One of the deepest privileges of serving as a seminary president is getting to meet faithful donors and their families, especially as they settle final estate wishes. Last weekend I traveled to Springfield, Illinois, to talk about a bequest left to Central Seminary by a farming family in the southern part of the state. While there, I learned about an even more fascinating decision this family had helped a church make.
Once a vibrant rural church where many baptisms, weddings and funerals were held, their church had dwindled as family farms became larger conglomerates and fewer and fewer people lived near the community from which the church had drawn most of its members. Set in the middle of the cornfields on that flat, fertile land, the church recognized that it needed to come to terms with its future. Even so, no one really wanted to talk about it.
One woman in the church, who had once been the greatest cheerleader for keeping things as they had been, felt moved to write a letter to the congregation – an anonymous letter, at least for a season. This wise businesswoman offered a perceptive vision of what the options for the church actually were.
First, they could continue as they were going until only a handful remained. Second, members could seek to energize an aging congregation to do outreach and try to revive the past glory of the church. Third, they could choose to close the church and use their resources to fund many ministries.
“What a remarkable thing it is to embrace death for the sake of the resurrection of others.”
Of course, some favored the first option because it allowed comfort to complete their lives at the church and be buried on its grounds. Realistically, the second option, while noble, had no members willing to take on the arduous task for revitalizing a mission whose day had passed. The third option grew in favor as the church began to talk honestly about its future.
The author of the letter finally revealed herself, and her thinking helped shape the congregation’s ultimate decision. Interestingly, her mother, who served as church moderator, didn’t know who the letter’s author was until well into the process. The daughter’s enthusiastic outlook over the years had buoyed the spirits of others. The fact that she was now willing to explore other possibilities carried great weight, especially given the generations of her family who had been pillars of the congregation. Indeed, she lived so close to the church that she could see it out her kitchen window.
The church looked at its assets and decided to set up an endowment to fund other ministries. Proceeds from the sale of the church’s property, along with years of faithful giving, provided an endowment to support educational programs, seminaries, community centers, international missionaries, disaster relief and other local and global initiatives. Now many years later, they continue to fund mission and ministries at the same level as when they were a functioning congregation.
As I talked with the woman who was the author of that letter over 20 years ago, I thought what a remarkable thing it is to embrace death for the sake of the resurrection of others. While she might not have used this language, she and her congregation lived into the paschal mystery, the pattern Jesus offers that new life comes through dying for the sake of others.
Her uncle, our seminary’s benefactor, was a member of this church for over 50 years, and he helped develop the architecture for wise use of its funds. Frugal all of his life, he understood what education had meant to him as he learned the science of agriculture. His success came from paying careful attention to all the processes essential to cultivating acre after acre of golden corn out of the black earth he stewarded.
He knew the exact kilowattage needed for irrigation; he knew what lighting would be most efficient around his land; he knew the efficiency of large farm equipment; and he knew, nearly to the exact number, how many ears of corn had been harvested over the years. The last may be a little exaggerated, but not much, as confirmed by his niece.
One of his concerns was for rural pastors who had challenges funding their ministry training. Understanding the difference theological education could make, he wrote checks year after year for scholarship funds to defray tuition costs. At one point I was able to give him a list over the last 20 years of all the ministers he had funded. Some were even serving in Illinois, which made him smile.
As we think about the future prospects of fragile congregations, I trust we will consider unselfish decisions about the kind of enduring legacy we want to sow. Only God is eternal – not particular congregations, their leaders or even their former missions. Yet God is always calling persons to entrust all that we are and have for ongoing purposes for the kin-dom of God.
In this particular congregation, those who wanted to be buried by their church got their wish. Decisions like these take time, you know.