By Rev. Dr. Amy Butler
In 2019 I started a donor-advised fund called Invested Faith. What follows is the story of how Invested Faith was born, and why a pastor like me, who barely passed my one required college math course, would ever try something as crazy as starting an investment fund.
Any faithful church member or pastoral leader paying attention these days has some level of concern about the decline of the institution of the church. I am among that group, and I’ve been thinking about this intensely since I first became a pastor in 2003 at the historic Calvary Baptist Church in Washington, DC.
Immediately before I was hired at Calvary, the church began a development project with the intention of leveraging property to build a new facility, believing this would be just what they needed to get things back to the way they’d been in the church’s heyday. Calvary was not alone in this thinking; many churches were beginning to do the same and that trend has increased dramatically.
Recreating the 1950s, however, is impossible. And change is really hard, as more and more churches are learning, often in very painful ways.
Ultimately, it wasn’t the new building that shifted the life of the congregation at Calvary, it was the people who were willing to embrace change and, along with it, hope. But along the way the congregation experienced intense conflict, and I saw up close the lengths to which development companies will go to take advantage of communities of faith.
After eleven years and as Calvary began to thrive, I was called to become the first woman senior minister at The Riverside Church in the City of New York. Despite that church’s well-known challenges, I felt called to take the job because I thought: if Riverside can model that kind of shift for the whole church, wouldn’t that be something?
After five years of intense, backbreaking work, the leadership team was not able to take the congregation to its next expression, and I suddenly found myself without a pulpit. In that sabbatical time my thoughts kept wandering back to where we, people of faith, now find ourselves and I kept asking that question: how is the Church responding?
Around that time I stumbled upon an article in the Guardian that took my musings to a place of urgency: American religious institutions are in possession of more assets than Microsoft, Google, and Apple combined. Trillions of dollars are held by the churches and institutions that, around 1950, expanded with the purchase of valuable land and the construction of huge buildings to house standing-room-only programming.
These assets are often lost as congregations decline. Those assets are leaving the Church, increasingly lining the pockets of real estate investors and developers. And congregations are faced with an urgent question: how do we faithfully steward significant resources?
We maintain that the work of God in the world was going on long before those buildings were built in the 1950s. And the work of God in the world will certainly continue long after we’re gone. Believing this, what will be our faithful response?
While all of these questions were swirling, I traveled to London and met a man who, more than two decades ago, began giving out money. It was money a wealthy friend had asked him to give away, so he began a loosely organized network he called “seedbed.” A small group of people around Great Britain identified projects in their communities that were changing unjust systems. They reached out and got to know the people who were building these businesses, called social enterprises, and they just gave them money: small, unrestricted grants to help them keep at the work. That’s it.
And then that man said something that changed everything for me. “It’s been 23 years,” he told me. “And we’ve just given all the money away. If you look around Great Britain, you will see that almost every successful social enterprise in Great Britain today has had some connection back to seedbed.”
I got goosebumps when I heard that, and I still do whenever I recall that conversation, because my mind suddenly recognized…Jesus. It was Jesus who told parable after parable about seeds, trying to teach his disciples that the abundance of God is available to us all, that we can build a world where everyone thrives if we have the courage to live with open hearts and open hands, meeting God anywhere God’s work of justice and healing is happening. I then became the unlikely founder of an investment fund: Invested Faith. The call of God leads us to some strange places, doesn’t it?
The Invested Faith idea is simple. Churches and other institutions at the end of their life cycles can contribute their assets to build the fund. The fund makes small, unrestricted grants to faith-rooted social entrepreneurs doing the work of healing the world. That’s it.
With small investments from generous people who understood the vision, Invested Faith was launched, and we began deploying assets to the most amazing efforts:
-Resistencia Coffee in Seattle, WA trains and hires local youth as baristas and has become a hub for community activists. From this coffee shop, neighbors organized a successful petition to decommission the highway that divides their neighborhood.
-Meeting House Revival is re-imagining and restoring a historically Black church built in 1905 to become a center for arts and space for community gathering in Corsicana, TX. An oral history project will document the stories of the neighborhood as the first art installation.
-Just Bakery in Atlanta, GA hires new Americans, provides job training, specialized certifications, and a living wage to give immigrants the tools they need to assimilate successfully.
-The Current Project in Harlem, NY connects Black single mothers with the resources they need to attain and maintain economic stability, helping them launch careers or build businesses that sustain their families and help them build security.
In just two years, Invested Faith has identified and funded 17 projects all over the country, with a lineup of projects waiting to be considered. The assets of the church of 1954 are now actively funding the church of the future.
As I continue to meet new Invested Faith Fellows and meet faith communities willing to embrace death and resurrection with courage, I can’t stop thinking about Jesus and his invitation to just throw out those seeds of goodness and justice in the world. It’s not our job to worry too much about where they land and whether or how they grow. It’s our job, instead, to keep our hearts and our churches focused on the vast abundance of God, much of which we steward in this moment. And it’s our job to ask ourselves: will we make those resources available to the work of God in the world—wherever it shows up?
Rev. Dr. Amy Butler is founder, Invested Faith, and intentional interim senior minister, National City Christian Church. She is a speaker at Space for Grace this fall.
Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash