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Thy will be done

23 October 2015

Paul Wilkinson had an open conversation about legacy-giving in the local church

Geoff Freeman

Restoration work: much-needed repairs at Ormesby St Margaret, funded by a legacy

Restoration work: much-needed repairs at Ormesby St Margaret, funded by a legacy

TALKING about money in church might seem bad taste to some; perhaps thoughts of Christ driving money changers from the Temple courtyard drift into the mind. But the inescapable fact is that the Church needs hard cash to do its work — these days more than ever. So, as part of its stewardship programme, it has started a gentle and yet organised campaign to persuade more of us to think about our church when we write a will.

The Christian website describes legacies as a “vastly under-exploited source of income”, even though they provide charities with about £2 billion a year, which could rise to more than £5 billion by 2040 as the “baby-boomer” generation expires. It is estimated that 35 per cent of people consider leaving something to charity; but only seven per cent actually do so. Christian Legacy, a consortium of six religious charities that promotes bequests, says that its research shows that the figure rises to 45 per cent in Christians.

It also says, however, that most churches do little, if anything, to promote legacy giving in the other 55 per cent; so it runs an annual campaign, Christian Legacy Week (19-25 October), to urge more congregations to engage with the issue. Church House has also launched the website to offer guidance — a “toolkit” — to parishes and parishioners on how to go about leaving their church a legacy.

In fact, the Church has been dealing with this for centuries. St Paul, in his first epistle to Timothy, wrote: “But if any provide not for his own, and specially for those of his own house, he hath denied the faith and is worse than an infidel.” And, almost 500 years ago, the Order for the Visitation of the Sick in the Book of Common Prayer advised: “And if he have not before disposed of his goods, let him then be admonished to make his Will, and to declare his debts, what he oweth, and what is owing unto him; for the better discharging of his conscience, and the quietness of his Executors. But men should often be put in remembrance to take order for the settling of their temporal estates, whilst they are in health.”

Figures from the Church of England show that, over the past five years, legacy income has increased slightly year on year, but the actual number of bequests has dropped. In 2013, however, there was a significant increase in both the number and size of legacies: parishes received 4240 bequests, totalling £49.6 million.

“There is a need to raise awareness and feel confident talking about it, because it is an area of giving that previously we have shied away from,” the Church of England’s National Legacy and Funding Officer, Eleanor Gill, says. “People are nervous and concerned because there has not been the support in place to talk about it.

“Writing a will is a simple act of good stewardship. We talk about how the worst legacy you can leave your loved ones is to not make a will. They are life-affirming. A legacy is a way of giving that costs nothing; people are able to leave a gift as their expression of thanks, as their lasting gift to the mission of their church — a living wish, only activated by death. Because of that, the Church feels it is appropriate to talk about it not only as Christians, especially as we believe in life after death, but also as a religious fund-raising charity.”

She described her activities as “very grass-roots”, and church by church. “It is very gentle, very drip-drip. We are not going out shaking buckets, or with a clipboard, asking for people’s names. It’s not approaching individuals, shouting: ‘You over there, would you leave a gift in your will?’ It’s about saying: ‘Here’s some information if you want to find out about it.’ We will never be able to force anybody to leave a legacy. It’s their decision; it’s for them to find out more, then go away, speak to family, reflect, pray, and discover if it’s right for them.”

She sees her part as providing a greater understanding rather than changing attitudes. “There is still a big mist around the Church of England on how the churches are funded, and what they do. I am forever banging the drum about what they do, and how much financial support they need, and what incredible lengths they go to, raising funds and doing the work they do. It’s all about communication, and raising awareness, and focusing on outcomes rather than costs. We are very good in church at talking about costs, when actually we should talk about what we are able to do as a result of that cost.”

She encourages every PCC to institute a formal legacies policy which is reviewed every year, to reassure potential donors how a bequest, however large or small, would be used to further the mission and ministry of the church, and how they would work with the executors to ensure that it was used as the donor might wish.

