The Gift That Keeps Taking

Volume 44, Issue 3, by Michael J. Crosbie

I’m on the Buildings and Grounds Committee of my church. Recently an email from our committee chair let us know that a parishioner had come forward to donate an irrigation system for our memorial garden. The chair wanted the committee’s feedback on the gift. “Sounds good to me” was the general reaction, so I felt like a wet blanket when I wrote back that I thought accepting this gift would be a mistake.Typically the offer of a gift from a parishioner is a no-brainer, especially during this time of tight budgets and the need to shave operating costs wherever a congregation can. But this one, for me, was a “brainer.” I expressed my concern that the gift seemed to ignore the fact that water resources are becoming more strained around the world. Our parish supports a poor church in Mozambique; how, I asked, could we accept the gift of a new irrigation system that would effectively make clean, drinkable water all the more precious for this very same church, albeit in the larger scheme of things? Shouldn’t our decision about accepting this gift be contingent upon the features of the irrigation system? Is it one that conserves water? Might it draw most of its supply from collected rainwater, so that no potable water would be used for irrigation? What if we considered replacing the water-thirsty garden plants with drought-resistant varieties, effectively eliminating the need for this gift altogether? I even suggested we take the cost of the gift and donate that amount to an existing global fund to help provide potable water in places where it is still a rarity. Our rector quickly emailed back and informed everyone on the committee that this gift was not a monetary one, it was an irrigation system…take it or leave it.

Questions about the nature of gifts uncover the costs that congregations might have to pay for such generosity. Most congregations won’t accept gifts without careful consideration of their esthetic impact, or the cost of upkeep, or a dozen other sensitive issues revolving around parish politics and history. Sustainability, I believe, should be high on the list of considerations about whether a gift should or should not be accepted. Green design, conservation, and earth stewardship are now important factors for many congregations in expressing their faith in community. But the link needs to be made real between what we espouse and how we act, even when we are offered a gift. It’s an especially touchy decision: yes, we would welcome the chance to keep our garden beautiful, but at what cost? Does such a gift take more than it gives? What does the gift say about the congregation’s ethics in terms of social responsibility and the just use of God-given resources?

If your congregation has a sustainability policy in place, does it cover the acceptance of gifts? Such a policy should not be defined by who is serving on the buildings and grounds committee; it should be discussed, adopted by the congregation as a whole, written down, and considered for every gift offered. If sustainability isn’t deemed important in deciding whether or not to accept a gift, it should be. Bring it up to the leadership of your congregation for discussion and consideration. Be a wet blanket.

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