Bequeath more than tangible assets with an ethical will, suggests a Stewardship Kaleidoscope speaker

The Presbyterian Foundation’s Rob Hagan asserts that what we have learned is as important as what we have earned

by Jody Mask for the Presbyterian Foundation | Special to Presbyterian News Service

Rob Hagan

Have you heard of an “ethical will?”

If not, you are not alone. Though the practice has been around for millennia, in Christian circles it is still somewhat obscure.

“Instead of detailing who is to receive Mama’s gold brooch, ethical wills are intended to transmit values that were important to the testator,” according to a review of a book on ethical wills on the website of Santa Clara University. The Legal Information Institute of Cornell Law School says that an ethical will “has no legal significance, but the practice is used to express meaningful thoughts which a person may not get the chance to express later.”

Last month, Rob Hagan, a Ministry Relations Officer for the Presbyterian Foundation, presented a workshop on creating ethical wills at the Stewardship Kaleidoscope Conference in Minneapolis. The Presbyterian Foundation is a sponsor for this annual event.

The name and theme of Hagan’s workshop was “What you have learned is as important as what you have earned.” The quote came from the Susan Turnbull workbook that Hagan shared with participants called “The Wealth of Your Life: A Step-by Step Guide for Creating Your Ethical Will.”

That book calls an ethical will “a non-binding letter or recording created for your loved ones. It is created with the intention of lasting beyond your lifetime for the purpose of passing on your faith, values, wisdom, advice and stories.”

Ethical wills go back to Genesis

We can trace the idea of an ethical will to the scriptures: in Genesis, Jacob instructs his sons; Jesus passes on his wishes for his disciples in the so-called Farewell Discourse of John 14-17. And Paul passed on his wisdom to Timothy so that the gospel would continue to spread with conviction.

Hagan said that the word “remember” appears 267 times in scripture, and “generations” 162 times. God’s story of ethics and wisdom is not meant to be hoarded or forgotten but handed down and treasured. “Considering an ethical will activates hope in people’s lives,” he said.

Hagan shared a couple of examples of ethical wills that came from Turnbull’s book, but that does not mean there is a formula or a template. Testators have much freedom in this regard. But with that freedom comes the need for planning.

He shared the story of one couple who worked on their ethical will for more than a year. He asked to see their progress and they said, “No way!” Whether their reaction was out of privacy or incompletion, it reminds those who consider writing such a document to ask key questions like “What do you think are the values that you represent? Who do you hope knows your values? Do you think they already ‘get it?’”

Broadly, there are five parts to the process:

  1. Identify the audience you wish to address. This is not restricted to family members, but it helps to ask yourself who will appreciate and safeguard the document as needed.
  2. Consider your intentions and opening lines. Is it to express love, gratitude, history, wisdom, and/or vision?
  3. Reflect on what you want to say. What are the intangible things that make my life rich?
  4. Create an outline.
  5. Compose your ethical will. Remembering that it is a process frees you to edit and re-assess as needed.

Together or separate? Now or later?

If you are doing this work as a couple, you also have to decide if this will be a “joint document” or if separate ones make more sense, considering your values and desired recipients. Also, do you wish it to be received and read while you are still alive? Hagan said he does, but his wife does not.

Usually, ethical wills do not exceed 10 pages. And no age is too early to begin this work. He encourages 20-year-olds to do it as much as anyone else.

Part of the discernment process involves whether you want to connect the ethical will to your legal will. After communicating your values, lessons you learned in life, and vision for the future, does that connect to your legacy giving through your will or establishing a trust or foundation?

When making this point, Hagan told the story of one church where a faithful member endowed his pledge decades ago. (The Presbyterian Foundation provides a structure for church members to set up an endowment to fund pledges in perpetuity.) Every July, the church receives a substantial distribution from the endowment. But the church does not know much about what motivated the man to make such a generous gift. So have the vision to state your values and motivation for giving in perpetuity. And have a secondary beneficiary in the event that the church or other institution closes.

In her book “The Soul of Money,” Lynne Twist writes, “Let your soul inform your money and your money express your soul. Access your assets — not only money but also your own character and capabilities, your relationships and other nonmoney resources.” Ethical wills serve as vehicles to share the most important assets you possess for generations to come.

The Rev. Jody Mask is the temporary pastor of Grace Covenant Presbyterian Church in Orlando, Florida. He is an Orlando native who stewards his well-being through distance running, time in nature, and co-creating hijinks with his spouse, Ellen. Send questions or comments about this story to Robyn Davis Sekula, Vice President of Communications and Marketing at the Presbyterian Foundation, at

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