Learning to ask for gifts helps support ministries
By Woody Woodrick
RIDGELAND – Jerry Mitchell recalls clearly an event that he says changed his life and would later impact United Methodist churches in Mississippi.
“I had been (pastor) at Gautier (First United Methodist Church) and been appointed to Hazlehurst,” Mitchell said. “We had a budget deficit, and I just didn’t feel right leaving that for the next preacher.”
Mitchell said he reluctantly approached a church member who was a successful businessman. He told him about the deficit. Although he didn’t feel comfortable doing it, Mitchell asked the man, who attended church occasionally, if he would make a contribution to balance the church budget.
The man wrote a check on the spot.
“I learned that Jesus said, ‘Ask and you will receive,’” Mitchell said. “We often think about asking the Father in heaven for spiritual things. I think the Father in heaven wanted me to ask (the businessman). God used him to turn my life around.”
The businessman, Mitchell said, became not only more active in the church but continues as a leader.
Mitchell took that lesson and used it to turn the United Methodist Foundation of Mississippi, Inc., into a vital part of the conference’s ministry. Mitchell plans to retire from the foundation in June after 23 years at the helm.
“I took this ministry with one goal, and it has remained my golden vision as I walk out the door: To build a strong financial base under the ministry of the local church,” Mitchell said.
The foundation does that, says Martha Scarborough, who has been named Mitchell’s successor.
“I have to admit that before coming to work with the Foundation, I was ignorant of all that was available,” she said. “We have access to many resources and tools that help people give more by giving wisely. This is especially important for our conference ministries since they are so dependent on donations. To be able to show people how to maximize their gifts is a very important ministry.
“The growth of permanent funds has been due to the efforts of Jerry Mitchell and Willard Leggett over the last 40 years, through their work with many faithful donors in Mississippi and the desire of those donors to use their resources to support their local church and ministries they are interested in sustaining,” Scarborough said.
The foundation was founded in 1967. Mitchell became executive director in 1984. At that time, the foundation had assets of $4.7 million. As of February, its assets stood at $78 million and will likely exceed $80 million by the end of the year. The greatest growth came from 1995 to 2003 when assets grew from $23 million to $55.6 million.
Mitchell said it took from 1967 to 1992 to reach the $10 million mark. Since then growth has been much more rapid. “Reaching $10 million is sort of a benchmark,” he said. “That shows people you know what you’re doing and are a strong organization.”
After hitting the $10 million mark, it took just three years to reach $20 million, another three to hit $30 million and then another three to pass $40 million. In May 2003, the foundation passed the $50 million mark.
The funds deposited with the foundation support a variety of ministries in a variety of ways. Some churches deposit funds with the foundation for long-term projects. Many of the assets are in endowments established by donors or their wills to support a specific ministry. Those range from community centers to Wesley Foundations to mission groups to the Mississippi United Methodist Advocate. The gifts range in size from a few thousand dollars to millions.
Mitchell said gaining the assets often goes back to that lesson he learned in Gautier – ask.
“There is enormous wealth in this state being passed from one generation to the next. There are more groups, such as universities, knocking on doors saying ‘give.’ The church is silent.
“Preachers are reluctant to ask people to give,” Mitchell said. “People knock on my door (at home) asking for all kinds of funds. In the church it’s a hush-hush matter. ‘I’m not going to ask people to give.’ Jesus did.”
Mitchell points out, it takes money to do ministry.
“I’ve committed my life to Christ and his kingdom,” he said. “If I’ve done that, I’m going to support it financially, and I don’t mind asking somebody else to do the same.”
Mitchell said those who have wealth and hoard it become cynical and bitter. They look for faults and reasons to justify not giving.
“Giving changes your life. Givers are not complainers, gripers or fault-finders. They are supporters and people of vision,” he said.
Mitchell tries to help potential donors develop a vision for their gifts, what the gift can do and how to make it happen. He said it takes three things to get a donor to make a contribution:
• Knowledge of the ministry
• Interest in the ministry
• Ability to make a gift whether large or small.
