Using Assets Faithfully
In a recent presentation I said, “I’m pleading that our congregations not burn through their assets in a last-gasp attempt to keep their church alive for just a few more years. What an exercise in lousy stewardship that would be.”
Upon reflection, I acknowledge that the issue is much more complex than that. What is our theology of wealth? Can we develop an understanding of what God would have a congregation do with the assets it has accumulated?
There are several dichotomies that come into play. In each case, there seems to be a moral and scriptural argument for either choice.
- Is wealth inherently good or inherently evil? Is prosperity a blessing bestowed by God or evidence of past unjust behaviour?
- Are we called to a life of stewardship or generosity? Should we preserve assets or give them away?
- Are declining membership numbers a sign of an unviable ministry, or do we carry on as long as two or three are gathered in Jesus’ name? When is it time to call it a day?
- Is it our mission to serve this generation or future generations?
- Is our ministry purely local, or does it have regional, national or global dimensions as well? When we stop supporting the wider church, are we still the church?
- When dealing with wealth, should we be as wise as serpents or as trusting as the lilies of the field?
How we answer these questions, and probably many others, will inform our view of what it means to use congregational assets faithfully.
The questions are often most acute when a congregation finds itself in financial difficulty, with trouble balancing the annual budget. There are other options: cutting back the pastor’s compensation; reducing or eliminating benevolence offerings to the synod; exploring alternative ministry arrangements with other congregations, and so on. But some congregations will find themselves with a budget deficit and invested assets at the same time.
Is it OK to balance the budget by drawing down the investments? Is it irresponsible to spend accumulated wealth in order to avoid less palatable choices? Is it our obligation, as stewards of the assets entrusted to use by previous generations, to preserve them in order to pass them on to the next generation?
It’s important to keep in mind that assets can be physical as well as financial. What is the right thing to do if a congregation finds itself with no option but to disband, while it still owns physical assets such as a church building? Should it give its building to a local secular charity that needs the space for programs that benefit the community? Or should the congregation transfer title of its property to the Synod or the Evangelical Lutheran Foundation of Eastern Canada (ELFEC) so that it can be sold and the proceeds used to support some other ministry? [Note: as executive director of ELFEC I have a conflict of interest on this question.]
In which direction does your moral and scriptural compass point on these questions? What should a faithful congregation do when confronted with these tough issues? What is your role as a leader?
Please add your comments.