Cautionary tales remind us to handle the details of legacy giving

January 21, 2022 by Ellie Johns-Kelley

Though it is still quite chilly outside as we navigate through winter months, before you know it, it will be spring. The first Sunday in May, marked as Legacy Giving Sunday, will be here quickly. I want to encourage you to think about it now, start the conversation and keep it going.

Pastors and elders, are you often chastised for sharing cautionary tales? I am talking about worst case scenarios. Whether you are a minister like me, a first responder, working in the medical field, legal field or simply have many life experiences, are you someone with an ample number of stories to take note and heed caution? Being a preacher’s kid, a preacher’s niece and a minister, I have an ample collection of cautionary tales.

A few months ago, I led a Composing a Legacy seminar for a congregation. During the event, I affirmed the session for holding the forum and told a couple tales of why it is important to regularly review and understand your end-of-life declarations. In addition to your will, it is vital to review trusts, health care directives and beneficiary form such as those associated with life insurance, investments and retirement plans.

One tale I shared came from a family member who lost their significant other suddenly last February. For three years, the couple, in their late 50s, had shared a home, resources and the adventures of life. Just after the funeral, his entire family was surprised that while the decedent’s will left everything to his 90 year old father and the beneficiary forms for retirement accounts and insurance still named an ex-wife of more than a decade. The latter was an oversight and not the intent of the decedent but since the forms had never been updated, they were legally binding.

The host pastor quickly piped up in the seminar with three scenarios she had encountered in the last 18 months that point to the importance of creating and maintaining legal documents.

These were the basics:

  1. No will for a second marriage. The second husband was completely left out of everything.
  2. A single mother that who she couldn’t afford to create a will and establish guardianship for children died suddenly of COVID.
  3. A member had a power of attorney named before she moved into a nursing home for memory care. Unfortunately, the person who was named POA was never told that they had been named, and no one was picking up the responsibilities for the member’s bills. In the meantime, taxes were not paid and the home was put up for judicial sale, leaving nothing for her adult son.

Helping people at every place in the economic strata be able to understand and claim their intent for end-of-life decisions is a truly useful step the church can practice in life together as a family of faith. The church can play an important role in demystifying the topic and making it easier to broach and navigate.

Start the conversation. Draw on trusted leaders in the community and your Presbyterian Foundation Ministry Relations Officer for resources to support the effort. Share the importance of declaring and regularly reviewing end of life choices from desired health care, distributions of assets, guardianship to legacy. As you address these, don’t be afraid to raise the questions:

What has been important in your life? Consider the greatest commandments, “Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The Second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” Mark 12:29-31 NRSV

In the Brief Statement of Faith we affirm that “in life and death we belong to God.” This is drawn from several scripture references, including Romans 8:35: “that nothing can separate us from the love of Christ.” This is cited again in the end of the confession.

How might you respond to the grace and love of God today and after your lifetime? What difference would you like to make in the world today or for generations to come?

Has your church welcomed and celebrated gifts that continue to share the Gospel and work for building Jesus’ beloved community? Does your session know how they would steward such a gift and is the congregation aware of this? The church can play an important role as the family of faith by providing a safe forum to talk about end-of-life choices that ensure individuals are able to use their personal agency and keep their declarations up to date. Such preparedness can release burdens for family navigating the complexities of grief and be a testament of faith.

Keep the conversation going. Remember to reach out to your Ministry Relations Officer, check out the planned giving section of and check out some videos on the topic at There is no cost to utilize any of these resources, so please take advantage of them to support your ministry.

Rev. Ellie Johns-Kelley serves as the Ministry Relations Officer for the Allegheny and Chesapeake Region. She works with congregations to create a culture of generosity, offers seminars and workshops, develops gifts and fundraising plans for ministries, and provides coaching to finance, stewardship and endowment committees. You can reach Ellie at