Derek McAleer is the pastor of St. Marys United Methodist Church in St. Marys, Georgia. He is a graduate of Candler School of Theology, Atlanta, Georgia, and holds a D.Min. from McCormick Theological Seminary, Chicago, Illinois. Last year, St. Marys received the news of a multimillion dollar bequest left by a member of the congregation.

Tell us the story of how your church came to receive a generous bequest.

Mr. Warren Bailey had been a member here basically all his life. He was an 87 year-old bachelor who had owned a local telephone company. When he died last year his will named eight beneficiaries for individual amounts and then he named us, his church, as the recipient of the remainder of his estate. It turned out that our share of the estate is going to be around $60 million.

Do you remember your initial reaction was when you heard this news?

I was terrified! The first thing I worried about is what this was going to do to our church. My sense of the Bible's teaching on money is it would be good if you could say it was neutral, but it hasn't even reached neutral. Most of the scriptures in the Bible about money are warnings or negative in nature. So I see money as a great trap. I was much more worried about how this bequest was going to hurt us. Most of the steps we have taken have been motivated at least as much by a desire to protect ourselves as to provide for others. I can't say that we have been so pure of heart. We've been scared to death in trying to preserve our own fold as well as to care for other people. I've talked with probably 25 churches that have received great bequests to learn from them. Every church has told me that somehow it had hurt them. Do you think that this gift has hurt your church? What effect has it had?

I think it's too early to tell how it's changed us. Ten years from now we'll know whether we've done a good job of handling it. We have no perspective now. The biggest hurt that it's had so far is in my time. It has taken my time and energy away from things. We did hire an associate because we needed someone to provide pastoral care. I'm sure there are things that we haven't foreseen yet, that we just don't have enough experience to know about. I'm sure there are things we are going to have to change.

We have made a concerted effort that during the hour of worship we not spend our energy or attention on the bequest. The last Sunday in July 2000, when we made the announcement of the gift, I preached on it, and again in September for our stewardship sermon -- there's no way you can be raising pledges in the church that just inherited $60M and not talk about it. Those are the only two Sundays we have talked about it in worship. There are other times the church can do that. I really do think that has helped us. I think the gift has actually hurt my evangelism efforts in the community. People don't want to be perceived as joining the church just because it has money. Which speaks well of them.

What process has the church taken to handle the gift?

We've put $40.7 million into a separately incorporated foundation and put some firewalls up between it and the church. Our intention was to isolate that money from the normal, day-to-day affairs of the congregation. If at every meeting we have to think about how our investments are doing, we're in a heap of trouble. So, we put that money aside. We allocated $16 million to our missions committee to give away. They received a portion of that last January. In February and March they gave away $7 million, which was great fun! I spent one day calling people, after the board approved the plan, to tell them how much money they were getting. How often do you get to spend a day giving away $7 million? It was wonderful.

I'm sure you have transformed some ministries that have received your gifts.

One thing that we did was to work with the organizations that we had already been working with for years and years where relationships had already developed. In some instances we designated our money for what we see as less popular areas like the administrative and office costs which are hard to raise money for, but are essential.

Have you developed some other guidelines or particular goals for giving?

The foundation is working on that now. They haven't given away any money and don't expect to until the end of the year. The reason is that the foundation looks at being here for the long term. We've been working on our mission statement and our grant procedures and all that for six months now, and we're several months away from giving away any money. It's a lot harder than I had thought. I had no idea how hard it would be to give away significant amounts of money. I have learned a lot more about the burden of wealth than I ever knew before. There are just a whole lot more details to worry about.

What other effects have you seen as a result of this experience?

One of the things that has happened, of necessity, is that most of the committees working with the money have become a bit more cynical about the requests they get. We have tons of people who want us to loan them money, who are in trouble but don't want to change the things in their lives that got them into trouble. They just want to be bailed out and then go on their way. It's hard to hear these stories and not just throw up your hands. Every broker in the country called us. There is a proverb that wealthy people always have friends. We have laughed about it, but we made a poster and put it on the wall just to remind us why people are treating us so good. We have become real sticklers about that. We won't even let anybody buy us lunch anymore. We're glad to go out to lunch with you, but we do it Dutch. We've been very careful. You can begin to think somehow you're more important than you are. We're not any more important that we were a year or two years ago. We may have greater responsibility than we did, but we're not any more important.

