Stagnant money yields stagnant congregations. Spending money is mission consistent. 

Saving money for a rainy day is not a good idea, especially since it is already pouring for many religious congregations. When I accepted the call to go to the Miami-based Coral Gables Congregational Church in the late 1990s, its endowment was $13 million.

Three months before I relocated to the area, the United Parcel Service, the source of their newfound wealth, went public. The stock doubled and the endowment hovered around $26 million.

Such a large endowment would be inimical to their own stewardship and giving. Forgetting about Jesus would be much too easy. 

So, the search team and I came up with an idea. We’d join forces on the condition that we give away $1 million each year to reduce temptation.

Year one, we matched $1 million each from the Annie B. Casey Foundation and the Knight Foundation to raise the $3 million it took to start Accion in Miami. Our leverage offered opportunities for all of us in a mutual aid society. But even a lot of money can be too little to make a difference. 

Accion was a successful micro-lending program in many places around the world. It had not yet come to the U.S. so Miami would be its test site.  

These micro-loans were about as local as you could get, going to barber shops and car washes. Two decades later, Accion averaged about $13 million annually with a loan repayment rate around 96%.

Accion’s Miami debut and success increased church membership, sometimes as high as 80 new members per month. 

In the second year, we gave $1 million to support ten grants of $100,000 each. The Miami MacArthur Genius awards were given to ten local leaders. One went to community organizer Daniella Cava-Lavine, now mayor of Miami-Dade County.  

The third year, the neighborhood schools that surrounded Coral Gables cut their music departments. So, we created music departments in each of the public schools in each of these zip codes and formed a band at the church, using famous jazz musicians to teach from our own music program. 

The musicians were thrilled to come in and teach local students. As a result, the youth group grew, and the project didn’t cost the full amount allotted.

But in the fourth year, the program ended. There was a mini recession afoot at that time.  

The Sunday school wing of the historic building also had mold. It was time to stop the noble experiment, take care of the building and ensure our security.  

Jesus is right about money. You can have it if you give it away.  

Consider leverage and making the load light for everyone involved. What then does it mean to have a strong endowment?

It means creating covenants with communities. It means leveraging whatever wealth you have with the understanding that every day is a rainy day for someone. 

What we learned about spending down is that you can “buy” a lot of good will. Just do good for people in need. 

Also, your brand can improve without an ad agency. Genuine giving is genuine receiving. Sounds almost like a good sermon.  

So, what did we learn in our move beyond stagnation? Here are five observations:

1. Avoid instrumentalism. Don’t spend money to save yourself. 

Be honest about your motivation. Share your financial resources with the community you feel called to serve and who needs you.  

2. Don’t be heroic. If you have a small endowment, spend a small amount of it. Realize you also have legitimate needs, like your Sunday school wing of your church building.  

Don’t give from guilt or low self-image. Give because you want to befriend the community.

3. Leverage your money. Find partners who will match you, especially people with as much stake in the community.

4. Create governance structures, like a semi-independent 501(c) 3 organization that gives the communities measurable success on a future project. Put some familiar faces on the board too. 

5. Be prepared for push back. If stakeholders don’t like the ideas for the initial  use of the endowment, then ask them for alternatives.

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