The policy also asks PCCs to talk openly about the subject as a way of encouraging potential donors. “If they have received a gift recently, or in the past five or ten years — and most churches have — talk about how it has made a difference. Hearing about that is a very powerful way to lead others to think making a gift might make a difference.

“How the subject is broached depends on individual parishes and churches; they know what’s best in their setting. It could be that a church has recently run a stewardship campaign, and so they focus on gifts and wills as another area for encouraging generous stewardship. It could be they hold a gift day, or a thanksgiving day to give thanks for any gifts received in the past. We also have very simple generic leaflets and bookmarks, which can be available at the back of church, or in pew Bibles, and [each church] can customise the information for their own situation.”

 

MONEY is always needed, not just to maintain buildings that are often vast and ancient, but also to support all sorts of outreach projects. “Gifts can often be a catalyst to start a project, to give a church the courage and confidence to kick-start a project they have been dreaming about for a long time,” Mrs Gill says. “It can be more than just paying the bills, or fixing a hole. They can ask: ‘What can we do in our ministry?’ which is actually why we are here in the first place.”

St Michael and All Angels, Thorn Hill, in West Yorkshire, used a £300 bequest less conventionally: to help engage a group of children with the sacrament, they commissioned a child-sized set of chasubles and stoles, which the children were able to dress up in. “It provided a very real, tangible experience, and took those children a little bit further in terms of ministry.”

But getting people, particularly the clergy, to talk openly about leaving money to the church can sometimes be difficult. “The individual talking about it must be comfortable,” Mrs Gill says. “The most passionate person to talk to might not be the clergy or the PCC treasurer. It might be the parish giving officer, or just a member of the church who has personal experience and wants to share it.”

Norwich diocese’s first Funding Support Officer, Geoff Freeman, recalled how the head of a team ministry in a generally supportive parish refused point-blank to speak at a public meeting on legacies. “He just said: ‘We are not prepared to sing for our supper.’ But in other churches the vicar jumps up in the pulpit and says [he or she] would be failing in their duty as a parish priest not to talk about money.

“One priest told me that, by talking about money, we are putting a price on religion. I replied: ‘We are not, because we are not compelling anybody.’ We present people with the financial facts of the church, which is something that has never been done before. People don't understand about the costs of running the church, because they have never been told.”

In the 20 months since his appointment, Mr Freeman has run more than 100 gifts-and-wills workshops. “Only one was difficult,” he said. “We had very good attendances. Several solicitors turned up — probably members of congregations — and they said it was really good, really interesting.

“We look upon it as encouraging people to make a life-affirming gift. They have worked really hard for their church as a treasurer, or secretary, or coffee-makers, and by leaving a legacy, no matter how big or small, their work can continue.”

Donors are encouraged to leave money for general funds rather than pet causes. In one instance, a bequest from a couple to their church, Ormesby St Margaret, near Great Yarmouth, did not specify a particular project. “They said: ‘We trust the PCC,’ and left it for the church’s general use. It enabled us to put in a really good PA system, and a very sympathetic lighting system.” Elsewhere in the diocese, a legacy of a few hundred pounds allowed a village church to start a luncheon club for elderly and isolated people, which is now self-supporting.

“It is a very sensitive subject,” Mr Freeman admits. “When I give talks on the subject, I always tell the vicar: ‘You don’t stand there with a legacy pack as they leave church.’ Rather, we make sure that, in every parish church, there are packs available with information and advice which they can take away quietly, and, if they want help, then they can phone up and speak to me. I tell them that the next step is to talk to a solicitor — but do make sure everybody in the family is happy with what you are doing.

“I also tell all the PCCs to put their legacy policy in their parish magazines; it’s just a way of reminding people the church wouldn’t mind having some money. We are disciples, and we are called by God to support the church financially.

“Legacies are long-term. In ten years’ time, there could be a generation who made a decision now to pass on some money, and we will start to see a serious uplift in income. The important thing today is that we are talking about it: money is no longer seen as a taboo.”

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