When my dad died, he had some $800,000 in assets remaining, both in his home, in retirement investment accounts, and in assets he received from his sister at her death.
When I was born, my parents rented an apartment. When I started school they bought a 988 square-foot home, and my mom started working outside the home. I remember my dad carrying stress about money and applying for a second job. In time, my mom’s company promoted her—from an entry-level job making frozen pizzas on an assembly line to production manager. Dad’s money stresses eased, as Mom became the primary breadwinner. (And other stresses began!) When I was in high school, my parents built a new two-story 2,900 square-foot home in a new development nearby. Then they took out loans to pay for college for my sister and I.
Hard work, frugal living, and wise choices helped raise the tide for our family. So did good health, providence, the generosity of others, fortunate timing, luck, and public policy and other systemic factors, like the economics of our demographically-growing region in central PA in the 1980s and 90s.
My dad was 72 when he died. Young. A year before he died, his health forced a move to assisted living and then skilled nursing and memory care. Had he lived there just five years more, to 77, he would have drawn down his assets by three-quarters. Longevity can be expensive. But what is money for?
Leaving a financial legacy for my sister and I and our families was a priority for my dad. So he was quite thorough in planning and had his will and all his documents in order and easy to find.
But in hindsight, the one thing missing from his legacy-leaving was his church.
As my parents divorced, my dad found his way back to church. To DOVE Christian Fellowship in Elizabethtown, Pennsylvania. I name it because my dad’s church saved his life. He spun out during and after the divorce, becoming suicidal and in fact attempting suicide. He nearly died in the attempt. This was a wake up call for him, and he talked to a doctor and received medication to ease his depression. And through it all, his church was there for him, with prayer and compassion, in weekly meals and Sunday worship.
So I’m surprised my dad didn’t name his church in his will. Every time we visited, in person or on the phone, he talked about his church. They worshipped in an elementary school, then a civic community center, then a vacant commercial space. But they were seeking a building of their own, with the funds to purchase it. He would update me on their progress—the funds they raised, the for-sale buildings they toured.
when can we afford to be generous?
Many of us can be more generous in our death than in our life—in terms of flat dollars, if not in proportion to our income. Of course, our presence, love, and leadership in our congregation is priceless. Giving our lives away is our truest calling. Money is a significant and symbolic part of that and merely a part.
I was my dad’s financial power of attorney, and at his direction, I wrote offering checks to his church—$200 a month, or $2,400 a year. In his 17 or so years at DOVE, that would’ve added up to over $40,000, assuming he’d been constant in that amount. Had he planned to tithe his assets in his death, he would’ve added another $80,000 to those gifts and nearly tripled his giving in life.
Many of us are in a similar position. We can make a bigger financial impact on the churches and ministries that are dear to us as we approach the end of our lives than we could at any other time. Even with modest means, some of us can afford to pay our debts and funeral expenses, take care of our families, and be generous all at the same time.
This is called a “planned gift” or “planned giving.” Some people do it by writing a church or other ministries into their will, or by naming them as a beneficiary of an insurance policy or investment account. Some name a specific amount; others, a percentage of total assets. Some designate their gifts to a specific purpose or project. Others let the church decide. Still others endow what’s called a “perpetual offering”—as Harriet Ebeling did early this year. Harriet set aside $100,000 for Zion, directing us to invest it, maintain the principle, and use the interest earnings for daily ministry.
There are many ways to make a planned gift. It starts in prayer and in conversation with family and people you trust. Further conversation can include a financial planner if you have one and myself, as your pastor. Zion can also host workshops if there’s interest.
Zion’s Legacy Fund is full of departed Zion peoples’ planned gifts. That fund has paid to resurface the parking lot, put down new flooring in the Fellowship Hall, and provide efficient new boilers. David Feeney’s planned gift purchased the new grand piano and also funded IT upgrades during the pandemic for congregations across the Southeastern Iowa Synod. There is Harriet Ebeling’s perpetual offering to Zion.
And there’s another Zion person—living!—who likely prefers not to be named. They were so inspired by Harriet’s gift that they started giving out of their retirement assets now when they could see the impact with their own, living eyes.
Zion is debt free and freer to follow Jesus’ call because our brothers and sisters made planned gifts.
what could have been
I don’t know why my dad did not make a planned gift to his church. Maybe it never occurred to him. Maybe he did consider it but was afraid of not having enough left to pass on to his family. I don’t know. I never asked, “Dad, why do your estate plans not fully reflect your values?”
When I received my share of his estate, I gave a tithe of it—10% or $35,000—to DOVE Christian Fellowship in my dad’s name, Gary Lynn Smith, designated to the building fund. The legacy of that church’s generosity to him and through him to me made it a joy to give. I gave because I was grateful and because to receive is a privilege that comes with responsibilities.
But what if I had not been captured by the gospel of God’s love? Then my dad’s church would have received nothing at all.
Thanks be to God.
Pastor Clark Olson-Smith