Years ago, I was the chairman of a great ministry and several board members suggested setting up and raising an endowment fund to guard against possible future decrease in donations. I wasn’t wild about the idea for a variety of reasons and here’s why:
In good economic times almost every ministry or church (or business for that matter) gets fat, dumb and lazy. By that I mean they often have programs or people who are not effective or even needed, but because the funds are there, they live on beyond their usefulness. A decrease in income forces a ministry or church to take a hard look at every expense and make some hard choices which in the end results in better stewardship of their resources.
Almost every ministry is prone to mission-drift. They usually start out with a great idea and execute it well. However, over the years they begin getting into areas that are not really their core competency, or passion. Some people people in the organization may realize that, but the president, founder or a large donor likes the program so it continues until income shrinks, forcing a re-evaluation.
It’s presumptuous to think that every ministry or church should stay “in business” forever. I personally am aware of a number of missions organizations that are still sending American missionaries to countries who have a flourishing Christian community, instead of funding nationals to do that job, or better yet, just leave them alone and trust the Holy Spirit to complete that work. Let’s face it, almost every church has a popular couple who’ve been on the mission field way past the time they were really needed. I’m not suggesting they aren’t doing any good, nor am I suggesting firing faithful missionaries. However, I will often ask missionaries this question, “When will you consider your work done and how long do you expect that to take?” Then if we choose to support them, I hold them to that and will rarely fund beyond their target completion date. There is a tremendous temptation to find new things missionaries can do, good things, year after year until they reach the age of retirement. I recall one courageous ministry that recognized another ministry was doing a much better job than they were, doing a similar work. They decided to shut down and join the other ministry. That takes an amazing amount of humility and wisdom to commit ministry suicide.
Not all churches should exist forever either. We have two, old liberal churches in Grand Rapids with shrinking attendance whose doors stay open only because they have had many wealthy people who upon their death left large sums to their church’s endowment, or trust fund. Those who left those funds did so because they loved their church. However, they would probably be appalled to hear what their church now teaches, or how their funds are being used to keep “a corpse alive.” Other churches are poorly led, or have lost their vision and are dying and if they have lost their vision perhaps they should die. I’ve found this to be almost always true; The more money you have, or an organization has, the less faith you need and the less wise you are with what you have. Abundance creates the illusion of self-sufficiency and “fruitfulness” and lessens one’s dependency on God. It’s not for no reason God warned Israel with this; “When the Lord your God brings you into the land he swore to your fathers, to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, to give you—a land with large, flourishing cities you did not build, houses filled with all kinds of good things you did not provide, wells you did not dig, and vineyards and olive groves you did not plant—then when you eat and are satisfied, be careful that you do not forget the Lord, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.” Deuteronomy 6:10-12 “Otherwise, when you eat and are satisfied, when you build fine houses and settle down, and when your herds and flocks grow large and your silver and gold increase and all you have is multiplied, then your heart will become proud and you will forget the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. You may say to yourself, ‘My power and the strength of my hands have produced this wealth for me.’ But remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you the ability to produce wealth, and so confirms his covenant, which he swore to your ancestors, as it is today.” Deuteronomy 8:12-14, 17-18
God’s counsel applies not only to individuals, but to organizations and even churches. God gives and God takes away. Let him do both freely by letting the size of your ministry be governed by by his provision, not by building bigger barns.