It was Friday, Feb. 13, of all days, when the Rev. John H. Thomas' stack of morning mail included a small envelope that contained a donor's personal check. Made payable to the "United Church of Christ," it looked like your average, run-of-the-mill, hand-written bank draft, except for one thing—the amount. It was a gift for $1 million.
The donor, who has asked to remain anonymous, said she was giving the money to address two specific issues of concern to her—first, the equipping of new lay and ordained leaders for the church and, second, the strengthening of the church's commitment to women's justice issues.
"It was a generous gift that was consistent with the theme of her life," says Thomas, the UCC's general minister and president. "It represents a real investment in the church by someone who has had a long and faithful connection to the UCC and wants to be part of its vitality long beyond her own lifetime."
Don Hill of the UCC's financial development ministry says he was impressed by the donor's generosity, but not shocked by it. "There are tremendous resources in our church, and there are many generous people who are oriented toward philanthropy," he says. "I am meeting people all the time who are supporting ministry, both inside and outside the church, in significant ways."
Unfortunately, Hill says, the UCC has been shy in asking for financial support from its members—at all levels of the church. "But we're turning that around," he says.
"People aren't interested in giving to business-as-usual anymore, giving to support the structures of the church. In fact, I don't know if they ever were," Hill says. "But what people really want is to see how their dollars will bring about transformation in people's lives and in the church, how as a donor they can make a real impact."
Hill says givers are now being solicited to support those areas deemed absolutely essential to the UCC's growth and vitality in coming decades: leadership development, new and revitalized congregations, justice advocacy and the church's promotional/identity effort known as the "Still Speaking Initiative" (see related story on page 3).
Currently, the majority of individual contributions to the national setting comes in the form of planned gifts that support donor-specified congregations and institutions.
For example, since 1998, the Rev. Glen Rainsley, pastor of Congregational UCC in Bristol, Maine, and his wife, Susan, have been making planned gifts through the national offices to support First Congregational UCC in Kent, Conn., a congregation dear to the Rainsleys and one he served as pastor for more than eight years.
Rainsley, who describes giving as "a rather compelling habit," says planned gifts are a way to touch the church's future.
"The church is probably the greatest source of hope there is, and I want my giving to make a difference long after I'm not around," he says. "When I give, I feel better, and I realize that I have a surplus that comes from God. And I love the feeling of seeing what can be generated by the gift, especially when I let go of it and trust that others will do something good with it."
Like Rainsley, Thomas knows fi rst-hand that giving can be invigorating. His mother, Margaret Thomas, who is 89 and a member of First Congregational UCC in Stamford, Conn., recently received a totally unexpected bequest of $150,000 from a former college roommate who, ironically, was a member of First Reformed UCC in Lancaster, Pa.
By her establishing a planned gift through the UCC, Thomas says his mother has been able to realize some additional income while she is living, but she also is enjoying the satisfaction of knowing that one day her gift will be used to support a ministry that has been important to her—seminary scholarships for those belonging to the UCC's partner churches around the world.
"It's been fun to watch how this gift has energized her," Thomas says. "She is very excited about contributing to a church that's been important to her for a long time."
Thomas says a dear friend once told him that people can be divided into two categories: "clutchers" and "givers." "What makes the difference?"
Thomas asks. "Generosity grows not from our commitment to a good cause, but from a deepened sense of belonging to a good God."
The Rev. George Graham of the UCC's financial development ministry couldn't agree more. He says that every time he meets with a prospective donor, he marvels at how "generosity is born out of deep faith."
"I think of giving in similar ways that Frederick Beuchner talks about vocation," Graham says, "because we're called to give to that place where the world's great needs intersect with our deep gladness, and that's why there are always a million reasons to give."