What We Do with What Remains

Old South held its annual meeting at the end of January. As has become our tradition, the meeting was well attended, informative, and thank goodness, free from controversy. We elected a new moderator and made adjustments to our new governance model. We also discussed and passed a budget for the year.

The budget conversation was the longest and fullest part of the meeting. After the Treasurer’s presentation, one of the older, and longer-term, members of the congregation stood up to share a few thoughts. While he was planning to vote in favor of the budget as presented, he wanted to encourage the congregation to think about we use our endowment.

Old South has a sizeable endowment. About 15 years ago, after quite a few years of dipping into the endowment without much thought for its preservation, a small group of church members came up with a better strategy. Their proposal suggested an annual draw, to support the budget, of 5% of a three-year rolling average.

This plan has been in place for over a decade. At our most recent annual meeting, the concerned church member stated that our 5% draw is too high, no longer in line with industry standards. Instead, we should seek to lower the draw to closer to 4%. With our already very lean budget, this is a proposal of some consequence.

The concerned church member went on to talk about the significance of preserving the endowment for the future of the church, and for future generations.

Here’s where I bit my tongue, and kept my teeth on my tongue for some time. We needed to get through annual meeting and it was not the right time to engage in a conversation about the future of our endowment or the church. That’s work for another day.

Old South, to be brutally honest, is a church without much of a future. The average age in worship is probably around 70. Except for a few young children (brought by their grandparents), we have no active members under the age of forty. None. And only a handful between the ages of forty and sixty.

A conversation about our endowment, and the use of it, is a serious, not to mention complicated, issue. It’s long been on my mind that such a conversation will need to take place, and likely soon. But, opening such a conversation must be done carefully and thoughtfully. Among the questions: Do we reduce our draw to “preserve” the endowment for future generations, ignoring the reality that the congregation likely has only a short future instead of a long one? Will the endowment be the “last thing standing” when the church does not have enough members to keep going? Do we actually draw more from the endowment, as membership dwindles—to pay utilities and the pastor’s salary—allowing the endowment to shrink with the congregation? Should we consider the possibility of the endowment serving another church, perhaps in a place where there’s more fertile ground for church growth?

These are critical questions that Old South will need to begin to talk about and wrestle with—and soon. These are also profound questions—about who we are, our relationship with our Creator, and how we, faithfully and prayerfully, enter into those vast theological concepts of hope, trust, grace, death and resurrection.

Not long ago, I was talking to an Old South parishioner about these questions. She immediately latched onto those last words and asked, “Where is the resurrection? Where is our resurrection?” I reminded her that our primary guide to resurrection teaches that the concept does not offer a neat and tidy return to life before death. Resurrection is different, significantly and profoundly.

We may die as a single, local congregation. But, it is very clear that we are called to be a people of faith, of hope and of resurrection. What will that look like for us? Can we see faithfulness even as we die? And will we have the strength to be faithful with that pile of money that has provided for us and to think about it in radically different ways?

Will we find the blessing to see beyond our disappointment and heartbreak to see God at work in our moving forward, even if that moving forward is toward closure? What will we do with what remains beyond us?  Will we have the courage to embrace the notion that the endowment is not “ours,” but God’s and for God’s church?  May it be so, by God’s grace.

About smaxreisert

I'm a United Church of Christ pastor serving the small, faithful Old South Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, in Hallowell, Maine. I was ordained in Massachusetts in 1995, moved to Maine in 1997 and have served the Hallowell church since 2005.
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