When the Central Congregational Church in Chelmsford received a substantial bequest -- without stipulations -- the members were more than delighted; they were challenged.
A big deposit deserved big attention. With so many building, mission, and ministry opportunities, it was decided that no one committee would determine the allocation of funds. So the church went through a discernment process to ensure the monies were spent wisely and in line with the mission of the church. In true congregational fashion, the church used a democratic process and invited everyone - even the children - to be involved in the decision-making.
In order to get everyone engaged, the church membership voted to set aside $30,000 for the Harold and Elinor Grant Family Mission Project. The general idea of this program was to provide $200 to any family in the church who wished to participate, and let the family unit decide how to spend that portion of the money. Of course there were a few simple rules: participants had to be at least eighteen years old, the money could not be used for political purposes or for personal use, selections had to adhere to church beliefs, and the donation specifics had to be reported back to the church. The members were encouraged to hold family meetings to discuss options before making a final decision.
Over 100 families received the monies, but then something profound happened. The participants found different ways of growing their donations by matching them with their own money, convincing friends to take part, applying for matching gifts from corporations, and even securing a matching government grant.
"The $21,000 we gave to families grew 90% -- to almost $38,000," said Dick Papenfuss, church treasurer. "Over 85 different charities and organizations and 15 different families or groups of individuals benefited from these gifts."
"The monies were spent in heartfelt and varied ways," said Deb Lyons, a deacon at the church.
The Horton family grew their donation to $1500, and helped several organizations. Each member of the family chose a charity that helps children. "We were grateful to our church for this project, and for the opportunity it gave us to talk to our children again about the value of giving to others," said Lynn Horton. "Each of our children thought carefully about which organization they would like to give a donation, and felt confident that their contribution would make a difference." Hayley, a younger member of the family agreed: "Even though I won't ever meet these children, I am glad I could help make their lives better."
The church's list of individual purchases shows, among other things, tires bought for a family in need; coats, hats, and gloves for Lowell school children; an English/Arabic translator for an immigrant family; gift boxes for US troops; clothes and a washing machine for a family struggling with a disabled mother, an under-employed father and two learning disabled sons; support for individuals fighting serious illnesses; help for victims of a fire; and Christmas presents for some adults and children who may otherwise have gone without seeing anything beneath their tree.
Organizations receiving donations ranged from food pantries, to humane societies, to environmental protection groups, to health organizations, military support groups, emergency relief services, and many other non-profits -- both local and global.
"The money has literally been spread around the world to help people in need," said Papenfuss. And it hasn't stopped yet. According to the treasurer, The Benevolent Beaders -- a church group that was started with some of the seed money -- continues to generate profit from its jewelry making, which is then sent to local charities.
Becky Wisniewski, one of the members who participated, said: "For me, the way the project grew and as the number of families who were touched increased, I was reminded of a Christmas Eve candlelight service -- how a light from one candle spreads to another until the entire church glows. This project showed that we can spread light in the world."
In addition to the Family Mission Project, the Grant family's generosity was spread in many other ways. Lyons reported that as a result of the bequest, the church purchased some needed capital items, funded an associate pastor position, and honored the memory of the Grant family by planting a garden on the property. "The Grants had an interest in gardening and we wanted to do something that was personal to them," said Lyons.
At the end of the project, a potluck supper was held to celebrate the memory of the Grant family and their far-reaching effect on all the organizations involved.
"I was impressed by the thought and work that many families put into distributing their funds. They held family meetings, met financial challenges from each other, investigated specific charities and figured out how to have the funds have the most impact," said Papenfuss. "The range and scope of what they came up with was absolutely amazing and beyond our wildest dreams for the program."
"During this process, I learned that the whole congregation needs to be involved in making the decisions on where benevolence monies should be spent," he continued.
"Their ideas of what is important go well beyond what an eight person committee can envision."
Dick Papenfuss can be reached at the church office at (978) 256-5931 or firstname.lastname@example.org.