The Importance of Gifts Policies – Part Two: Retiring Gifts

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In his “The Importance of Gift Policies” post last week, The Importance of Gifts Policies – Part One: Receiving and Refusing Gifts, Bruce Barkhauer describes what Gift Policies are and why they matter. This week in part two of the series, Bruce tackles a topic that might be controversial for your congregation: what to do with that really old and, actually very unhelpful gift collecting dust in your church somewhere. In fact, showing his pastoral heart, Bruce even suggests a worshipful way to retire gifts. Don’t despair over that old gift, hope is here!

Yours truly,

Adam Copeland, Center for Stewardship Leaders

The Importance of Gifts Policies – Part Two: Retiring Gifts

Bruce A. Barkhauer

Let’s say your congregation received the gift a grand piano a generation or two ago. At the time of the gift, the piano played beautifully and was used often for leading worship. Over time, however, the piano has developed several expensive-to-repair flaws, and upon a renovation of the sanctuary, no longer serves the needs of the music ministry. What should you do? How does one retire a gift at the end of its useful life?

Your church needs a stated policy that recognizes that all tangible assets have a beneficial life span. Normal use, obsolesce, or simply the passage of time can render a gift unusable. While grateful for a gift given (or cash designated to purchase such an item), the congregation needs to have self-determination on when the gift no longer has the capacity to serve the original purpose for which it was given or was eventually employed.

Additionally, when the cost of maintaining or repairing an item exceeds its value to the church, the gift should be able to be “retired.” This is simply good stewardship. It is not, however, always as simple or easy to do what otherwise seems like the right thing to do!

A good gifts policy will include the ability to retire the gift while still recognizing that there may be strong sentimental attachment to the item. As I discovered in my ministry, even office equipment that had been purchased a generation earlier can have a strong connection to the friends and family of the person (no longer living) who provided the money for its acquisition.

When you think about retiring an item that has been in the sanctuary, or had some other highly visible function, quietly slipping it into to the dumpster may not be appropriate. Some form of public acknowledgement and formal de-commissioning can serve multiple beneficial functions. I offer this example that was used when a congregation retired an instrument that could no longer be kept in tune due to age and for which the cost of repair was simply prohibitive.

One: We give thanks for the generosity of the saints

Many: Who have passed on to us the stories of our faith.

One: Who thought not only of their current moment in time

Many: But who dreamed about providing for the future, for those like us who would come after them.

One: We remember Elizabeth Knowles, her love for Christ and her belief in the power of music to lift the soul.

Many: We give thanks for her gift of this instrument and for the music it created to enrich worship for three generations who have sung praises to God in this space.

One: As with all things that are created, there is a limit to life and usefulness, a moment that reminds us that we and are our possessions, indeed the whole earth, is finite and that only God is infinite and goes on forever.

Many: We remember with gratitude the service it has provided, as well as the one who saw that we should have it for a time to use. We release it from its sacred service to our congregation with joy and thanksgiving, and pray that we too, would look with hopeful eyes to the future and those who will follow us in the journey of faith.

All: Thanks be to God!

Sometimes you simply don’t have enough information about gift or the donor when an item needs to be retired. A congregation I served was involved in an extensive renovation that included the removal and replacement of carpet whose age and origin were not clear.  There was, however, bronze plaque of some substance on the back wall of the sanctuary that bore the name of a woman who had apparently given the money for carpet’s purchase. (No one had seen a member of that family in church for over 30 years!) After efforts to track down members of the family failed, it was decided that that the plaque and a picture of the sanctuary when the carpet was new (and a small square of the same) would be mounted in a shadow box in the church library. Honoring donors and their gifts is important — it sets the table for gifts in the future, as it was clear that this congregation was grateful for its members’ generosity.

A strong “retirement policy” within a Gifts Policy will also include that the church is not required to store or otherwise maintain possession of an item once it has been appropriately removed from service. Also, the church should not be required to return an item, nor notify the donor that the gift is no long in service or possession, unless otherwise stated and agreed to by all parties at the time the gift was given. Be certain that this is clear at the time the gift is receipted to the donor.

Having a Gifts Policy in place protects the congregation and is a sound “best practice” of fiduciary responsibility. Acknowledging that gifts have a useful lifespan and unencumbering the church from unnecessary and difficult obligations that some gifts can otherwise have attached to them allows the church receive gifts without undue concern. And all of that aside, how many old upright pianos with 87 keys, broken table tennis tables, or sofa-bed couches with painful springs do you really need at your church…? A well-written Gifts Policy can help you with that!

To view a sample Gifts Policy that includes the establishment of a Gifts Commission, click here.

For More Information:

Bruce A. Barkhauer was called as the first “Minister for Faith and Giving for Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)” in 2010, after 25 years of parish ministry. Since that time he has engaged the whole church in conversations about generosity and offered transformative ways for congregations to think about stewardship. For more, visit the Center for Faith & Giving

Rethinking Stewardship: Join us on July 25-27 for three days of conversation and exploration at Luther Seminary’s Rethinking Stewardship: From Solemn Obligation to Inspired Choice. More information here.

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