January 11, 2024

Reframing Our Assets – Pt. 1

In September 2019, churches were just beginning to recognize the shifts in demographics and culture that became indelibly apparent to, literally, the entire world once the Covid pandemic struck. Nearly four years ago, in a “Vestry Papers” article, ECF featured the innovative strategies some church leaders were discovering to assist in funding ministry and their endowments.

In this new blog series on “Reframing Assets”, ECF’s Endowment Management program hears how four churches adjusted their thinking about their finances after Covid – reimagining assets, uncovering riches beyond the balance sheet, and charting a new course for ministry. In 2019 these churches shared plans to repurpose assets for ministry. Now, they update us on the critical four years since then, sharing lessons learned, insightful examples, and practical strategies for financial adaptation, asset realignment, and visionary stewardship. Learn how they seek to breathe new life into their community and thrive amidst change.

This post is the first in a four-part series.

Learning what’s essential
Trinity Cathedral in Trenton NJ was blessed with unexpected income from the sale of two paintings that had long hung in the church entryway. A Sotheby’s employee who was also a church member called attention to the pair, which resulted in a sale that brought in nearly $200,000. Cathedral Dean Rene John reports that the church has been slow to spend the funds, which were set aside in an endowment labeled “the arts fund” because of the source – the paintings. The fund’s earnings are designated to help with the vast maintenance needs of the 40,000-square-foot facility and to fund outreach. “Once we came into the money,” John said, “we wanted to be judicious with it…. It’s always challenging to find resources.”

On another front, shortly after the sale of the paintings, the dean said, the local fire marshal paid the church a visit, resulting in the unexpected expense of adding a sprinkler system to the cathedral crypt. The unexpected need, paired with the cultural shifts that came with the Covid pandemic, has encouraged the church to become more creative with stewardship. “There was a time when there was lots of money, and I think we bought things that were not essential,” said John, noting that even things that are non-essential require ongoing maintenance.

A desire to beautify the cathedral grounds sparked an idea to ask for sponsorships for particular areas in the garden, and a local congregation offered to “adopt” one area. The cathedral leaders’ decision to prioritize investing in neglected spaces in the cathedral inspired reworking an interior area damaged by water. Instead of repainting the entire space, they decided to paint only the 15 percent that had been damaged, matching the 85 percent that remained in good shape. “We’re doing lots of thinking about being more responsible in our stewardship, doing what’s essential.”

John reports that cathedral leadership is engaging tough questions about how their money can best be spent. “It’s a constant conversation, and we must be honest and forthright …. How we manage the resources we have tells the community what we think is important.”

Adaptive insights
Setting aside the “windfall” funds from the sale of the paintings for maintenance is forward-thinking and commendable. So is the congregation’s increased desire to “make do” where they can and stretch their dollars as far as possible. The creation of new funding streams – making parts of the garden “adoptable,” for instance – is a creative strategy that can make more funds available for ministry.

And all of these strategies raise questions:

  • How can congregations balance the desire for having “money in the bank” with the calling to serve our neighbors with on-the-ground ministry – which usually requires spending money?
  • How does a lump sum become an endowment? How can church leaders create an endowment fund?
  • How can church leaders inspire mission-oriented annual giving from a congregation that thinks of its endowment as the solution for annual budget shortfalls?
  • How can leadership tap the congregation’s wisdom in conversations around faith and money, abundance and scarcity, sustainability, and limitations?

Part 2 of this series will be posted in February.

As tough questions arise about financial priorities, discover how ECF’s Endowment Management team can guide you to make informed choices about an endowment, from managing unexpected resources to fostering inspired giving. Contact us at endowment@ecf.org or call 800-697-2858 to learn how we can support your endowment management journey.