Endowment is a four-letter word?!
The Wisdom of Endowments for Christian Ministries
For the longest time, the term “endowment” has been viewed as a three-letter word in the Christian world: sin.
Why do so many Christians shun endowments?
First, what is an endowment? Typically, an endowment is a fund where the principal balance remains untouched and the income generated is used to fund the ministry. Of course, endowments come in all different shapes and sizes. Some endowments fund scholarships. Others go to fund operations—in part or exclusively. Some fund mission efforts or other aspects of a ministry.
When I first started in the charitable giving world, it was largely considered politically incorrect to talk about endowments among Christian organizations. On the other hand, the secular charitable giving world embraced the idea and built endowments.
Endowments and the Christian World
Why do endowments get such a bad name in the Christian world?
In the Christian world, endowments take a hit because they supposedly reflect a lack of faith. I’ve heard it more than once that “if God wants this ministry to continue, then He will provide the funds.” But I’ve also heard it said that “I don’t want Jesus to return and be found sitting on a lot of money.” Put differently, endowments cut against the urgency of the gospel: “We’ve got to get the gospel out now because we don’t know how soon Jesus might return.”
Perhaps we should ask, “Would Jesus be against endowments?” After all, he told his disciples in Luke 9.3 to go on the road, and “Take nothing for your journey, no staff, nor bag, nor bread, nor money; and do not have two tunics.” Similarly, in Luke 12, he told the parable of the rich farmer who built a bigger barn for storing surplus grain. God rebukes the farmer in stark terms: “You fool!”
It is perhaps an age-old argument. Should we have reserves? For that matter, should we have a savings account? Should we have a retirement account? Are all of these a lack of faith?
The Stewardship of Preparedness
But consider the stewardship of preparedness—being prepared for the long-term.
While there’s little doubt that we don’t know the day or the hour that Jesus will return and the urgency of the gospel remains, Jesus also commends the shrewd steward in Luke 16. After losing his job, the steward goes and negotiates with his master’s debtors in order to later be received into their houses. Notably, Jesus states in Luke 16.8, “For the sons of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than the sons of light.”
The instruction? Be wise in handling worldly wealth. Use it as a tool. Indeed, even if we look back at the parable of the rich farmer in Luke 12, the problem was not that the farmer built himself a bigger barn, it was that he trusted in the barn instead of God: “This is how it will be with whoever stores up things for themselves but is not rich towards God.”
Storehouses and Generations
Instead we see in scripture that the Old Testament mentions the concept of the storehouse 11 times. In fact, the Old Testament closes with the command from Malachi 3.10 “Bring all tithes into the storehouse so there will enough food in my temple.” Of course, the most famous example is Joseph. During the seven years of plenty, he ordered the excess put into great storehouses. Through the seven years of famine, it was the storehouses that provided relief and ultimately preserved the nation of Israel to fulfill its destiny.
But there’s a much larger picture I’m afraid we’ve missed. God’s work has always been a generational work. While God promised that he would establish Abraham as a great nation, he also knew that the Israelites would spend 400 years in captivity. Similarly, he knew that he would send a deliverer in the form of Moses. He similarly knew that eventually the Israelites would want a king, but that ultimately in the fullness of time he would send a perfect King who would reign in righteousness. In other words, God plans for the long game.
It’s not surprising then that in Luke 14.28-30 that as many come seeking to follow Jesus, he asks a pointed question:
“Suppose one of you wants to build a tower. Won’t you first sit down and estimate the cost to see if you have enough money to complete it? For if you lay the foundation and are not able to finish it, everyone who sees it will ridicule you, saying, ‘This person began to build and wasn’t able to finish.’” [emphasis added]
His question might be reframed: Do you have enough resilience to finish? There’s little doubt that the reference is to the spiritual race, but it applies as well to all aspects of the race.
Too often we see Christian ministries ill-equipped and ill-capitalized to wage the spiritual war in front of them. Worse still, many of them are ill-equipped to be multi-generational in nature—contrary to God’s generational plan. How many times have we seen ministries wither or fail following the passing of a founder or strong leader?
A Short-term Mindset?
Do you have a short-term mindset? Or are you prepared for a long-term, trench warfare kind of view?
We don’t know the day or the hour of Christ’s return. The battle for worldview will continue into the foreseeable future. Ironically, however, many ministries are only equipped to run a month at a time. Meanwhile, the secular world engages in aggressive endowment building which equips them to run incremental strategic battle plans. Organizations such as Planned Parenthood or the Southern Poverty Law Center have literally hundreds of millions of dollars in endowment. Are we being shrewd stewards if we can only focus on keeping the lights on? I think not.
Today, we are living in the midst of the world’s greatest documented wealth transfer—$68 trillion in the U.S. If just 1% of that were given to Kingdom causes, there would be $680 billion given to gospel-advancing work. For instance, we could give 100 Christian colleges and universities each a billion-dollar endowment and still have $580 billion left over. That kind of endowment would have a profound impact on the world.
I realize there are still the naysayers. They argue that there are ministries that would go awry if they have too much endowment. However, we’ve also learned enough from past failures on how to properly structure plans for generational success. Key elements to generational continuity include tight vision, mission and values statements but also include strict succession standards—how you put people on the board influences everything.
Endowment: a Four-letter Word
We are living in a time of great change but great opportunity. Wealth transfer is happening and will continue to happen. The simple fact remains: if Christian ministries don’t go after it, secular organizations will be the recipients. Most importantly, the opportunity to capture that wealth transfer represents the opportunity to continue the strategic advance of the gospel around the globe. It is fitting with the kind of shrewd stewardship that Jesus commended.
Indeed, endowment is a four-letter word: wise.
Photo by Jim Witkowski on Unsplash
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Published May 5, 2020
Topics: Nonprofit Development