep the lights on!  So it is not only the rich who have a focus on material wealth.  It is also the poor.

It all means that buildings and property are a mixed blessing.  Yes, as Churchill said, we shape buildings and then they shape us.  He could have just as well said that buildings steal our attention.  But it is not only buildings.  Much of our property has little really to do with being the Church and much of our attention is given to justifying our campuses and inventing programs to make sure our facilities are in constant use (that wears them and requires our attention down the road).

Endowments help pay those bills but they can easily presume to us a security which is meant to come with God's promise and not with dollars and cents.  It is an effort on the part of the Church to keep the money flowing where it needs to go without this being our mission and to encourage the legacy of the faithful in endowing for the future without using these endowments as a replacement for our own faithfulness.

So you got hardly any wisdom today but a few meandering thoughts from a pastor who probably thinks too much. . .


John Joseph Flanagan said...

You made some excellent points. The church cannot rely on endowments anymore than a worker can be certain a pension system can become bankrupt when dire economic conditions prevail. Uncertainty should remove pride from our hearts, and humility should govern it. We have to plan, of course, but we can't set our hearts on the future, because we simply do not know it. Only God does alone.

Anonymous said...

Some years ago, I was a layman in a parish that had attempted to escape the Episcopal Church USA. The parish had gone about it it carefully, and thought that they had made a clean get away, including keeping their endowment fund. The (Episcopal) Bishop of Pennsylvania fought for the property (most of all, for the money), and the case went to the PA Supreme Court. The Court ruled for the Bishop, and the parish lost everything material. We had the final Mass, said goodbye, and walked out through the grave yard. The congregation survives today as a Roman parish in the RC Ordinaiate (St. John Baptist Roman Catholic), but the beautiful building, the cemetery, etc. are shuttered and decaying.

The endowment was a two edged sword in this case. It enabled the parish to fight off the Bishop for quite a long while (6 years), but in the end, it was the primary target of his greed.

Continuing Anglican Priest