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  Last week it was announced that the pledge has been revoked and the college isn’t getting the money after all.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

One thought on “The Perils of Endowments

  1. I once was a member of a church in Chattanooga that received, what at time (in the 1930’s) were modest gifts of Coca Cola stock. By time I was a member, Time Magazine had listed this church as one of the ten wealthiest churches in America. A designation those in the church detested. But fortunately an earlier generation had established a rule that the endowment could never be used for operating expenses and could only used for capital improvements if the structural integrity of the building was at risk (or for stained glass windows that were installed at a rate of one per decade) and then only with a super majority vote of the trustees. So this forced the church to use the Coca Cola money for projects outside its own walls. So a big endowment is only a death sentence if the church uses the money for itself, much as Adam and Eve used the fruit of the Tree for their own purposes.


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