Easter 2024

18 February 2019
I bought my car with “drug money.” Yes, I was working in an Episcopal Church at the time.

I've about had it about up to here with all the anti-wealth rhetoric leading up to the annual conference of the Consortium of Endowed Episcopal Parishes (CEEP) meeting in Boston this week. I am not attending this year, but I have attended a conference in the past, and I've worked for three endowed parishes in the Episcopal Church in the past twelve years.

I'm not sure what it is exactly that people assume happens at these CEEP conferences, but from some of the discussion on social media, you might assume that attendees sit around wearing cassocks and smoke cigars lit from flaming dollar bills.

Spoiler alert: this is not what goes on.

The list of CEEP member parishes (which is public) includes nineteen Episcopal cathedrals, and churches from every state except Alabama, Hawaii, Idaho, Iowa, Maine, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Dakota, South Dakota, Utah, and Vermont.

Some of what I read online is anti-endowment. This just doesn't make any sense. Every parish asks members to give. Why is it so problematic if members give a lot? What if the church, from a gift, or a series of large gifts, is able to begin an endowment? Do we really not want financial security for our churches?

Parishioners give large gifts to their parishes because they love God, and they love the places in which they have worshipped God. Eli Lilly famously endowed three churches in Indianapolis, Indiana along Meridian Street, the street that bisects not only the city but lies at the north-south axis of the whole state: Christ Church (now a cathedral), Trinity, and St. Paul's; together, they are the "Meridian Street Parishes".

My first full-time job was as the Assistant Organist and Choirmaster of Christ Church Cathedral, Indianapolis. I was elated. I had "made it" as a professional church musician, which was my goal from about age 12.

At the same time, I also realized that my thirteen-year-old Ford Crown Victoria wasn't the best choice of car for the extreme commute that I faced from Bloomington, Indiana for the foreseeable future (especially in the winter months). So, I decided it was finally time to buy a new car, and I bought a gray Honda Civic (not a Lexus, mind you). I still drive it. It turned 180,000 miles this weekend.

Given that a full-time assistant organist position was a rarity in the church (and still is) I think it's safe to say that one of the reasons the position existed was because of Christ Church's endowment. Since this endowment was begun by the pharmaceutical industrialist Eli Lilly, I enjoyed telling people that I had bought my new car with "drug money."

That's not all. I also played an organ that was purchased with "drug money." Ruth Lilly, who gave a $100 million gift to Poetry magazine in 2002, also gifted Christ Church with an organ in 1991: the gallery organ built by Taylor and Boody in 1992.

It is said that the bishop at the time, the Rt. Rev. Ted Jones, suggested that the gift would be better deployed by gifting several smaller churches in the Diocese of Indianapolis their own pipe organ rather than adding an additional organ to the Cathedral (Christ Church already had a sizeable organ by Hellmuth Wolff in the chancel).

And while there is nothing wrong with this idea, per se, it doesn't have quite the same grand vision that Ruth Lilly must have had. The presence of this additional organ greatly enriches the music and liturgy of worship in this cathedral for the whole Diocese. Furthermore, the Cathedral sits in the very center of busy downtown Indianapolis and is uniquely suited to offer music to the whole region, not just on Sundays but during the week as well. Five weekdays a month, I played the organs (both of them at every service, mind you) at Evensong. These services were also broadcast on the radio. For many years, the Cathedral was able to maintain a weekly organ recital series, in part due to the high quality of both of those instruments, particularly the Taylor and Boody.

For me, personally, I will say that the organ was a delight, and I spent every spare moment I could on this organ. I sincerely believe this organ made me a better organist early in my career, and everyone – Episcopalian or otherwise – who has heard me since is a beneficiary. I probably don't say it enough, so let me say it again now: thank you, Ruth Lilly.

Isn't it the nature of gifts that giving begets more giving?

Everything that is given to our churches – pledges, endowments, stained glass windows, organs, vestments, 30 copies of an anthem, a new clergy position, a bronze bust of someone who appears in Lesser Feasts and Fasts – all of it has the possibility to form congregations and communities as disciples of Jesus Christ.

I hope that we are not too quick to criticize the givers of these gifts, but rather we respond with immense gratefulness and go and do likewise.

to give and give, and give again,
what God hath given thee;
to spend thyself nor count the cost;
to serve right gloriously
the God who gave all worlds that are,
and all that are to be.

–Geoffrey Anketel Studdert-Kennedy (Hymnal 1982: Hymn 9)

We should be grateful for CEEP. We don't need fewer CEEP conferences or attendees. We need more.

Why? Because I think we all agree that it's important to use endowments wisely. To whom much is given, much is expected. I can't remember who said that – it was either Jesus or Gandolf the Grey.

Do these parishes mess this up sometimes? Yes, for all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.

We should be grateful for endowed Episcopal parishes. We don't need fewer endowed Episcopal parishes. We need more.

Every church asks its members to give. We should be grateful when members actually do and when some of those members have the means to give more than the church can wisely spend in a given fiscal year.

And, frankly, we don't just need more endowed Episcopal parishes, we need more dioceses that are endowed. Nobody remembers the diocese when it comes time for an endowment, and that's a shame because a well-endowed diocese would have an opportunity to more creatively staff itself for the work of the kingdom beyond the more "required" diocesan work. (Actually, I could be totally off-base on this, but it's a thought that I've had more than once.)

I've worked in rich churches, and I've worked in poor churches. In my experience, endowed churches are still just churches. The copier still breaks down, the staff still celebrates birthdays, the undercroft still floods, the Gospel is still preached, the Eucharist is still celebrated, God is still praised.

What makes endowed churches different is that they can and should do more. They should be the best versions of themselves that they can.

Endowed parishes should be encouraged to think and act creatively, and many do. These innovative staff positions, creative projects, and new missions should be more readily shared with the wider church. Many of these projects fail. I know. I've seen them. These results should be shared too.

Finally, the whole Consortium should be willing to act boldly and creatively for the sake of the Gospel. The UCC and the Methodists have attractive, memorable national advertising campaigns. Why doesn't the Episcopal Church?

If Bishop Curry would agree to do a Super Bowl commercial, the members of CEEP could probably pick up the tab.

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