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The Legacy Church Model
By: Justin Horey

"If you died today, do you know where you would go?"

Ministers and evangelists have asked that question at revivals and crusades for decades, if not centuries, but has anyone ever asked that question of your church? Have you, as a church leader, ever wondered what will happen to your church when it "dies?"

According to Stephen Gray and Franklin Dumond, co-authors of Legacy Churches (ChurchSmart Resources, 2009), roughly 1 percent of all churches in America close their doors every year. While that means there is a 99 percent chance your church will not be one of the 3,000 or more American churches to close in the next 12 months, the reality is that, someday, your church will die.

Of course, though Scripture calls the church the body of Christ, your congregation is not a person with an eternal soul. In a legal sense, your church is a not-for-profit corporation with assets to dispose of upon dissolution. Millions of dollars' worth of assets, in many cases.

Has it even occurred to your congregation's leadership that your church will die?

Gray and Dumond go as far as to say that "it's really not a matter of 'if,' but 'when'" your church will close." And, when it does, someone or something will receive the assets the church has accumulated over its years of ministry.

Consider the cost of your church building alone. If your church were to build a facility for $1 million (an unusually inexpensive price in many American markets), the interest payments on a 30-year loan could easily bring your total cost to $2 million or more.

Figure in real estate appreciation and inflation, and, in 40 or 50 years, the value of a $1 million church building becomes almost unimaginable.

That same "compounding value" is true of older churches, as well; in many cases, longstanding congregations have no idea of the true value of their property alone.

What is a faithful but dwindling church to do with those resources? How would the parishioners who financially supported the work of the congregation in the past want those resources to be used today? What were they giving for?

Failing to Plan – Americans and Their Churches
According to a 2005 survey by FindLaw.com, the majority of Americans – 55 percent – don't have an estate plan like a will or a living trust to specify the handling of their assets after they die.

David Pace, president of Kairos Legacy Partners, says that, among churches, that number is quite probably much higher than 55 percent.

He says, "Most of the churches I encounter in my work have no idea what to do when it's time to close their doors."

So, what is an appropriate "estate plan" for a dying church?

Proverbs 13:22 says, "A good man leaves an inheritance to his children's children, but the sinner's wealth is laid up for the righteous." Is there any reason to believe that these words wouldn't apply to churches? ("A good church leaves an inheritance to its children's children...") Indeed, there are multiple "inheritance" metaphors throughout the New Testament, which indicates that this is an important concept to God.

Charitable Planned Giving – A Model for Churches?
In addition to leaving an inheritance for their children (and their children's children), a growing number of Americans are choosing to leave "estate gifts" to their favorite charitable causes, including churches and non-profit ministries.

Rebecca Locke, senior director of gift planning for the American Red Cross, says, "The Red Cross has millions of generous supporters who give as volunteers, financial donors, blood donors, staff, and retirees. Many of those donors want to leave Red Cross in their estate plans."

Today, the American Red Cross receives 10 to 15 percent of its annual gifts in the form of estate or planned gifts, yet it has never encountered an organization that has planned to leave a gift to the Red Cross in the event of its own corporate dissolution.

While most church bylaws allow for the dissolution of assets, those documents are rarely reviewed by church leaders, seldom updated, and easily changed.

Jim Ohnemus, vice president of loan operations for Church Development Fund, says, "We regularly see church bylaws that name now-defunct ministries in their bylaws. Not that it matters, since, in many cases, a simple vote by the remaining members of a dying church can change those bylaws."

New Church Planting – Unused Facilities and Unmet Needs
Clearly, there are many charitable organizations and ministries worthy of receiving assets from a dying church – a "legacy gift," as Pace calls it. But, Gray and Dumond suggest that the most logical use of a dying church's assets is to fund the launch of a new church.

Pace says, "Our challenge is to create a movement of Legacy Churches that will generate the resources necessary to fund strong, healthy new churches and effective mission endeavors."

Some congregations, like Central Christian Church in Tampa, Florida, have chosen to give their building and their property directly to a new church. Many others have allowed their facilities to be liquidated in order to provide cash gifts to new churches.

Author Peter Wagner famously called new church planting "the single most effective evangelistic methodology under heaven," but it is also one of the most expensive forms of ministry in America – with new churches in major metropolitan areas often incurring start-up costs of $250,000 or more.

But the 3,000 or more churches that will close this year in the United States alone could easily represent more than $3 billion in assets.

Imagine if every church that closed this year bequeathed its assets to a new church, essentially stopping the decline in the number of American churches. Now imagine that every church that closed over the last 2,000 years had done the same – it would be as though every church that ever existed was still actively ministering!

In his work, David Pace assists with the liquidation and donation of assets from "legacy churches" on a regular basis – whether those funds are given directly to a new church, a church-planting organization, or other Christian ministry.

In the foreword to the Legacy Churches Workbook (ChurchSmart Resources, 2011), he writes, "No one wants to see their church close its doors and die. But sometimes that local congregation has completed its life cycle and Christ's Kingdom work will be best advanced by the treasure of Legacy that church can leave behind."

Rick Rusaw and Eric Swanson, spurred discussion among Christian leaders in 2004 when their book, The Externally Focused Church, asked, "If your church vanished, would your community weep? Would anyone notice?"

By adopting the legacy church model, someday your church might not disappear, but recycle itself. Then future generations could paraphrase General Douglas MacArthur, saying, "Old churches never die…they're reborn as new churches."

Justin Horey is vice president of marketing at Church Development Fund, www.cdfonline.org.

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