Written by J. Bennett Guess
'Magi Project' hopes to double donations within three years
The UCC's Pension Boards is launching the Magi Project, a three-year initiative striving to double donations to the Christmas Fund, one of the denomination's four special mission offerings.
For decades, the Christmas Fund — formerly known as "Veterans of the Cross" — has helped provide supplemental monies for pension and health insurance premiums to low-income retirees. At Christmas, the offering provides gift checks to hundreds of annuitants, but it also provides emergency assistance to clergy and lay employees and their families throughout the year.
The Rev. M. Douglas Borko, director of ministerial assistance at the Pension Boards, says that in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and the subsequent rising cost of energy, now is a good time for churches to think about upping their annual giving to the Christmas Fund.
After Katrina pounded the Gulf Coast, the Christmas Fund was able to allocate funds to completely pay two quarters worth of insurance premiums for 10 retired clergy who were displaced in the FEMA-declared zip codes. An additional $5,000 went towards premiums of active clergy in those same affected zip codes.
Borko says the Christmas Fund is also sponsoring an energy grant, which will be distributed after the first of January 2006. All retired lay employees and clergy who have accounts with the Pension Boards will receive a one-time gift of $50 towards the cost of energy this winter. Those receiving ministerial assistance will receive $75.
"We're recognizing that the impact of Katrina was far beyond New Orleans," Borko says. "Everyone is going to be affected by the energy crisis that came out of it." He notes that all retired clergy with existing accounts with the Pension Boards will automatically receive the grant; retired UCC clergy without accounts may apply to receive it.
Of course, Christmas is not the only time a church can remember the Christmas Fund. While most churches find Christmastime to be an opportune time to lift up the special offering as a seasonal emphasis on mission giving, other churches opt for the Christmas in July Offering. Posters, PowerPoint presentations and worship materials for both December and July options are available through the Pension Boards' office.
The legacy of giving
Legacy Gifts, in the form of bequests or other planned gifts, are another way that churches and individuals are supporting the Christmas Fund.
This summer, Chicago's St. Phillipus UCC, located on the south side of Chicago, voted to close its doors. The proceeds from the sale of the building and assets were divided among five different ministries, among them the Christmas Fund. This fall, Borko gratefully accepted a check for $120,000 on behalf of the Christmas Fund.
"The income from the investment will be used to enhance the annual giving to the Christmas Fund each year," he says.
Back in the 1800s, when the program was established, the lives of clergy were different, acknowledges Borko. Right now, the Christmas Fund is looking at two major trends that are affecting clergy and their finances.
"We are looking at the impact of second-career clergy who have shorter careers," Borko says. "Our pension program is built on the assumption of paying 14 percent of your dues over a 30-year span to provide adequate retirement income. Length of ministry now is far below 30 years."
In addition, the climbing divorce rate has touched the lives of clergy just as it has the rest of the population.
"The number of divorces in clergy households is higher than most people would guess," he says. "That has dramatic impacts on both the spouse who is non-clergy and the clergy spouse. We are evaluating how our program of benefiting through the Christmas Fund applies in those situations."
No matter how much money is in the Christmas Fund, says Borko, it's paramount that clergy, spouses/ partners and lay employees know that it is there to help them.
"We want to provide the highest quality of life possible for the people we work with, while preserving their dignity," he says.
Borko has seen families overwhelmed by the sudden financial strain brought on by illness, an automobile accident or a fire. In the business of caring for others, Borko says many clergy feel uneasy asking for help for themselves.
"I try to reassure them that they've worked their whole lives for the church," he says. "The church is an institution that cares for its people, and they've been doing that through their whole ministry. Now it's time for them to be cared for in their hour of need."
'My father, a UCC minister, had a very small pension'
Iowa church gets personal, boosts offering
Urbandale UCC in Iowa has taken a significant step toward increasing the church's support for the Christmas Fund, the denomination's special mission offering that assists retired church workers in need.
During last year's Advent season, Richard Boyer, the son of a UCC minister and Urbandale's mission chair, shared his family's story with the congregation.
"[My father] had a very small pension," says Boyer. "After he died, my mother called to ask me what the 'second check from the Pension Boards' was for." Boyer explained to her that it was probably a Veterans of the Cross (Christmas Fund) gift.
By sharing how the offering had helped his own family and explaining how the Christmas Fund is used to help UCC retirees and their families, people opened their hearts — and their wallets.
The previous year, Urbandale UCC had allocated about $250 in support of the Christmas Fund. But, after Boyer and his committee made special appeals (including asking all retired ministers and all children of ministers in the congregation to stand), giving increased by over $3,000 in 2004.
Afterwards, Boyer excitedly reported the results to the Pension Boards. "Next year,"
Learn more about the Christmas Fund
For promotional materials, contact UCC Resources at 800-537-3394 or 800-325-7061
Contact the Rev. M. Douglas Borko, at firstname.lastname@example.org or 800/642-6543 x2716