Stewardship Kaleidoscope speaker: Good planned giving program is a ministry

The ELCA Foundation’s Mike Klinefelter talks to people about money and mortality, conversations not many people want to have

by Chuck Toney for the Presbyterian Foundation | Special to Presbyterian News Service

Mike Klinefelter (Photo by Gregg Brekke)

Mike Klinefelter, Regional Gift Planner for the ELCA Foundation, spends much of his time having conversations that most people don’t want to have.

“I primarily talk about your money and your mortality, two things people don’t like to talk about at all,” he told session attendees at the 2023 Stewardship Kaleidoscope conference held last week in Minneapolis. “But I believe it is a sign of spiritual maturity to contemplate one’s mortality, to acknowledge that we are finite beings, and that we leave only our legacy behind.”

Stewardship Kaleidoscope is an annual conference on stewardship and generosity, a partnership between the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. This year’s conference was held in Minneapolis Sept. 25-27. The Presbyterian Foundation is a sponsor of the conference.

Legacy is more than money

Legacy has many components — career, accomplishments, children, grandchildren. That legacy can also be how people support the institutions they care about the most and are doing God’s work in the world today. And while churches are generally effective at annual giving, stewardship, and capital project fundraising, they have not been as successful with planned giving — informing and supporting members who want to remember the church in their estate plans.

“I have found that the folks in the pews just don’t understand how to include the church in their estate plans — or even that they can,” Klinefelter said. “Why is the local church not first in line when we make our estate giving plans?” The answer to that question lies in preparation and education — preparing as an organization to encourage, receive, and manage those gifts, and informing church members on how they can include their church in what is likely the largest charitable gift they will make.

What qualifies as a planned gift?

A planned gift is a contribution that is arranged in the present and allocated at a future date. “We can’t know when a planned gift will come,” Klinefelter said, “but we will know that it is coming at some point.”

Types of planned gifts:

  • Bequests in a will
  • Living trust
  • Donor Advised Funds
  • Real estate
  • Gifts that generate income (Charitable Remainder Trust)
  • Beneficiary designation on financial instruments (bank accounts, IRA, 401k, 403b)
  • Life insurance
  • Commercial annuities

“I have the privilege of sitting with people at their kitchen tables and talking about the options for making a gift to their church,” Klinefelter told attendees. “I ask them, ‘What do you own?’ because you cannot give away what you do not know you have. When we work through their assets, the total is often significantly more than they thought they had. I have heard more than one person say, through tears, ‘We can give away so much more than we thought!’”

Trends in wealth assets that can support ministry and mission

There is a “tremendous transfer of assets” looming in the coming decades — one from the Silent Generation (people born before 1946) and one from the Baby Boomers (born 1946-1964). The Silent Generation is estimated to have $18 trillion — yes, trillion — in assets for distribution after death; the Baby Boomers are estimated to have $78 trillion.

Klinefelter wants churches to be aware of and prepared for the receipt of a portion of those assets. “I don’t say this out of greed,” he assured the audience. “But think of the collective ministry we can do! And what happens if the church does not get in front of those assets? We need money to do ministry — it’s that simple.”

Churches should also be aware of national trends in giving patterns. Giving USA reports that in 2022, Americans donated almost $500 billion; 27% of that went to religious organizations, the leading recipient. That number is 10.5% less than 2021, when adjusted for inflation. In the short term, giving is declining; in the long term, church members have accumulated assets through the grace of God and are considering how to leave a legacy of faith.

Critical components of a planned giving program

  • Pastoral leadership — The pastor must be an advocate for planned giving; should speak about it openly and honestly; and should lead by example, by including the church in estate planning. “Giving is a spiritual exercise and the fundamental role of the pastor is to act as the spiritual guide of the congregation.”
  • Leaders lead by leading — Members of church governing bodies (sessions, councils) should make a planned gift to the church and talk about those gifts in general terms with their fellow congregants.
  • Tell your own story — People give to what inspires them. Why does the church need money from planned gifts? What will be done with the money? “The Jesus I read about is constantly talking about money. So should we.” Being open and honest removes the “veil of ignorance” about planned giving in the church.
  • Money funds ministry — “All ministry requires money,” Klinefelter said. Your church may volunteer at the food bank, but the food bank has to purchase the food that is distributed. Money is essential to “creating the kingdom of God on earth.”

Action steps for churches

  • Create a Gift Acceptance Policy — “What would happen if your church received an undesignated $100,000 bequest? Are you ready?” A gift acceptance policy establishes the guidelines for receiving and using gifts in ministry. It also helps discern which gifts are not appropriate for the church.
  • Craft a specific ministry message — What do you do well? What do you strive to do? Be clear about ministry objectives.
  • Understand the interests and life stages of your people — Normalize planned giving by example, by honest conversation, and by policy. Give people a clear path to making a planned gift.
  • Build donor engagement with your ministry — Tell a compelling story. Do you have a good answer to this question: What are you doing the other six days of the week?
  • Stay the course — Planned giving is by definition a long-term process. “It does not happen overnight.”

“There are some 1.7 million charities in the United States,” Klinefelter said. “Why you? Why should someone give part of their lifetime accumulation of assets to you instead of another organization?” The answer to that question is the foundation of a successful planned giving program.

Chuck Toney is the founder of C. Toney Communications in Athens, Georgia. Chuck is an elder, usher, and lay reader at First Presbyterian Church of Athens. Send comments on this article to Robyn Davis Sekula, Vice President of Communications and Marketing at the Presbyterian Foundation, at

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