March 16, 2012

Noises Off

Filed under: Legacy — by Lisa Meeder Turnbull @ 6:56 pm

One of my favorite stage devices is the unseen character, the person who has a significant role in plot and play but is never seen by the audience.

Today I am thinking about the householder in the parable of the talents. Without him, there is no story; the entire parable turns on his absence.

In many ways I feel like we come in on the middle of this story. I find myself wanting more background: Of all his servants, how did he choose these three? How did he decide how many talents he would entrust to each? What further instructions did he provide? How did they know what was expected of them in his absence? Could they be sure he was coming back?

Each of us is a householder. Each of us holds a generous portion of God’s abundance. And whether we feel comfortable naming it or not, each of us is on a journey that will ultimately require us to entrust others with the care and keeping of that abundance when we are no longer present. The unknown back story in the parable of the talents speaks directly to our responsibility for legacy stewardship—and it would be helpful to have a little more detail when we think about preparing or updating our wills.

The unknown back story would be helpful to congregational leaders as well. How do we become the servants the household chooses? How do we create the environment of trust and trustworthiness that inspires confidence in the householder? How do we move him to entrust us with a portion of his abundance toward perpetual mission and ministry in our communities?

These are important questions for prayer and discernment. And out of that prayer and discernment come some very important steps that all of us can take in our common journey as good and faithful stewards.

For congregational leaders, the most important first step is to develop and document those policies that prepare your parish to function as perpetual stewards of others’ abundance. The so-called “enabling documents” establish the structure that enables householders to make informed decisions about entrusting the congregation with a legacy gift. (These documents include the vestry resolution establishing an endowment or perpetual fund; a plan of operation; policy regarding the disposition of bequests; designated funds; investment guidelines; spending rules; and gift acceptance policies.) Do you have these documents? Are they up to date? How often does the vestry review and reaffirm them? Does the congregation know about these documents, or know whom and how to ask?

With the enabling documents in place, the congregational leaders are well equipped to invite the entire congregation into a time of prayer and discernment around their legacy as stewards of God’s abundance. This is far more than a pitch to get people to include the church in their wills. Stewardship at the end of life is at its heart stewardship of our most cherished relationships. It includes such things as the medical directive that eases the choices our loved ones may be asked to make. It includes a funeral plan that gives our loved ones clues to how we would like our lives to be celebrated in worship, liturgy, music, and scripture. One rector in the Diocese of Maine includes this gracious and grace-filled invitation in his parish’s funeral planning documents:

Are there any broken relationships, bad feelings, grudges or hurts that could be healed while there is still plenty of time? There is no better time than now to bury old hatchets, to reconcile with those you are estranged from, to ask forgiveness of those you have harmed, and to reconnect with those you have drifted away from. This is hard spiritual work, but it leads to joy. The Rector would love nothing more than to help you begin such healing.

When I consult with congregations on stewardship at the end of life, I always recommend that they involve the entire membership in this conversation, regardless of age or life stage. Consider, for example, the young professionals who have begun their careers and may be accumulating assets while they do not yet have heirs. As families move beyond their “tuition years,” mid-life adults may find themselves with life insurance that exceeds their needs. The focus need not be solely on older adults.

Consider also that legacy stewardship has a very long cycle—persons considering a bequest, for example, may want to talk with their family members who would otherwise expect to inherit the portion being considered. They would also spend time consulting with professional advisors and may decide to wait until their next estate plan review is due. The 50% of Americans who do have wills may have already made provisions for other organizations or for their colleges and universities and may need a period of reflection and discernment before they are comfortable changing those provisions or making additional gifts out of what would otherwise be their residual estate. Legacy stewardship involves a great deal of prayer, discernment, and reflection; it takes time to bear fruit.

But bear fruit it will, with joy and gladness beyond measure.


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