The Magazine of The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America


Remember the church in your will

For the first 20 years of ministry I made it a point to know nothing about what members of the congregation contributed. I didn't want to be accused of being guided by wrong motives based on their wealth (James 2).

Then a member who had been faithful in worship died. Once a year he helped clean the church yard. He drove an older car and never gave the impression of having any wealth. After his death I learned his estate was valued at nearly $3 million and was divided equally between a son and daughter.

I asked the financial secretary to check his giving record. She reported, "He was a faithful contributor, giving $10 a week."

It made me sad. My spirit cried. Since then I've encouraged people through bulletin and newsletter announcements to remember the church or a favorite charity in their will. I suggest the pattern of my wife and me. We have five children. Our estate will be divided equally six ways. Three specific church programs we named will divide one-sixth and each child receives one-sixth.

Does Jesus feel sad when faithful followers leave all of their estate to heirs, in some cases pets, and nothing to his church? I'm certain Jesus feels glad and rejoices in heaven with the angels not only when one sinner repents (Luke 15) but also over the 2,538 bequests that ELCA members designated for their congregations in 2011. The total amount given through requests was $65.6 million.

We are bombarded with investing for retirement. This is good. However, it can cause us to save everything we can while preventing us from giving the biblical 10 percent of our income because we fear running out of funds before we die.

One solution is to remember the church or charity in our will. That way, if there are funds available after our death, a portion of our assets will be available for a cause that we believed in but didn't feel we could contribute generously to because of retirement plans.

Remember, if you die without a will the state distributes your assets according to laws that don't consider your personal interests or church. 


Ralph Stilwell

Ralph Stilwell

Posted at 8:24 pm (U.S. Eastern) 6/4/2013

Thank you for your article. It was excellent. Pastors and  congregational stewardship leaders too often shy away from the topic of Christian stewardship, and when they do speak it is often apologetically. The church needs a strong stewardship witness from pastors and good stewards who are members of congregations.

My Dad was the stewardship chair of our congregation during my teen years and openly talked about and challenged members to good stewardship. Perhaps as a result of that I spoke and preached openly about Christian stewardship. Yes, I talked about time and talents, but also about money which it seems many pastors fear doing. I attempted to teach and encourage stewardship and the small congregations which I served grew significantly in their responses.

I was dismayed to know, however, that the wealthest members of my second and fourth congregations were not extremely generous based on their resources. The wealthest man in my second parish contributed $5 per year thinking that this was required to be buried for free in the church cemetery! He died without a will and attorneys fees took almost 1/2 of his estate, with the rest spread among numerous 1st and 2nd cousins.

The 3rd congregation I served was a congregation of millionaires and upper middle income adults. There was money for anything that was a priority. Sadly I learned that the associate pastor was not a priority, and I was paid significantly less than the suggested synod minimum for those just finishing seminary, even though I started there with 15 years experience and a DMin.

During my ministry I was quite open about challenging members to grow to and beyond a tithe (after taxes) and practiced that, usually giving 9 to 10 % to the local congregation and another 4 % beyond the congregation. I am convinced that my giving pattern postively influenced some (many?) others in their stewardship.

There were a couple of themes I emphasized: Paul's teaching that the Macedonians first gave themselves to the Lord and then they gave of their resources as a result of the commitment of themselves. And I emphasized Jesus teaching, "where you treasure is, there is your heart also." Of course pastors and their families must first give themselves to the Lord and their treasure must be in Christ's kingdom to motivate commitment, priorities, and giving among members.

My observation is that those who are generous Christian giving in their lifetime may be generous in their estate, but those who can not find it in themselves to be generous in their lifetime are rarely generous in their estate. But I agree it is better to give in the final settling of ones estate than never at all.


Yvonne Kroll

Yvonne Kroll

Posted at 2:58 pm (U.S. Eastern) 6/5/2013

Bless you for writing this article and the accompanying comments are excellent as well.  As a long-time foundation director I have witnessed, through folks, the joys of giving, and from others the absolute unwillingness to share much of anything they have been so fortunate to receive or generate.  My husband and I also try to practice philanthropy with what we have been given, remembering all gifts come from God and we are only stewards of them while we are here.  We have become big fans of the ELCA Giving program where we can help folks and victims near and far - - - knowing that some day we could even be on the receiving end because of a disaster.  We don't have a lot, but we have found joy in sharing.  I would challenge all who read this article to reach out and discover the true "joy" that can be yours.  It has made such a difference in my life and I want to try to do more.  Reach out in Thanksgiving and Discover the Joy!

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February issue


Embracing diversity