Investing faithfully: Planting seeds of change

Amy Butler details the formation of Invested Faith, a donor-advised fund (DAF) that directs proceeds from closing church and faith institutions to enterprises started by faith-rooted social entrepreneurs.

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

In 2019, I founded 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 required math course in college) would ever try something like dipping a toe into the world of high finance to start an investment fund, of all things.

I admit the whole idea does sound a little bit crazy, even though it has become my story. Along my own journey, however, many things God seems to dream up regularly don’t make any sense to me. It’s not that this awareness of God’s tactics makes me any less anxious, you understand. It’s just that learning to live into holy surprise is a rigorous spiritual practice, isn’t it?

In 2003, I began my career in senior church leadership when Calvary Baptist Church in Washington, D.C., the founding church of American Baptists, hired me to serve as their first female Senior Minister. Calvary’s sanctuary and educational buildings sat on a huge and very valuable piece of land right in the heart of the nation’s capital, but the hallways of those big buildings most often rang with echoes and regular worship attendance had fallen to an alarming number.

Calvary Baptist Church (Washington, D.C.)

Before my arrival at Calvary, the church began a development project with the intention of leveraging its considerable assets to build a new facility. The congregation took this project on, believing it would be just what they needed to face the future. Economic trends had changed the neighborhood and the church membership and programming had been in steady decline. I know what the congregation thought when they made the courageous choice to change: we have these valuable assets. Why not use them to build facilities that were new and gleaming, as the current facilities were in 1954? After all, only a few decades earlier a Sunday School class at Calvary targeting single, young women grew so large that all 1,600 attendees had to meet across the street in a rented theater space. Who knows what the future holds?

The development process that unfolded was years long and arduous spiritually, physically, interpersonally and emotionally. The congregation experienced intense conflict, and I saw up close the lengths to which development companies will go to take advantage of the assets of vulnerable communities of faith.

(Also, one Easter Sunday, just before the end of my sermon, the fire alarm went off due to some construction mishap. We had to evacuate the sanctuary into the street and almost missed the celebration of Jesus rising from the dead that year.)

But when Calvary decided to sell off a large part of its property, they may not have realized that the question of why we gather in traditional religious spaces has very little to do anymore with the size of facility, layout of the space or the paint color on the walls of the brand new education building.

As a bonus lesson, I learned through this project that telling the media “we don’t know what we’re doing” – referring to professional church leaders who never learned downtown development in seminary – can quickly turn into headlines on the front of the local newspaper that read: “Rev. Butler said, ‘We don’t know what we’re doing.’” This particular incident rightly sent lay leaders into apoplexy. (The head of the development committee did not forgive me for that misreported quote until, quite literally, he was on his deathbed ten years later.)

 I know Calvary’s story will ring familiar to many readers. We all learn perpetually as we practice being human that change is really, really hard, and recreating 1954 is just not possible.

After 11 years of leadership at Calvary, ultimately it wasn’t the new building that shifted the life of the congregation of that community; it was the people willing to embrace change and, along with it, hope and abundance.

Skip ahead now to the fall of 2019. After five years of intense, backbreaking work as the first woman senior minister at The Riverside Church in the City of New York, I, along with the leadership team there, was unable to take the congregation to its next expression. And while my departure from Riverside seemed to shock the church world, the kind of tension and conflict over change we experienced there is nothing unique in the daily congregational life of churches all over America. Communities of faith all over this country struggle to embody the abundance of this moment because scarcity is too alluring and familiarity is more comfortable than change.

We hold fast to the familiar, defaulting to survival and behaving destructively with one another when the unrelenting march of time shifts the landscape we know. It’s a tremendously difficult challenge to respond with calm abundance when we’re instinctively prepared to panic as the flourishing of the institutions we’ve loved suddenly takes a sharp turn downward.

In those months of sabbatical after the renewal of my contract at Riverside failed, I had the luxury of time to think about some of the questions that floated around in my head since I pastored Calvary. How is the church responding to these trends? What is next for the communities of faith we have known and loved for so long? How can we keep raising up and sustaining excellent leaders when the very institutions they try to lead chew them up and spit them out?

