Pastors should consider their own faith legacy

September 13, 2018 by Ellie Johns-Kelley

Often church leaders know to encourage planned giving in their congregations, but many take for granted the great opportunity to craft their own faith legacy. Karl Mattison, Vice President for Planned Giving for the Presbyterian Foundation, frames it best when he asks:

“What do I want to be doing after I die? What do I want to be known for?”

Let me share my story.

Ellie Johns-Kelley at her Ordination

I have always known that I am beloved child of God. I am a dyed-in-the-wool Presbyterian – a preacher’s kid, a preacher’s niece, and the granddaughter of Presbyterian elders. Eighteen years ago, at the age of 25, the Presbytery of Lake Erie ordained me to Ministry of Word and Sacrament. I had my first opportunity to consider my faith legacy as I filled in the beneficiary forms for Board of Pensions. Yet, I didn’t.

A single woman, I quickly named my three siblings as beneficiaries. My older sister Jenny would receive 34 percent of my pension benefits, and Harry and Shana 33 percent each. Harry received 34 percent of my life insurance, with Jenny and Shana each getting 33 percent. While it seemed unfair to give Jenny the higher percentage on both, I realize Shana got the short-end of the stick both times. I never considered the opportunity to leave a bequest to benefit ministries that I found truly transformative. It would have been easy to name my siblings at 30 percent for both my pension and life insurance and name the Presbytery of Lake Erie for 10 percent of my pension benefit and the Theological Education Fund for 10 percent of my life insurance. It just did not occur to me.

Two years later, I realized that I needed to establish medical power of attorney and create a will. I met with an attorney friend to discuss medical power of attorney, durable power of attorney, a living will and where my assets would go. Once again, this dyed-in-the-wool Presbyterian minister never thought about what I could do for the sake of the gospel after my death.

Another chance

Fast forward to March of 2013. While serving as pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Warren, Pennsylvania, I attended a Clif Christopher workshop hosted by the Presbyterian Foundation at the Presbytery of Lake Erie. Serving as Pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Warren, PA, I came prepared with a question: “How do you talk about planned giving to an aging congregation in a former oil and timber town, typical rust belt, that no longer has the wealth it once had?” I posed the question to Clif on the lunch break. Clif pointed out that planned giving is not just for wealthy people, and asked me how many people I had buried since the first of the year. “Ten,” I responded.

When the workshop resumed, he used my conversation with him as an example. He pointed out that if I had started encouraging folks a few years earlier to consider their faith legacy and the opportunity to tithe their estate to the church – and they all did – those gifts may have significantly impacted our ministry at FPC. He suggested that if their only asset was a home valued at $100,000 that would equate to a $10,000 bequest. He then encouraged the group to imagine what we could do in mission and ministry with 10 bequests of $10,000. That quickly got me to thinking about how I could speak to my congregation. But still, this preacher’s kid, preacher’s niece, granddaughter of Presbyterian elders, and minister, did not personalize it.

Child prompts new consideration

A year later, my husband and I were at the lawyer’s office drafting our first will together. We were a month away from the birth of our first child. Prior to the appointment, we discussed who would have guardianship of our child if we met our demise and who would receive our assets to care for the child. We discussed secondary beneficiaries if we all died, durable power of attorney, medical power of attorney, living will, and whether to donate our bodies to science.

Mind you, I had been serving nearly five months as a Ministry Relations Officer for the Presbyterian Foundation. Sitting in front of the lawyer, this dyed-in-the-wool Presbyterian had never thought of discussing our faith legacy with my husband. It must have been the Holy Spirit that provided my “a-ha” moment and a little wisdom to suggest that once our bills are paid, we give 5 percent of our estate to the Presbyterian Foundation to establish a permanent endowment fund for First Presbyterian Church of Warren. Now, I joke, but we could have been back in the lawyer’s office signing very different papers a few weeks later. So, I don’t suggest you throw such a question at your partner in front of a lawyer.

Fortunately, Eric responded immediately, “Very well, then I would like 5 percent to go to the Silver Linings Fund at First Christian Church in Cedar Falls, Iowa.” Eric’s dad was the 11th of 17 children and knew poverty all too well. After his death nine years ago, Eric and his mom set up the Silver Linings Fund to provide coats, shoes, boots, gloves, etc., for impoverished children. They contribute each year.

Furthering the gospel

Together, we have planned to tithe our estate and trust that it will help to further the Gospel in simple yet significant ways. Tithing our estate will not deprive our children. Rather, it will serve as model for them. Knowing we have a God who names and claims all of humanity, calls us good, redeems and sustains us while calling us into relationship with the Triune God is truly transformational. We want future generations to know the love of God and seek to live out the double love commandment to love God and neighbor.

Are you like me? Do you have a sense that sharing the Gospel for future generations is important but really haven’t thought about your own faith legacy? The Ministry Relations Officers (MRO) at the Foundation will work with you to help you establish your gift(s). You can easily find your MRO on our website, or call 800-858-6127, Monday-Friday 8 a.m. – 5 p.m. (Eastern).