What was the church like before the bequest?

We were fortunate enough to be a growing congregation and doing well financially even before this news came. In fact, in the 1999 end-of-year report, when our treasurer told us how much money was in our checkbook, we said, "We're a church, we're not supposed to have that kind surplus." We spent a month talking about it, and ended up giving away $22,000. So we were doing well financially but we also said at the time that the Bible teaches, "if you are faithful over a little, I'll make you ruler over much." We thought that the $22,000 that we were giving away was the "much." We did not have a clue what was going to happen six months later. One of the great things that happened, when we heard about the big money, was that our leadership was able to say we had already made the decision about what to do with extra money; now what we're talking about is the amount.

Do you think this has caused members of the congregation to consider their own attitudes and values about money?

An interesting thing is that our giving has gone up. Our pledges increased about $70,000 after the report of the gift came. Actual giving has gone up as well.

So people must be examining their own priorities.

I say quite freely to people that I don't have a clue what's going on. I don't pretend to understand why people are giving the kind of money they are giving. If God's not in on it, who is? But I'm enjoying it. Wish I understood it, but I don't. The Bible does say that where your treasure is that's where your heart is going to be. When our church decided to put its treasure in helping others in mission work, maybe our hearts are going to follow that. One of the truths that we can see in our congregation is that if other people had paid all of our bills, it would have weakened us. One of our reasons for giving the money away was that if we kept any, if we lived off this money and we didn't give ourselves, it would hurt us. Our goal is to still be a Christian congregation when the money is gone. We could so easily become a club. The question is, how can we maintain what it means to be Christian? That's a more difficult task than I ever thought. When you don't have a lot, it's easy to think, "Ah, those rich folks, they ought to do this and that." I'm much more sympathetic now.

Despite the Bible's rather negative views about wealth?

I think that wealth itself is very dangerous. No question about that. But I don't think everyone who has it succumbs to the danger. There are people who realize that if you just give to everyone who comes along asking, that doesn't mean that you've done any good and you may have done some harm. You've got to have money. But money itself is not enough. It takes money plus opportunities, thinking, planning. We're trying to figure out what we can do to create some long term social change in the housing projects here in St. Mary's. We're going to have to offer job training. We're going to have to offer basic life skills training. We're going to have to offer child care. If we just pay all the electric bills every month, we haven't made any substantial change in people's lives. If we're going to make substantial change in their lives, then they're going to have to get some education and some motivation to get that education. There has to be tutoring to get that education. Someone has got to take care of the kids while they get that education.

It's a complex set of problems.

It's not popular to hear about complex problems. It's much more popular to blame the poor people for being poor. There is a need for personal responsibility. But that doesn't sum the thing up. We know some mothers are conning us for help. If I'm a mother and I don't have enough to feed my kids, and I think it takes conning to feed my kids, then I'm going to learn to con. That's just learning how to survive in the system.

How do you feel about government funding for faith-based initiatives?

I think it's a falsehood for God's people to say we've got to have government money for what needs to be done. My experience is that most churches have more than enough money to pay for what people want to do. The question is what they want to do. If the roof falls in, most of our churches are going to be able to figure out a way to get that roof fixed. Most of us, in the middle class, semi-rural churches that I'm serving, do what we want to do. We buy what we want to buy. We get what we want to get. And if we want to make significant social change, the money is there. But we can't do that and have two cars, and a boat, a four-wheeler, and all those toys. The question is: how are we going to order our lives?

You've done a lot of thinking about this, even before the gift.

I don't think that our basic attitude has changed. We formed our basic attitude about money years ago, not just me but the whole church. This is not a wealthy church, and has not always had a lot of money but is the most generous congregation I have ever served. Very gracious in a number of ways. They are gracious people and want to do for others and see the need to be active in our community and around the world. I don't think the bequest formed those opinions. It made us dig a little deeper into our values because there is no question that we are tempted far beyond what we were tempted before. When you get this kind of money, you can't help but walk around and think of all the things we could do to our building and all the things we could do with more property. The truth of the matter is if we need more buildings, then we can build more buildings. Our congregation was able to do that before the bequest came, and it will do it now.


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