'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
In its television ads, the UCC bears witness to a deep evangelical impulse that is already rooted in the commandment of Sinai: "Love your neighbor."
Of course there are, in the Bible and beyond the Bible, endless wonderments about the identity of our neighbor. There is no doubt, however, that the deepest impulse of the Bible is toward inclusion, that all of God's creatures be accorded dignity, respect, safety and a sense of belonging. That deep biblical impulse gives the church its primal mandate, a summons reflected in these ads.
The issue of inclusion is not only disputed among us; it also is urgent. It is urgent because we U.S. Christians live in a society that is profoundly exclusionary in ways that debilitate. While we popularly celebrate the large vision of democracy among us, it is the case that the reality of socio-economic-political power works primarily to divide and exclude, to distinguish between "haves" and "have-nots" so that the "haves" always have more and more and the "have-nots" have less and less.
The same exclusionary propensity in our society is evident in the fear of "immigrants," even if we maintain our ambiguous response because the fear of new immigrants is curbed by the usefulness of cheap labor. On issues of race, ethnicity and class, there works among us a vision of a safe society that consists only in people "like us," a phrase that most often refers to the ruling class of white Euro-Americans.
That same exclusionary propensity that violates both "the American dream" and the gospel is now alive and well in the U.S. church, albeit with a kind of moral ferociousness that is not matched in the civic community. The fear of "the other" in the realm of U.S. religion now pertains not only to race, class and ethnicity, but also to sexual identity; as the church practices God's holiness, it finds that sexuality is in odd and deep ways linked to holiness.
In the face of such an exclusionary inclination rooted in fear and in inchoate anxiety, a church faithful to the gospel is summoned by the Lord of the church to challenge such exclusion and to practice an inclusiveness that is as broad as humanity and as deep as God's generosity. In the current "battle for the Bible," biblical texts and themes that witness to God's generous inclusiveness are not much known or cited among us:
In Isaiah 56, the prophetic poem reflects an argument about inclusion and exclusion. The prophet witnesses to inclusion by insisting that foreigners and eunuchs — "others" in an ordered Jewish community — are to be welcomed precisely because the community gathered around God is "for all peoples."
Do not let the foreigner joined to the Lord say, "The Lord will surely separate me from his people;" and do not let the eunuch say, "I am just a dry tree." For thus says the Lord: To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant, I will give, in my house and within my walls, a monument and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off. (Isa 56:3-5)
The New Testament church early faced the same issue as it moved beyond its Jewish origins to include all those loved by God, even Gentiles who were for some the abhorrent "other." Thus it is reported in Acts 10 that Peter — that great stalwart of the proper church — was visited by God in a dream and urged to accept what his community had regarded as "unclean." We may imagine that the dream from God was deeply upsetting and that Peter found the mandate shocking: The voice said to him again, a second time, "What God has made clean, you must not call profane." (Acts 10:15)
But Peter obeyed! And since the time of Peter, the church in its faithfulness has refused fearful, societal categories and has been open to this practice of God's graciousness.
Alongside Peter, Paul became the great missionary for evangelical openness, recognizing — against his own fearful tradition — that none can be ejected from the church because they threaten us and are unlike us. Paul draws the conclusion: For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him. (Rom 10:12)
The Jewish church had to make room for the very Gentiles it recognized it had categorized as "impure." So in our day, conservatives must make room for liberals and, in a harder challenge for our church, liberals must make room for conservatives. And all must make room together for those whom society dismisses as "impure."
Out of Paul's new awareness there came an inclusionary trajectory in the church, not uncontested but eventually accepted. We are offered, in the letter to the Ephesians, a new characterization of holiness that is not related to race, ethnicity or any other category of uncleanness, but rather to participation in a community of grace, tenderness, forgiveness and generosity:
And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with which you were marked with a seal for the day of redemption. Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you. Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children. (Eph 4:30-5:1)
Such a practice, in an exclusionary religious scene amid an exclusionary society that is fearful of the other, is an enormous challenge to the church. A bent toward inclusion runs great risks, but they are risks faithful to the gospel. In the long run such risks serve the kingdom. In the short run, they are the requirements of fidelity among us. Such fidelity will every time override fear and every time subvert anxiety. In doing so we remember that he said, "I tell you, do not be anxious."
The Rev. Walter Brueggemann, a UCC minister and scholar who authored more than 25 books on the Bible, is a professor emeritus at Columbia Theological Seminary in Atlanta.