The Perils of Endowments

Image                  Centre College rocked the world of higher education with the announcement this summer that an alumnus was giving the college $250 million in endowment.  It was hailed as an “institution changing” gift.  Last week it was announced that the pledge has been revoked and the college isn’t getting the money after all.  I’m sad for Centre (I treasure my honorary degree from Centre) but perhaps there is a bright side to this terrible disappointment after all.

My friend and mentor Bob Wilson, who spent a lifetime studying United Methodist churches, once said in my hearing, “It’s hard to kill a congregation.  Churches are amazingly resilient and don’t need much to keep going.  The only sure fire way to kill a congregation is through an endowment.  It can’t be a small endowment.  A couple of million won’t do it.  Give a congregation ten or twenty million and it won’t be a functioning church in ten years.”

Bob claimed he had all sorts of examples to back it up.  I’m now serving a church (Duke Memorial UMC in Durham, NC) that has a small endowment.  Those funds are life-giving to us, enabling us to do much more in mission and maintenance than we could on our own.  And yet sometimes an endowment can be too much of a good thing.

I sat on the board of a small college. One of the board members was a generous donor to the college but he steadfastly refused to give funds for endowments.  He thought that endowments were toxic for an institution, facilitating distance between an institution and its constituency.  He frequently said, “I’m a grad of Yale and Yale’s endowment has made it able to be oblivious to the concerns of alumni or even students with tuition.”

I always made the point that our small, pitifully endowed school was in no danger of having so much endowment that we became smug and detached.  Still, I think the man had a point, at least in regard to churches.   Churches must keep close to their constituency.  Their members need to know that without their generosity, their faithful stewardship, the church wouldn’t be here.  Christ’s entrusts to us responsibility for his work in the world through the church.  We must never shift that responsibility to the backs of those who are no longer living.

I began ministry as a student intern at a church in New Haven that had long ago stopped showing most of the discernible signs of being the church – thanks to their hefty endowment.  The clergy (whose salaries were paid entirely through the endowments) bragged that the church was big on “social justice.”  This basically meant that the church now consisted of a handful of older women who faithfully attended on Sunday morning and the rest of the week “church” consisted of two well salaried pastors who sat around dispensing largess to a few of their favorite benevolent causes so they could brag to their clergy friends that their congregation was into “social justice.”

That church hosted a number of (mostly secular) community organizations who did good work, but the hosting required nothing of the members of the congregation.  Endowments can sometimes give the illusion that a church is still faithful when it is not.  Endowments can also mask some huge problems within the life of the congregation by subsidizing ineffectiveness and masking systemic problems.

The way the church is meant to raise its money for ministry is not from the generosity of Christians of the past but rather every Sunday by passing the plate, by putting our money where our faith is, and by assuming the responsibility that God gives us in our time and place.

By the way, if you happen to have a couple of million dollars to give to a worthy congregation, please call me.  I promise to put it to good use in the ministry of Duke Memorial United Methodist Church.  I also promise to be careful.

Will Willimon

City Churches

The Bishop has appointed me to Duke Memorial United Methodist Church.  This 128 year old congregation in the heart of Durham was once one of Methodism’s great flag ship churches. And yet, in the past three decades Duke Memorial has experienced steady decline as well as a rising average age of membership.  For the past five years, two talented pastors have led somewhat of a turnaround for us.  The congregation has learned that it can attract new members.  This summer our attendance has increased nearly 30% over last year and our giving has been at an unprecedentedly high level.  We are on the move, movement made all the more remarkable because our type of congregation – the once large, downtown church – has been the most threatened type of congregation in United Methodism.

Years ago, when Bob Wilson and I were working on a book on United Methodist renewal, Bob noted that one of the biggest stories of the last few decades has been the loss of our urban churches.  I told him we ought to cite some examples.  The next day he gave me a list of twenty churches that had two thousand members in 1960 that by 1979, when we wrote Rekindling the Flame, were closed.  Because these congregations paid a disproportionate share of the expenses of the denomination, Bob said that the loss of these congregations would change United Methodism forever.

A short time later I heard Lyle Schaller remark that United Methodism had shown that it could not keep urban churches.  Lutherans, Episcopalians, Presbyterians continued to have some large, thriving downtown churches.  Why not United Methodists?  Lyle responded to the effect, “I can think of only one reason why we’ve lost downtown churches – bishops!”  Ouch.

The United Methodist appointive system, as it has usually functioned, has proven to be toxic to these once great churches.  The leadership requirements of the large, downtown church are unique and demanding.  Whenever one of these congregations is used (abused?) to reward some good soldier, to provide a place for someone who ought to be given less demanding work, the results have always been congregational decline.

A key factor in any thriving urban church is preaching.  The urban church is in a competitive environment in which many members may have to drive past many other congregations on their way to the church.  A good-enough-preacher is never good enough to attract persons to these congregations.  Also, the demands of attempting to be church in an urban environment with (usually) an aging, very expensive to maintain building, security issues, the needs of the urban poor who surround the church, and the need for staff require that these congregations cannot simply have good pastoral leadership but must have excellent leadership.

It’s sad enough to see us close or greatly diminish these churches, but even more sad considering the urban growth that’s occurring as increasing numbers of people find the city a great place to live.  A brand new 150 unit apartment complex is being built right across the street from Duke Memorial on land that has been neglected four decades.

So we’re having in Jim Harnish to talk with us about the legendary turnaround at Hyde Park, Tampa, we’re having a staff consult with Scot Chrostic of Resurrection Downtown in Kansas City.  We’re talking about the development of two new worship experiences at times other than Sunday morning, we’ve taken out radio ads and put up new signs in our determination to give our church a vibrant future in an urban setting .   Pray that our efforts at Duke Memorial will be fruitful and will play some part in helping United Methodism to learn how to serve Jesus Christ in the middle of the city.

Will Willimon