Nov 6, 2022
Trinity Mennonite Church
Stewardship of the Leftovers
Did you know there are 4 texts suggested to be used for each Sunday. It is called the Lectionary Readings. Each week I read the texts and commentaries for each scripture suggested and try to pick the one that has the most relevant message for us as a congregation.
This week it hit me between the eyes. No doubt. But what a surprise that it came from an Old Testament book of Haggai. Haggai! When was the last time you studied Haggai? It is even hard to find without the help of the table of contents. It is easy to miss as you thumb through the prophets.
But before I tell you about Haggai, let me catch you up on some modern statistics
Here’s a figure you likely haven’t heard before — and which you may find surprising: Religious institutions and industries in America contribute about $1.2 trillion a year to the U.S. economy and society. In terms of wealth, that’s more than the value of Apple, Amazon and Google combined.
That figure includes church-run hospitals, church-related colleges, and other institutions birthed by churches and other religious groups. But it also includes local parishes of all sizes across our country, even some that are in the process of closing their doors.
This information is according to a study published in the Interdisciplinary Journal of Research on Religion. The study is from a few years ago, but it’s some of the most recent research into the combined financial input of religion into the economy. And we’re not just looking at old news — the facts of religion’s financial contribution to the U.S. economy came by way of an April 2022 article in The Washington Post.
The article mentioned churches in downtown Washington, D.C., that had closed and had their property purchased by developers for other uses. It also introduced us to the Rev. Amy Butler, who is currently interim senior minister at National City Christian Church in our nation’s capital. Butler realized that when churches close, they often have cash left in their coffers, and she had the idea that such monies could be repurposed to do good in other places in society. She eventually launched a nonprofit called Invested Faith to receive the leftover assets from any religious body that was willing to give them and disburse the funds to projects built on faith and working for social justice.
Naturally, Invested Faith is willing to receive contributions from functioning churches as well, and one of the group’s first efforts passed money given by successful churches to a faith-based organization that connects teenagers with free mental health resources and employs refugees to make and sell bread.
With Invested Faith now in its third year, Butler is working to convince struggling churches to support it with the money they have left.
“From a spiritual and community standpoint, placing assets with Invested Faith would optimally be a shared decision made to celebrate the past witness of a congregation,” Butler says, and to ensure “the work of faith that congregation has held so dear for so long continues” even after “the life of the institution comes to an end.” She sees that as being in line with the resurrection power that is central to Christian belief.
I found this all rather affirming as that is precisely what we have talked about doing with our leftover funds when we close. Not investing in her company but in our own organizations. We want to celebrate the organizations that we have supported over the years. We want to ensure the work of faith that our congregation has held so dear for so long continues even after the life of our church comes to an end. This exemplifies the resurrection power that is central to our Christian belief. In our death our legacy lives on. So, we have created a list of those agencies which you may individually choose from to disperse our church’s leftover funds. The idea is to take the left over funds and divide them equally between people on our active attendance list and let you decide where you want your portion to go. You can split it between several different organizations or gift one lump sum to one organization. The Council will then take your form and write checks to each organization chosen with the total amount stated. We don’t know what that amount will be allotted to you is yet, we have till March to discern what that amount will be.
In Haggai’s Time
With that idea in mind, let’s review today’s reading from Haggai. It’s from the time after the Jews had returned to their homeland following the exile in Babylon. The Babylonian army had previously overrun Jerusalem and destroyed the temple, the one King Solomon had built.
In 538 BC the conqueror of Babylon, Cyrus king of Persia, issued decree allowing the Jews to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the temple. Led by Zerubbabel about 50,000 Jews journeyed home and began work on the temple. About 2 years later they completed the foundation amid great rejoicing.
Their success arroused the Samaritans and other neighbors who feared the political and religious implications of a rebuilt temple in a thriving Jewish state. They therefore opposed the project vigorously and managed to halt work until Darius the Great became king of Persia.
Darius was interested in the religions of his empire, and Haggai and Zechariah began to reach in his second year. The Jews were more to blame for their inactivity than their opponents, and Haggai tried to arouse them from their lethargy. In 516 BC (that is 22 years later) the temple was finished and dedicated.