“First you have to promote what you’re doing and that creates interest,” he said.
Another reason the foundation has grown, Mitchell said, is because it has a strong board of directors. He believes a strong board makes the difference between a successful ministry and a weak ministry, and a strong board takes many tasks off the shoulders of an executive director so that person can focus on the day-to-day operation of the ministry. Each ministry’s board should include successful people because they don’t like failure and know how to succeed, he said.
New home, new future
When Mitchell became executive director of the foundation, it was a part-time job. His office in the conference headquarters building was a desk in the corner of a conference room. When the room was in use, Mitchell had to work elsewhere. As the foundation grew, its office requirements and locations changed but were still small.
Today, Mitchell’s office is in a one-story building on one of the most desirable streets in Mississippi – Highland Colony Parkway. The building features several offices, a kitchen and a high-tech meeting room that can be divided into two sections.
The building opened in April 2006 and since has become a popular place for meetings ranging from the conference Cabinet to community groups. It has hosted a meeting of youth and their parents preparing for a trip to Africa, a chamber of commerce group and a gathering of top executives of AmSouth Bank.
Mitchell believes making the building available to these groups is important. “It’s a good reflection on the denomination to be able to offer and provide a meeting place like this,” he said.
With a strong financial base and state-of-the-art building, the foundation is looking to the future. The board has established a visioning committee to determine where it might go in aiding ministry in the Mississippi Conference.
However, the foundation has already begun programs to reach out to more people and help them learn how to be better stewards of their own funds in addition to teaching stewardship to churches.
One of those programs is the Good Sense Workshop where the foundation teaches personal finance.
Mitchell points to a passage in the Texas Methodist Foundation newsletter that states that more and more people are going into debt at a young age. It states that fewer than 5 percent of United Methodists include tithing in their stewardship plans. The average United Methodist is 60 years old, and it takes four to six new members to make up the giving of just one older member, according to the newsletter.
“Young couples are in debt and going deeper,” Mitchell said. “You can put on all the campaigns you want, but they’ve already committed themselves to pay more than they make. How can they do more?”
Mitchell said he believes the local church is missing a great opportunity for ministry by not helping young adults with their finances. “If the local church can’t help members get a handle on their finances, they’ve missed a great opportunity to minister to that family,” he said.
From a one-man operation in the corner of a conference room, the foundation has grown to include four full-time employees. Mitchell’s retirement creates two vacancies because Frankie Mitchell, his wife, is also retiring as secretary and receptionist.
Scarborough has served as associate director since April 2006. Prior to that, she served as director of development for five years. She spent 11 years as treasurer of the Mississippi Conference and eight years as treasurer of the old North Mississippi Conference.
Mitchell said Scarborough brings many assets to the director’s post.
“She loves the church and loves people,” Mitchell said. “She knows the preachers and knows the churches. That’s fundamental. She knows the leadership of the conference.”
The Rev. LaRue Owen has joined the foundation as director of development. Owen had been on staff at Madison St. Matthew’s UMC.
“We have a strong board of directors,” Scarborough said. “With LaRue Owen and (treasurer) Billie Spraberry already on staff, our first task will be to build a strong team to work with the board to put legs to the goals they have identified.
“We have an excellent opportunity to be involved in the amazing ministries that are happening in Mississippi. I look forward to working with our churches, our boards and agencies, and the conference as we support Christ’s work in Mississippi through the Foundation.
Cheryl Webb will join the foundation in July as receptionist. Webb currently works as administrative assistant to the conference benefits officer at the conference headquarters.
Over the years, building credibility for the foundation has been hard work, Mitchell said. Not all conference leaders seemed to consider the foundation’s role important. He said Bishop Hope Morgan Ward is the first episcopal leader of the Mississippi Conference to attend a foundation business meeting, despite that position having a seat on the board.
“We’ve come a long way,” Mitchell said. “We’ve been accepted by the conference, and we can stand tall and say we made a contribution.”