My pondering led me to realize that if we church folk have the courage to be honest, we know there is nothing actually sharp or even sudden about the turn religious institutions have taken; polls have tracked church membership, religious identity and many other trends have signaled to us for years that church we thought we knew is a thing of the past. And, in true church fashion, we have largely applied our efforts to reinforcing the status quo instead of dreaming and wondering about what might be possible.

How did we end up in this hopeless place when we claim to follow a God who is ever-creating and when we take the name of the one who taught us to live with our hands and our hearts open, offering all that we have and are to the work of God in the world — wherever it shows up?

It was around this time of thinking, praying and wondering when I also stumbled upon an article in the Guardian that took my musings to a level of urgency. In “Religion in US ‘worth more than Google and Apple combined,’” I read that American religious institutions are in possession of more assets than tech industry giants; trillions of dollars are held by the churches and institutions that, around 1954, expanded with the purchase of valuable land and the construction of huge buildings to house standing-room-only programming, acquiring additional land, developing that land, and funding endowments that have grown far larger than their founders ever intended.

But churches are fueled by volunteers, and many communities do not have access to professional advice as they make these important and impactful decisions about property and assets. As a result, these valuable resources often leave the church, increasingly lining the pockets of real estate investors and developers.

We maintain that the work of God in the world was going on long before those buildings were built in 1954. And the work of God in the world will certainly continue long after we’re gone. Congregations that recognize the trend and are able to embrace an emerging reality are then faced with another urgent question: How do we faithfully steward significant resources?

I don’t know if there is one right answer to this question; the future we head toward is unknown to us. But I’m convinced I do know how we might work toward an answer together.

I’ll never forget the moment this idea landed in my lap. At the end of 2019, I traveled to London and met a man who, more than two decades ago, began giving out money in a way I found transformational. His efforts started with a fund built with money a wealthy friend had asked him to give away. He founded a loosely organized network he called “seedbed,” a small group of people around Great Britain who identified income-generations projects changing unjust systems in their communities. That network of people reached out and got to know the folks building businesses called social enterprises, and the group regularly gave out money: small, unrestricted grants to help social entrepreneurs keep at the work. Their efforts were never formalized, publicized or institutionalized.

I listened with fascination as the story unfolded. As he finished telling me about seedbed, 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 this, 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.

Shortly after that life-changing exchange, I became the unlikely founder of an investment fund called Invested Faith, a tool to help churches and individuals expand their imagination and participate in the right-now, right-here work of  God.

The Invested Faith idea is simple. Churches and other faith institutions at the end of their life cycles, along with individuals who care about the future of God’s work in this world, are welcome to contribute their assets in tax-deductible gifts to build the fund. The fund, with the guidance of a board of advisors, regularly makes small, unrestricted grants to faith-rooted social entrepreneurs who build businesses that challenge and change unjust structures — literally doing the work of healing the world.

Invested Faith was born after my trip to England, and we began deploying assets right away in support of the most amazing efforts. For instance:

Resistencia Coffee in Seattle, Washington, 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 dividing 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, Texas. An oral history project will document the stories of the neighborhood as the first art installation.

Just Bakery in Atlanta, Georgia, 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, New York, connects Black single mothers to 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 less than two years, Invested Faith has identified and funded 17 fellows all over the country, with a line-up of projects awaiting consideration. We’ve funded documentary filmmaker Andre Brown’s film about being gay and faithful in the Black church; a collective of women responding to COVID’s impact on their families by starting cottage industries, creating a storefront and online shop in a local church education building and supporting each other as their businesses grow; New Wine Collective, a digital model of gathering that builds innovative online community for people hungry for connection and faith. I could tell you story after story of faith lived out in unconventional expressions and having real-time impact.

Through Invested Faith, the assets and witness of the church of 1954 are now actively fueling the church of the future. God’s wild and indiscriminate work that ever and always catches us by holy surprise is right now unfolding like a gift right in front of us.

As I continue to meet new Invested Faith Fellows and faith communities willing to embrace death and resurrection with courage, I still 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 those seeds land and whether or how they grow. It’s our job, instead, to keep our hearts and our churches inured to the sin of scarcity and focused instead on the vast abundance of God. What an incredible gift to notice and celebrate that in this moment, we happen to be stewards of much of that abundance.

Will we make those resources available to the work of God in the world — wherever God shows up? When we do, I want to be there, and I hope you will join me.