More than 100 members of St. Marys United Methodist Church gathered Sunday night to vote on how to deal with the unusually large donation from member Warren Bailey, a telephone company owner who died in July.
"The No. 1 issue that we were concerned about was to be sure our church understood there were real spiritual dangers involved in keeping this kind of money," the Rev. Derek McAleer, pastor of the church, said Monday. "It's clear from our conversations that folks understood that."
Originally, leaders of the 715-member church had considered initially distributing $12 million, which would have been "a double tithe," McAleer, said.
"We had proposed that we would do a $4 million capital funds endowment, but we decided, no, we don't need that kind of money laying around," he said. "It won't help us. We'll give that away instead."
Church members approved setting aside $2.8 million of the bequest for an endowment fund that will benefit the congregation. McAleer expects the church will gain $100,000 annually from investment proceeds from the fund, equivalent to the annual gift Bailey gave the church in recent years for building projects.
McAleer could not say who will benefit from the $16 million the church plans to distribute up front, but he expects the church will continue to help ministries it has in the past, such as Methodist homes for children and senior citizens and other organizations that help such causes as battered women, emotionally disturbed youth and people in need of housing.
The remaining money will be handled by the St. Marys United Methodist Church Foundation, which members voted Sunday to establish.
The foundation will set up guidelines to determine which projects it will consider for grants.
In the meantime, the church's phone is ringing and an already "big file" is filling up with requests from churches, other ministries and individuals, McAleer said.
"We're getting everything from long-range funding for their ministries to `Mama needs surgery' to `I need a roof on my house,"' he said.
Loren Mead, a church consultant familiar with church endowments, said the Bailey bequest is "probably in the top dozen" of one-time gifts to individual congregations.
Mead, founder of the Alban Institute, a Maryland-based organization that assists congregations with publications and seminars, helped create Episcopal, Presbyterian and Lutheran networks of congregations with endowments.
"Usually, they're very few, if any, members of the church who've ever seen that much money and so it comes as a psychic shock and it poses all kinds of management problems," he said.
McAleer and members of his church have discovered that handling a multimillion-dollar bequest is not an easy task. Since August, an advisory board has met with legal and financial experts to determine what recommendations to bring to the congregation, which then met for three hours and voted eight times regarding its new-found wealth.
"We have spent all this time working on process," the pastor said. "We have not worried about the details of where it's going to go."