Exercising Our Church’s Funds
by Jerry H. Johnson (July / August 2005 • Volume 21 • Number 4)
Currently, there are more than 10,650 congregations in the 65 Synods of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. The amount of cash or cash equivalents held by this church through its congregations, synods, and the churchwide organization is well into the billions of dollars. We are not speaking here of buildings or other real estate but of cash that resides mostly in bank accounts day after day, month after month, and year after year. In addition, the Board of Pensions is responsible for many more billions of dollars residing in various securities and other investments as directed by members.
As a congregational business administrator, synodical treasurer, pension fund participant, and individual investor, I am surrounded by folk with advice regarding faith-based investing. Many of them want faith to go well beyond giving to the church and into the realm of how the church invests its money. Money talks and Christians are looking for ways to have an impact on their investments. Should the institutional church, its synods and congregations — even its pension fund — be open to such thought?
We are not only open to the thought, we offer several vehicles within our church to do just that. Yet, how many of us — in positions of influence as treasurers or building committee chairs, for example — are aware of these vehicles and how many are taking advantage of them?
Before we answer that question, we should take a moment to review some basic principles of investing. Current operating funds as well as designated funds given for specific items are usually held in a local bank account. Often, most of this money does not need to be immediately available. (In today’s financial environment, immediately available would mean within 24-48 hours.) When considering the investment of these funds, which may or may not be designated, the following three areas need to be considered:
- Potential loss of purchase power of the assets during inflationary periods due to highly conservative investment policies.
- Loss of principal due to inappropriate asset allocation decisions and/or inappropriate investment selections.
- Inadequate bookkeeping or fiscal controls for funds.
Let’s assume for the purpose of this article that these areas have been considered. Even if they haven’t, read on. The thought I wish to provoke here has to do with our stewardship of these billions of dollars in cash resources. To be sure, religious-based funds are growing. As they grow, I believe our (ELCA) investments become a symbol of our faith and should support the values of our church. Now this opens a can of worms. Just what are the “values of our faith?” If we are to invest judiciously with that principal in mind, we need a set of investment values on which we agree.
I live in Central Florida where the largest employers are tourism, health care, and defense. Our congregation is a microcosm of those employers. If we were to invest our cash assets on the basis of the employers of our members without regard to the three areas of consideration named in the above bullets, we would more than likely own Disney, Lockheed Martin, and Healthcare Corporation stock. Now I can assure you that each one of those companies could have corporate policies that conflict with some element of the values of our church. Yet, without the contributions from the employees and stockholders of those companies, we would not have much money to invest, if any at all.
The same holds true for the Florida-Bahamas Synod and even the ELCA. Christian investing is not just about money: it is about God’s kingdom. So where do we turn in order to invest our cash, keeping in mind the “values of our church” and how our God-given assets can best be put to work for the church.
Building the Body
My intent here is not to offer specific investment advice nor to promote one investment vehicle over another. I have no motive other than to make an attempt to expand our thinking about building the body of Christ. Many congregations, synods, and other church-affiliated organizations have money stored away in accounts offering very little if any return and providing no ministry benefit to the larger church. If we collectively and actively put that money to work by investing it in a fund that is safe, offers competitive rates of return, and supports the ministry growth of our church, we could have a significant impact on the ability of this church to expand its ministries.
While there are many funds offering socially responsible investment practices, it can be difficult to agree on the amount of risk to take and the degree of social responsibility required by the investor. In our own church, we have the Mission Investment Fund (MIF) of the ELCA. This fund is an opportunity for all of us to help build the church and advance God’s mission by offering investments and providing loans and services to ELCA congregations and ministries (see Investing for the Church’s Sake for contact information).
Here’s a thought. Consider that if we were employed by a secular corporation which offered a pension plan to its employees, investment options and the rules of investment would be quite different than what we see offered in the ELCA. While I am most appreciative of the diversity offered by the Board of Pensions investment options, it seems odd to me, perhaps to you as well, that there is a missing option. GE, Microsoft, Wal-Mart, IBM, GM, Disney, and others offer or provide incentives to their employees to invest in the stock of the company they work for (some even require employees to invest in their company). While I am sure there are obstacles to this, the Board of Pensions offers no such option today to invest in the mission of the church.
|Investing for the Church’s Sake|
“The MIF is a ministry of the ELCA. Unlike other investment options that may not always be consistent with your concerns and values, when you invest in the MIF you can be sure that your investment dollars are used solely for strengthening the ministries of the ELCA,” said Arnold Pierson, Vice President of the Mission Investment Fund of the ELCA.
“What could be more satisfying than to know your investments are helping build churches while simultaneously providing you with regular interest payments?” he added.
For more information, visit the MIF’s Web site at www.elca.org/mif, contact them via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org, or phone their staff at (877) 886-3522.
Would it not be empowering to be given the option to invest our pension funds in the mission of the church? Some would say no. That’s fine, but to those of us who would say yes and Amen, the choice is not offered. I would like to see the Board of Pensions investigate this option and implement such a choice, if it is feasible to do so. That action alone could have a significant impact.
Please try to see the big picture on this. The church collectively has billions of dollars which it may not own itself but over which it holds considerable influence. Isn’t that true for all of us? We only have influence over that which God has first given us. We own nothing. As you examine the accounts of your congregation, synod, church organization, pension fund or family, ask yourself what comes up positive and how can that be directed and invested back into the building up of the body of Christ?
Jerry H. Johnson, an associate in ministry, is a church administrator at St. John’s Lutheran Church, Winter Park, Florida.