21st-Century Legacy Building in Little Rock

When the Very Reverend Dr. Christoph Keller, III, came to Trinity Cathedral as interim dean in 2013, the Little Rock, Arkansas parish was “at a low ebb,” he recalls, “with buildings in poor repair and facing a severe projected deficit.” In that setting, parish leaders had understandably grown anxious, and Trinity’s Finance Committee was considering using a recent bequest from a faithful parishioner to reduce the financial shortfall.

When Keller reminded the group that it isn’t a good practice to use that kind of gift to deal with a deficit, he remembers committee member Beth Hathaway Barnes’s saying “That is right!” The committee agreed unanimously to find other ways to plug the deficit.

Barnes was frustrated with the cathedral’s lack of interest in encouraging planned gifts. “I’m a financial planner,” she says, “and I always ask my clients, ‘Do you have charitable intent? What’s important to you and what provisions do you want to make?’”

Out of that meeting, a partnership developed between Keller and Barnes that has made planned giving a part of the church’s life and program.

ECF and Planned Giving in the context of the church

Barnes knew a lot about financial planning and planned giving, but she didn’t know how it might work in the context of the church. Her search for information led her to the Episcopal Church Foundation’s website where she found a wealth of information—booklets, brochures, webinars, books and other resources.

“I printed out every form, every booklet, everything I could put my hands on and read them all,” she says. Impressed with ECF’s approach, she contacted Jim Murphy, Managing Program Director for Endowment Management, Planned Giving and Donor Solutions, who agreed to help. “He was a huge cheerleader and mentor,” she says.

With ECF’s support, work to establish a planned giving program at Trinity began in earnest, inspired and led by Barnes and Keller. Murphy offered to come to Little Rock, and Arkansas Bishop Larry Benfield, interested in Trinity’s work on the topic, offered to help cover costs.

In August 2014, Trinity hosted a diocesan workshop on planned giving led by Murphy and Erin Weber-Johnson, ECF’s Senior Program Director for Strategic Resources. Murphy stayed on the following day to address the parish and meet with the church’s leadership.

In the year that followed, some basic ideas about planned giving provided touchstones for Trinity’s efforts:

  • Planned giving is future-focused. It’s not about the operating budget. It’s about the church’s future mission and ministry.
  • Annual giving and planned giving are not the same. The church’s responsibilities are different for each of those assets. Planned gifts and the endowments they may create need to be invested and managed appropriately.
  • Planned gifts are not tiered. A gift of any size represents the giver’s faith and commitment to Trinity’s future mission and ministry.
  • Those who have named Trinity in their wills or in lifetime planned gifts have raised the church to the level of family. They should be consistently recognized and thanked.

The 1884 Legacy Society

The opportunity to be recognized and thanked was the impetus for the formation in 2015 of The 1884 Legacy Society, named for the year Trinity was founded. A way to honor those who have expressed their intent to include Trinity in their wills or other planned gifts in their lifetime, the society was a major step in building planned giving into Trinity’s life.

The planning team developed guidelines and a gift acceptance policy and named an advisory board to provide feedback and serve as a sounding board. A simple donor form was created to indicate the vehicle for giving. The form does not ask for the amount. A planned gift of any size is always significant.

The church’s endowment committee committed some funds to help with startup costs. A pewter pin with Trinity’s crest was designed as a thank you gift for those who declare their intent to include Trinity in a planned gift. Backed with a ribbon and worn at church, the pins are a visible sign of the giver’s intent and the church’s gratitude. Additional materials include thank you notes, a brochure and web content.

In one of those confluences of accident and meaning that delights us all, Trinity’s historian came across a paper bag stuffed in the back of a closet around the time work began on materials for the new society. Inside, he found a sermon by the church’s founder, Bishop Henry Niles Pierce—29 pages in beautiful, handwritten script. A quote and image from that sermon, incorporated into the brochure, provide a powerful reminder of the link between the church’s past and its future.

The 1884 Legacy Society was announced in October of 2015, and a reception for founding members was held at Keller’s home on the 18th (a few weeks later, Keller was chosen as Trinity’s next dean). More than 60 parishioners accepted the invitation to declare their intent to remember the cathedral with a planned gift.

Trinity today

Trinity is no longer at low ebb. Vibrant and growing, the congregation is now engaged in strategic visioning through ECF’s Strategic Resources Department. Planned giving has been incorporated into the church’s life and programming and will help support the church’s future mission and ministry.

On November 9, The 1884 Legacy Society will gather again in a wine and cheese reception to honor current members and to share information with parishioners who are considering a planned gift. “Naming a date for another reception is almost like a membership drive,” says Barnes, hopeful that parishioners who haven’t yet included Trinity in their planned giving will come to learn more about it.

“Really, this church was started as a legacy,” says Keller. Trinity would not exist without Bishop Pierce’s vision for a great church in central Arkansas, one that would not charge pew taxes, and his determined fundraising in northern Episcopal congregations not long after the Civil War. “It was that kind of foresight that built the cathedral,” says Keller, “and every generation can do that for the generations that come after it.”

Susan Elliott is a writer and editor, working with the Episcopal Church Foundation, Forward Movement, RenewalWorks, and parishes and other organizations in the Episcopal Church. She is the writer of ECF’s 2015 Vestry Resource Guide, and collaborates with Jay Sidebotham on “Slow Down. Quiet. It’s Advent,” published annually by Forward Movement.