The returning people had finally constructed a replacement temple under the urging of prophets Haggai and Zechariah, but it was a modest structure when compared to the first one. One of the problems Haggai addresses in this passage is how those who remembered the former temple, with all its majestic appointments, could envision what God could do for them now with only the basic work on the new temple done. This led Haggai to say to the people “Who is left among you who saw this house in its former glory? How does it look to you now? Is it not in your sight as nothing?” Yet that was just his setup for his next words, which included God’s promise that the eventual “splendor of this house shall be greater than the former [splendor] and in this place [the Lord] will give prosperity.”
That made me wonder about us. Who is left among us who saw this house in its former glory, pews full of people; Sunday school classrooms full of children. How does it look to you now? Is it not in your sight as nothing? But God has a plan to bring splendor to this house, making new rooms, new doorways, remodeling for safe entry and safety from fire… and then fill it with 99 children and caregivers and parents! In this place the Lord will give prosperity.
The Jewish returnees to Jerusalem were obviously at a different point in the life cycle of their house of worship compared to 21st century congregations forced to close their churches. People involved in church building campaigns are typically seeking every dollar they can get to fund their project, and those post-exilic Jews were no different. Those who remembered the opulence of Solomon’s temple wanted to see the glory of this one made to match. And in their minds, the new temple was to be an ongoing edifice serving as a place of worship of the Lord. Indeed, this temple — completed about 516 B.C. — stood nearly 600 years, with a significant upgrade and expansion under Herod the Great. It wasn’t until A.D. 70 that the Romans destroyed it while putting down a Jewish rebellion. Anything of value in the temple at its end presumably went to beef up the emperor’s coffers, not to support social justice projects.
Builders of new churches aren’t likely to think about what to do with any remaining resources at the end of a congregation’s existence, but perhaps they should think about the legacy of what they’ve built. It could all be framed in resurrection language: If/when our church closes, it can rise again with food for the hungry, financial coaching sessions for single mothers, space for affordable housing, or childcare space for 99 children. Or some other new ministry we haven’t even imagined yet.
In Our Time
The reason we’re talking about churches closing is because it’s an increasing phenomenon right now. We are not alone. According to information gathered by Lifeway Research about Protestant churches, about 3,000 new churches were launched in 2019, the most recent year for which figures are available. At the same time, however, we closed about 4,500 churches, most of which were facing dwindling congregations. And those figures were from before the pandemic hit. We don’t yet have complete numbers for how the pandemic affected churches, but current estimators are saying “many” churches are closing. It’s not all doom and gloom, of course, for the Christian faith is not dead. But church closings are a reality, and some of those churches have resources left that can help fund new ministries.
Congregations can be quite intentional about this as they plan what their closing will look like. There are many ways to be good stewards of leftover funds. Some pass their remaining funds to organizations. Some donate their reserves directly toward a ministry they have long funded, like a camp, a halfway house, a food ministry or the like. Still others use proceeds from the sale of their building to seed a new church.
In the Future
One important discussion we have had extended discussion about which started 2 years ago is “When our church closes, in what way will we express our belief that after death (even of a congregation) there is resurrection?” This is talking about issues of legacy. That’s good stewardship.
In some ways, the model for this is the instruction we might write into our personal will, declaring that when we die, a certain amount of money from our estate should be contributed to a particular charity. Now we are doing this for our congregation.
We can imagine that some church members might object to a gift from their closing church that enables a new ministry elsewhere not directly related to their congregation. But giving that way is in the spirit of what Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount: “But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret, and your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (Matthew 6:3-4).
One of the themes that belongs with the word “resurrection” is that there is a future and followers of Jesus can contribute to it. Legacy gifts affirm that.
We should also remember that a church closure is not necessarily a failure. Some churches facing closure are simply victims of changing demographics. Perhaps an industry that kept their town alive has shut down or moved away. Like individuals, churches have a life cycle, starting with planting and ending with closure. Thanks to legacy giving, we can still be the spark that ignites a new ministry or provides a new home for an existing one.
All of that is theologically consistent with our faith, which assures us that death is followed by new life. Churches being able to end well is a gift of God, too.
And I love those words of Haggai: “I am with you declares the Lord. Be strong, for I am with you. My Spirit remains among you. Do not fear.”
—Stan Purdum and Carl Wilton contributed to this material.