Planning a Future Life Together
The following story is part of Lake Institute’s story collection, The Faithful Generosity Story Shelf, which highlights congregations and other religious organizations who have sought to use their assets and resources in creative—and sometimes surprising—ways as an expression of faithful giving.
Each entry in our Story Shelf is short enough to be read and discussed during a committee meeting or other group gathering. Our hope is that these accessible vignettes will spark new questions, conversation, and imagination among clergy and laity about what might be possible with the funds, buildings, land, and other resources in their care.
By Caleb Rollins
Is it possible that the closure of a small church might be better for a community than its continued existence? Dianne Willson, member of Saint Stephens Presbyterian Church in Sacramento, California, thinks so. Like many mainline Protestant congregations, the membership at Saint Stephens had been dwindling for years. The familial connections built over decades continued, but the potential for growth in membership seemed unlikely. “To have a dream and see that it’s not coming into fruition is heartbreaking,” said fellow member Sharon Brundage.
Fortunately, this congregation was in the enviable position of having enough assets to carry on for years, even with its weekly attendance dipping to fifty parishioners. However, instead of aimlessly drawing down these resources, the members of Saint Stephens entered a period of intentional discernment and study about the future of their life together. With the support and guidance of the Presbyterian Foundation’s Project Regeneration, this faith community committed to making a faithful, yet painful decision. When attendance at Saint Stephens Presbyterian Church dropped, the church decided that instead of drawing down resources for a few years longer, they would end their congregational life together, sell their building, and convert their assets into a charitable endowment that would carry on their mission.
This endowment, under management of the Presbyterian Foundation and with direction from former members, is currently supporting local and global nonprofits that Saint Stephens had funded for years. Evelyn Jordan joins other former members in volunteering regularly at North Highlands Food Bank, a local organization that, through support of the endowment, serves thirteen hundred people per month. “The dreams and the hopes are living on from the people that were at Saint Stephens,” said Jordan. Their endowment also responds to emergent needs around the world through Presbyterian Disaster Assistance and funds growing faith communities in the Sacramento area.
The close-knit faith community of Saint Stephens is able to have this long-term impact in their community and around the world because of their foresight. Rather than continuing to spend down their resources and wait to make any significant changes until they were backed into a corner, this faith community entered a period of intentional exploration about other possible alternatives for remaining a faithful presence in their community. Reflecting on this period of discernment, Brundage expressed gratitude.
“We looked back at our history and reminded ourselves of the things we had done and the ways we had been faithful. We knew that closing our doors was a way to continue to be God’s faithful people.”
The decision to close and fund an endowment that supports new and existing ministries may not be the course forward for every congregation struggling to maintain members and revenue streams. However, the community of Saint Stephens and their partners from the Presbyterian Foundation show the importance of careful reflection prior to the last stages of crisis. Looking back on the final days of life together in the institution of Saint Stephens, Willson notes that joy is indeed possible with these changes: “It was definitely more a celebration than a death.” Thoughtful deliberation and creative partnerships can indeed allow for faithful and joyful responses to some of the economic challenges facing mainline Protestant congregations today.
Insights, a bi-weekly e-newsletter, is a resource for the religious community and fundraisers of faith-based organizations that provides:
- Reflections on important developments in the field of faith and giving
- Recommended books, studies and articles
- Upcoming Lake Institute events