Lay Leadership Serving the Rural Church with Rigor in Stewardship

By Lizbeth Johnson, Gift Planner

How does a small rural community make a difference with their finances to fund their mission and ministry? Good church stewardship often means putting individual preferences aside to make wise decisions that benefit the greater good. Luke 19:12 could be describing the challenge for lay councils as they take responsibility for the church funds in a way that we can all understand, through stories:

“A certain nobleman went into a far country to receive for himself a kingdom and to return. So he called ten of his servants, delivered to them ten minas, (several months’ wages) and said to them, “Do business till I come.” The servants of course, handled the money many different ways. The Bible tells us in verse 20 that one even kept the funds put away in a handkerchief. The message in verse 23 indicates that when the Nobleman returned, he asked, “Why then did you not put my money in the bank that at my coming I might have collected it with interest?” Verse 24 says, “And he said to those who stood by, “Take the mina from him, and give it to him who has ten minas. The message indicates there is reward for thoughtful investing. The wise servant is told, “Well done, good servant; because you were faithful in a very little, have authority over ten cities.”

Whether the amount is large or small, an old fund or a new ministry, how the funds are invested may need routine re-evaluation. An example of change within our synod is the investment change made by the church council at Trinity Lutheran Church in Frelsburg, Texas in regards to the Trinity Cemetery Fund.

The church council at Trinity Lutheran Church, Frelsburg, TX
The church council at Trinity Lutheran Church, Frelsburg, TX

This wonderful group of Lutheran lay leaders would admit that it often takes a special moment in time and a release from “old ways of doing things” to pave the way for change. But “all things new” is a life revitalization process that is spiritual and scriptural in Christ, no matter how long our routines and habits have been in place.

In this case, the catalyst was an individual congregational member with passion to help and the initiative to provide support with information. In Frelsburg, Texas, Mr. Drew Lynch, a trading and risk management executive, did extensive research hoping to find some option for the church’s cemetery fund that would provide a better return on their investment. His best judgment led him to recommend the ELCA Foundation’s “Fund A” for the church for a portion of the funds in the cemetery fund.

Since the investment vehicle is affiliated with the ELCA, it benefits the greater church. Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton describes the fund as “church helping church,” and indeed, a strong ELCA Foundation means greater options for ELCA churches. The fund allows small churches that may be only getting 1% on their investment with Certificates of Deposits (CD’s) to earn as much as 6.7% currently. The return in the past has been as high as 14% gross average in the last five years.

Even though the decision “involves some personal risk in making a recommendation,” Mr. Lynch says,” the concern should not stop those responsible from making the best decisions they can for church funds.” While the return from the fund will fluctuate, over the long term, the payout is greater than holding cash. In fact, investing in CD’s at the moment is a negative return after inflation, so churches are losing money by doing nothing.” About half of the dividend goes to the church by way of distribution and half continues to grow the endowment for the future. The principal, of course, is not spent but becomes a permanent asset for church ministry.

Based on the track record of Fund A and the recommendation of Mr. Lynch, the council decided it was the best option for their funds. It took some courage to make such a big investment change, but the council voted to move forward with a decision in November of 2014. Among the committee members, they voted to step forward in faith. Hebert Debelgott, chairman of the committee was amazed at the first distribution check. “I thought, could this possibly be right? The payout in so short a time has been so great!”

The fund has now been invested with the ELCA Foundation for one year with a return of $1,000 on their $25,000 endowment. During the semi-annual Trinity Lutheran Congregational Meeting, Council President Troy McQueen told the congregation, “The fund has earned $500 compared to $42 in the same period previously (before our investment change). We are very encouraged with this increased benefit.”

Pastor Glenn Hohlt says, “The committee has taken their job very seriously, and we have had excellent guidance.” In addition to sharing their experience about the growth in the funds, the congregation enjoys other benefits that come with a Fund A account. The funds, which are invested only in socially responsible investments, can be withdrawn at any time without penalty, and returns are sent quarterly, only three months after the account is created with a management fee of only 1%. The fee of 1% is paid monthly with 1/12 of a percentage paid each month. With the advantage of economy of scale, a Fund A account has the benefit of high level investment managers not typically available to one church alone.

Along with the account come the services of a regional gift planner to help the fund grow through planned giving. In addition to end-of-life stewardship informational presentations, the gift planner is available to provide individual and family guidance at no cost or obligation. The Foundation’s gift planners facilitate bequests, gift annuities, and trusts that protect individual assets and benefit Lutheran ministry through charitable intent. Almost any individual can leave a legacy to ministry with wise counsel.

For more information and support, contact Lizbeth Johnson, 713.775.1595. The Lutheran Foundation of the Southwest is a partner with the ELCA and is authorized to provide presentations, application forms, and more information to interested congregations. The gift planner also supports endowment growth through legacy giving seminars and encouraging end-of-life stewardship plans for congregation members.

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