Endowments: Blessing or Enabling?

It is no doubt that people love their church and faithfully leave behind gifts for the church with the best of intentions.  Churches, of course, receive those gifts with gratitude and the best of intentions.  Endowments by and large are a good thing for the church.

But, in my experience, endowments can also handicap churches with unintended consequences.  It is heartbreaking to see so many churches continue to receive full time elder appointments, keep the church doors open, and be perfectly content with ten, twenty, or thirty people in declining attendance.  An endowment left to the church years before (in good faith) is enabling the congregation to decline without having to face reality.  Because the bills are getting paid and the dwindling congregation still has a pastor to care for them, the congregation is enabled to move ahead without a good, honest look in the mirror.  

The issue is not about being a small congregation.  There are some very stable, viable small congregations that are still offering some important community ministry.  The concern is when congregations continue to decline, are reaching no new people, and have not had a profession of faith in years.  Yet, they continue to expect a full-time chaplain to care for them and bring them a sermon through a worship service every week.  The one-hour weekly worship service is likely the only time the church building is being used during the week.  And, the situation continues week after week and sometimes year after year until the endowment is completely wiped out.  The situation is ignored by not only the congregation, but is also ignored by its judicatory leaders and denomination officials because the congregation is still paying their apportionments to support the denominational structure.

A couple of years ago I researched some statistics and wrote an article revealing some unfathomable statistics.  More than half of the hundreds of churches I was responsible for working with had no professions of faith the previous year and approximately two-thirds of the churches had no or only one profession of faith in the previous year.  I was both shocked and heartbroken.  The very purpose for why the church exists – to reach people for Christ – was not being lived out by the vast majority of the churches.  Yet while church decline accelerates, many remain open because of endowments enabling the perpetuation of churches remaining open without fulfilling their purpose.

Please note I am aware of some absolutely wonderful endowments supporting churches who are faithful, reaching new people, and serving their communities.  But, it is astonishing the number of churches who are living off of endowments while not longer serving the community or sharing the Good News.  And frankly, this is very concerning to me.  I can’t imagine that the faithful souls who left these precious gifts behind for the church imagined they would be used to keep a building open for a one-hour worship experience delivered by a chaplain being paid a full-time elder’s salary to care for a dozen people.  I have to believe those faithful folks had so much more hope for how those hard-earned dollars would be invested instead for Kingdom purposes.

Endowments themselves are a good thing, but when they are used for congregations to ignore reality, the endowments become an enabler to unhealthy congregational life.  And unfortunately, it is more common than you might think.