National Lutheran News

Congregations urged to tithe their capital fund-raising

Poul Bertelsen, left, and Gordon Olson discuss an architecture project.

Poul Bertelsen, left, and Gordon Olson discuss an architecture project.

Two mission-related organizations team up to promote the concept.

Two Minneapolis-based Lutheran organizations with a passion for foreign mission work, but with different emphases, have found a way to connect their efforts.

The two are Lutheran Partners in Global Ministry (LPGM), a mission advocacy organization, and MSAADA Architects, a non-profit architectural firm that designs and builds worship, education and health-care facilities in Third World countries.

Their collaborative effort, launched three years ago, is called Sharing the Blessings. Its aim is to get area congregations to add 10 percent — a tithe — to the goals of their capital-fund drives and dedicate it to building needed facilities on mission fields in developing countries.

The basic premise is that 10 percent — or even 5 percent — of the money raised in a fund drive can accomplish much more in economically poor nations than in the United States. Thus $17,000 raised here would make possible construction of a complete worship building worth $170,000 in American dollars in a place like Tanzania in East Africa.

“We say that all mission is global,” explained Gordon Olson, president of LPGM. “When people give locally they’re also giving globally. But doing something in a developing country where the economy is so low, you can make such a difference.

“You can raise significant amounts for these projects through a capital campaign whereas if you took a mission offering in a congregation it’s pretty much a pittance as far as what you can gather.”

Olson and Poul Bertelsen, the architect/missionary who heads MSAADA, believe that adding 5 or 10 percent to a capital campaign should not be a major burden but would have a major impact overseas. “If you can raise 100 percent you can also raise 105 or 110 percent,” Bertelsen said.

Getting into this “culture of giving” may seem hard at first because congregations are so used to focusing on their own needs in a capital campaign, Olson added, but once members have done it they want to do it over and over again. It becomes a “natural culture.”

In fact, said Bertelsen, while holding a capital campaign may stir up opposition in a congregation, once people see that part of the money is going to help others, that opposition can fade.

The architect also believes that complaints about spending abroad rather than for needs at home are diminishing as people seek to demonstrate that Christians in prosperous America are aware of needs abroad and want to demonstrate that this nation does indeed care about the rest of the world.

To date, Olson said, six or seven congregations have been involved in the Sharing the Blessings program and others are considering it. The best example of the success of the program, he said, is what has happened at St. Philip the Deacon Lutheran (ELCA) in Plymouth.

St. Philip, the first congregation to take part, came to the leaders of Sharing the Blessings and asked for an idea for an overseas project. Bertelsen, who’s been designing facilities on mission fields for 25 years and now has offices abroad in Tanzania, Kenya, Madagascar and India, has a big list of needed projects and was able to suggest building a church in Madagascar.

St. Philip followed that with a medical project in Tanzania and is now considering an educational facility, also in Tanzania. In each project, the Plymouth congregation has divided the money from a tithe on a capital fund campaign between a facility needed abroad and one needed locally —
a choice fully acceptable to leaders of Sharing the Blessings.

While MSAADA brings its expertise in the bricks-and-mortar aspect to the program, Olson said, LPGM contributes what has been its emphasis from the start — building relationships and connecting people on the giving and receiving end of the projects.

Sharing the Blessings wants congregations to see a project as an ongoing relationship, not “hit-and-run missions,” where members of a parish donate money and never hear from the recipient again, according to Olson.

“In fact the congregations involved in our program are insisting on this,” he asserted. “They really want to build that relationship by going over to meet the people, becoming aware of their culture and continuing the relationship by helping with programs in a church once it’s built.”

Added Bertelsen: “It’s important to say that these people have something to give to us, it’s not just us helping them. These churches have something in terms of living out the Gospel that we can learn from them”

While Sharing the Blessings is the only program in which LPGM and MSAADA are directly connected, there has been a lot of cross-fertilization between the two over the years.

It was in 1991 that Tim Olson, son of Gordon Olson and his wife Betty, took a break between graduation from St. Olaf College and entrance to the architecture school at Harvard University to go to the Central African Republic to manage construction of a church Bertelsen had designed.

Less than a half year into that work, Tim was murdered by bandits while traveling with his fiancee on a remote highway. It was the Olsons’ determination not to let their son’s tragic death be the end of the work to which he was dedicated that led to the formation of LPGM.

Work in India has become by far the biggest endeavor among those in the eight countries in which LPGM is now involved, and Bertelsen played a major role in that development.

The architect had completed construction of mission boarding schools for some 40,000 indigent children in India under the sponsorship of the Lutheran Church in his native Denmark. But he became aware that the schools might have to shut down unless funds were found to pay for the room, board, clothing and school supplies for the children.

Bertelsen informed Olson of the problem, and LPGM took up the challenge of finding individuals in Lutheran congregations to sponsor some of these children. The organization now supports nearly 1600 students in these boarding schools.

Both LPGM and MSAADA work in cooperation with the foreign mission agencies of the ELCA and LCMS. Far from competing with them, Olson said, the two organizations are enhancing their work by getting congregation members personally involved in mission work and raising their global awareness.