Each leaf on the Arbor Society tree at St. Paul’s Church in Rochester represents a planned-estate gift to the church.

When Patrick Calhoun and his wife, Julie, were making estate plans two years ago, they had not thought of leaving assets to their church, Trinity Cathedral in Little Rock. Establishing a trust for their children and grandchildren was their primary focus.

But now Trinity is in line to receive as much as 25 percent of the portion donated outside the Calhoun family. One factor motivated the switch: the October 2015 launch of Trinity’s 1884 Legacy Society, which honors all who have remembered Trinity in their end-of-life plans.

“The minute it came up, for obvious reasons, I said, This is great,” said Calhoun, 68. “It’s a way that we can live beyond our lifetimes, have an influence, and assist others who share our faith.”

Forming a legacy society marked a key step for Trinity, a 1,500-member church that had no planned giving program before 2015. The church also developed a brochure explaining the opportunity and revised its policy on which types of gifts will be accepted and how assets will be managed.

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Two years later, the 1884 Legacy Society now counts 50 members. That includes about 30 who, like the Calhouns, said they were not planning a bequest until the society planted the idea, said Beth Hathaway, chairwoman of the 1884 Legacy Society.

“People made comments like, I give to the church every year, but I never really thought about leaving them anything in my will,” Hathaway said. “We got a lot of that.”

Planned giving is an oft-avoided topic since it involves thinking about mortality, taxes, and other unpopular subjects. Yet experts say churches shirk their pastoral responsibilities at the expense of future generations when they do not discuss legacy possibilities. Many congregations have no program, but more are starting with help from new tools that make it relatively easy.

The financial stakes are high. An estimated $40 trillion in wealth is expected to change hands when 77 million baby boomers die. In 2015, Americans gave $32 billion through bequests, according to Giving USA’s annual report, but colleges and universities are more likely than churches to receive bequests.

Religion’s slice of the $373 billion pie that Americans give to charity is shrinking in part because churches, unlike schools and hospitals, often do not pursue planned gifts.

“Many people will choose to make a gift through their estate plans,” said James Murphy, managing program director for financial resources at the Episcopal Church Foundation (ECF). “And they may well make it to a university or to institutions that make the individual donors aware of opportunities and build trust with them. If parishes are not paying attention to this, they will unfortunately many times lose out.”

Sometimes financial need provides an igniting spark. At Trinity, questions swirled about how to pay for repairs to a pipe organ, a slate roof, and stained-glass windows for the long term. Expanding the endowment would require a strategy. When Hathaway learned that no one at the church was inviting planned gifts, she got to work.

Experts say it’s crucial to distinguish planned giving from routine stewardship, which commonly involves drumming up pledges to cover annual budgets. Because planned giving involves preparing for death, it arguably includes a role for clergy, regardless of whether they take part in ordinary stewardship campaigns. That can mean sitting pastorally with parishioners, asking which influences shaped their lives, and inviting a legacy gift to the church.

“Somebody has to call for the gift, to do the come follow me, come and see moment,” said Rob Henson of Evansville, Indiana, a planned-giving consultant to congregations. “If the pastoral leader refuses to, then the program as a ministry is not going to be successful at all because it doesn’t have support from the clerical leader.”

A cleric’s role sometimes begins with helping convene a committee. Murphy said a congregation needs one or two “planned giving shepherds” who will organize key elements of a program and raise awareness. A priest might be involved in helping discern who would be right for those roles. Volunteers need not be financial or legal professionals, but they should be people who have named the church in their estate plans and are open to talking about it.

“Many people feel like they just don’t know this stuff, so they’re afraid to take any action,” Murphy said. He encourages them not to stall but instead tap resources from ECF, including downloadable brochures and webinars, to fill in gaps and help parishioners become more educated about the options.

In many congregations, volunteer laypeople lead planned-giving outreach, Murphy said. In being supportive, clergy have many tools at their disposal.

A priest can create settings in which planned-giving discussions can happen, such as designating a “legacy Sunday” with a coffee hour or cocktail reception to honor legacy society members and to invite others to join. A priest can also use the pulpit to explore end-of-life issues, from preparing the soul to signing a healthcare proxy and choosing between burial or cremation. A comprehensive treatment of these subjects inevitably evokes thinking about philanthropy.

Similarly, physical space can be leveraged to keep planned giving in mind. St. Paul’s Church in Rochester, New York, has a bronze sculpture of a leaf-covered tree; every leaf represents an individual or couple who arranged a planned gift. Located in a chapel off the nave, the tree serves as a subtle, permanent reminder because a rector believed it was important, said David Farrand, chairman of the fund development committee in the Diocese of Newark.

Once shepherds are in place or a committee gathers, adopting a gift-reception policy needs to be a priority, Murphy said. Such a policy governs which types of gifts the church will and will not accept. Appreciated stock might be fine, for instance, but a property that once housed a gas station might be an unsellable albatross. A policy can also reassure prospective donors who want to know how funds will be invested and which types of projects the assets will ultimately underwrite.

“You’re really trying to get at an organized answer to What would I do if I got a million dollars from an estate that I didn’t know I was going to have?” said Farrand, a member of Calvary Church in Summit, New Jersey. “What would I do with it? To not be able to answer that question to a potential donor is a death sentence. It’s the end of the conversation.”

At Calvary, crafting a policy was a painstaking process that took about a year, Farrand said, but these days the process can flow much more smoothly. ECF provides model gift-reception policies, which congregations can adopt or adapt as needed for their situations.

Other tools are proving useful, too. A new ECF Donor Advised Fund (DAF), launched last September, gives donors a vehicle to take an immediate tax write-off and earmark funds for distribution to charities at later dates. Funds are distributed in accordance with the donor’s wishes. At least 51 percent must go to Episcopal institutions.

A DAF can function as a planned-giving tool when a donor indicates that remaining funds should help a particular organization. Other vehicles a person might use in after-death giving include a will, an Individual Retirement Account (naming a church as beneficiary), a life insurance policy, or various types of trusts.

To keep committees well-equipped and organized, the Presbyterian Church Foundation offers its online Planned Giving Navigator tool for congregations of all denominations. For a yearly base fee of $190 plus 35 cents per member, subscribers receive a host of services, including custom videos and materials crafted to blend into a church’s website. They also receive a committee workspace for storing documents and managing projects.

When time comes to thank those inspired to make planned gifts, styles tend to vary with regional sensibilities. At Trinity Church in the City of Boston, a planned gift donor typically gives a testimony during worship at Trinity Circle Sunday, an annual event. A fancier-than-usual coffee hour follows in honor of Trinity Circle (legacy society) members, said Adam Dawkins, director of stewardship.

At Trinity in Little Rock, a fancy spread for planned givers would not go over well, Hathaway said. The first 1884 Society reception was at the dean’s home; the second this fall will be on the roof deck at Hathaway’s building. Guests consume wine and cheese, not dinner. The simplicity is by design.

“For our reception, it will be very low-key,” Hathaway said. “Our goal is not to have a huge flashy party, have an expensive dinner, or give everybody an expensive gift. We don’t think that’s being good stewards of the funds people are leaving us.”

With a supportive priest and a few consistent volunteers, any church can tap into standard materials and begin a program with a legacy society as its centerpiece. Doing so might require some disciplined forethought, especially when meeting the annual budget is already a challenge. But experts say it is all worthwhile.

“Planned giving is a pretty major funding source,” said Karl Mattison, vice president for planned giving resources at the Presbyterian Church Foundation. “Of all the different ways of bringing in revenue for our ministries, planned giving has a lot more benefit for the same amount of effort.”

G. Jeffrey MacDonald

 

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