An Open Letter to the Pastor of the Munford, Tennessee church (whoever you may be) that is home to John & Lisa Robinson, the Powerball Winners of $533 million dollars.
From Richard Bergstrom, D.Min., President, ChurchHealth
Friday, January 15, 2016
This morning on the Today Show, John and Lisa Robinson displayed their winning Powerball ticket. It entitles them to a record win of $533 million. When asked what he intended to do with the earnings, John Robinson said, among other things, “…I’m a strong believer in tithing to my local church.”
Alarms went off in my head.
Immediately I imagined myself as the pastor of a church where this family, now worth half a billion dollars, attends. (The final amount is $327.8 million if they choose the lump sum payout and before taxes). I initially found myself drooling over the possibilities, but then I took a more analytical approach to the matter. I weighed both the blessings and the curse of having such a huge windfall dropped in the offering plate.
Upon further reflection, I’d like to offer my counsel to the pastor and governing board of the church:
CONSIDER THE DOWNSIDE OF SUCH A WINDFALL
- You don’t want the Robinsons to tithe off their total winnings to your church, and if offered, you should initially refuse it until they develop a comprehensive stewardship plan for their charitable contributions. A friend of mine whose family has a large Christian family foundation told me that if his brother had tithed to his church, it would have destroyed it. It would negate every widow’s gift, or the contributions of ordinary members (more on that in the next section).
- Your church is most likely not ready to receive such a windfall. I’ve often asked pastors the question, “What would you do if your church suddenly received a million dollars?” In this case, it could be millions of dollars. Even if it is just a partial tithe, you need to have a plan in place first. And it needs to be based on a strategic vision for the future. Will you suddenly decide you are going to build a new building? Hire new staff? Expand your programs and outreach? Increase your benevolence fund? Increase your mission budget?
- A gift of that magnitude could bring more division than unity to your congregation. Everyone will have an opinion on where to spend the funds. It could even split your church if not handled with great wisdom and discernment on how to steward the money. I hope you have an effective board structure and don’t have to approve every dime of expenditure at an open congregational meeting. Now is the time for leadership to get out ahead of the debate on how to spend it.
- The Robinsons will be instant celebrities in your church, as well as suddenly your largest donors. It will be hard not to show them favoritism, or cater to their preferences. They seemed like very nice, ordinary folks during the Today Show interview, but they have come into an extraordinary amount of money. It WILL change them. And it will be impossible to continue to treat them the same.
- If you do receive a substantial gift, you may find yourself being contacted by missionaries and mission agencies that you didn’t know existed. They all need funding, and you are now a church blessed with financial resources. Have a well-defined set of guidelines as to who and what you intend to support. If your church has a policy of designating a percentage of their donations to missions you may not have a choice but to set aside a substantial amount exclusively for that purpose.
- During the Depression, hobos along train routes would mark homes where they could get a free meal. Similarly, every needy person will now know that your church is to be the recipient of a huge windfall, and believe me; they will come knocking. Have a clearly defined policy and procedure for doling out benevolence assistance. Consider channeling some of that through agencies in the community that are set up to help those in need, or counsel the Robinsons to donate directly to those agencies to keep you out of the middle. To avoid your church becoming the primary go-to source for help, establish a clearinghouse ministry (such as Love INC,) or an Inter-faith agency to centralize the distribution of funds for those in need.
- Don’t be surprised to see some new faces Sunday morning. The media will be there in force, and others may come out of curiosity. The excitement will die down eventually, but be alert to those who are just there because of the hype.
- Already today, the mayor of the city has come up with his “wish list” of potential improvements in Munford. That’s just the beginning!
COUNT YOUR BLESSINGS, NAME THEM ONE BY ONE MILLION
- If properly managed, this could be a huge blessing not only to your church but also to the church at large. Consider engaging a church or charitable organization financial advisor to help you anticipate the issues you will face. Have the Robinsons do the same.
- Consider directing them to a donor advised fund to channel their charitable giving through a single source for churches or Christian ministries. Here is the description of such a fund from the website of the National Christian Foundation:
- A Giving Fund with National Christian Foundation (NCF) is an easy-to-establish, low-cost, flexible account for charitable giving that is a popular alternative to creating a private foundation. Also known as a donor-advised fund, it’s the fastest growing charitable vehicle in America today.
- A Giving Fund works like a charitable checking account, but instead of depositing money and writing checks, you contribute all types of assets (cash, stocks, non-liquid assets), receive an income tax deduction at the time of the donation, and then go online to recommend grants to your favorite ministries and churches.
- Help them develop a global vision for their philanthropic work. They have received an extraordinary amount of money. If they want to be directly involved in the management and distribution of their funds, they may want to consider establishing a private family foundation from which to allocate and distribute those funds. This requires organization and management, as well as establishing criteria for the distribution of funds. Talk with others who have done this. A friend of mine, along with his family, runs a private philanthropic foundation. They are a part of a national network of family foundations that meet each year. Draw from their collective wisdom before venturing into unchartered territory.
Without a doubt, neither the Robinsons nor your church will ever be the same. My only hope is that all of you can avoid the pitfalls of coming into such a large sum of money overnight.
Richard L. Bergstrom, D.Min., is President of ChurchHealth, a not-for-profit 501(c)(3) church consulting organization based in Seattle, Washington, and the former Executive Pastor of Northshore Community Church in Kirkland, Washington. He is the co-author of the book Mastering Church Finances (Leadership, CTi, Multnomah Press, 1992). www.CHonline.org
Copyright 2016 ChurchHealth
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