At the outset of its Opening Doors capital campaign in 2016, leaders at Austin’s Covenant Presbyterian Church made a pledge: Once the congregation had paid off its remaining $7.5 million in building debt, some of the yearly savings from debt service would go to broaden its missional work, both existing ministries and new endeavors.

Celebrating its debt-free status in January 2019, the church began honoring its promise, using $100,000 of that year’s surplus to erase more than $16 million worth of secondary medical debt that had burdened Austin’s poorest residents.

The following year, its missions committee awarded another $100,000 in grants to four community organizations addressing homelessness in Texas’ capital city.

Thomas Daniel

Alongside traditional missions work, Covenant also established the Institute for Missional Formation, tasked with addressing a more abstract problem. Too often, senior pastor the Rev. Thomas Daniel told his congregation, we lead “bifurcated lives,” with our faith lives entirely separate from our work lives.

What if the church could equip its members to integrate the two — “where God has you seven days a week, where you are, for a purpose”? he asked. What would that mean to the city of Austin?

Task forces within the church brainstormed ways to engage the issue, suggesting everything from establishing a lecture series to opening one of Covenant’s buildings as a missional outpost in the middle of the city.

Ultimately, Covenant took a hard look at its vision statement and decided that the solution wasn’t going to be one big idea driven by the church but a multitude of smaller efforts fueled by the passion and expertise of its 2,000-plus members.

The worship team leads the contemporary service at Covenant Presbyterian Church. Photo by Danielle Walker

“Our vision statement is ‘Encouraging one another to follow Jesus wherever we live, work, and play.’ What if we fund that?” Daniel asked. “The best gift we can offer is our people, rather than a program. What if we invested in our people to seek to live this out? What if Covenant became an incubator for lots and lots and lots of individuals to explore these kinds of callings themselves?”

What would it look like to fund — literally — your church’s vision statement?

Built on the idea that God has called Covenant Presbyterian to be “a love letter to the city of Austin,” the Institute for Missional Formation established the Love Letter Fund, which will award up to $100,000 each year to social justice projects led by Covenant’s members.

The projects must improve the lives of Austin’s most vulnerable, be sustainable beyond the church’s initial investment and, perhaps most importantly, provide tangible ways for members to use their gifts to follow Jesus’ example.

Congregants of Covenant Presbyterian Church worship together. Photo courtesy of Covenant Presbyterian Church

The Love Letter Fund committee received 17 applications in December 2020 for the initial round of funding, and in August, the church announced its first grant recipient: a nonprofit founded by three church members dedicated to offering low-interest microloans to refugees, recent immigrants and other underserved populations who might not qualify for traditional business loans.

Though none had prior lending experience, all three have backgrounds in either finance or business development, and all three “started with a burden: ‘What does God want to do in my life, and how do I solve this bifurcated life?’” Daniel said.

And that’s the beauty of the arrangement, he said. The projects, which will change from year to year, flow not from the church’s clergy or session or even from its missions committee but rather from individual church members who have the expertise and desire to do good in the community— but may need some coaching and a little seed money to get started.

Covenant's choir sings during the traditional worship service. Photo courtesy of Covenant Presbyterian Church

The people are the plan

“It’s not about us. It’s not about our program. It’s about being an invisible catalyst behind our people,” Daniel said. “Our plan is whatever you come up with next.”

Being an “invisible catalyst” can be a challenge for institutions wanting to make a visible difference with their investments. To what efforts does your church contribute in which your investments are invisible?

Too often, church leaders are in survival mode, “lurching toward quick fixes” in search of one all-encompassing mission that will solve the world’s ills and energize the congregation, said Tod Bolsinger, the executive director of the De Pree Center’s Church Leadership Institute at Fuller Theological Seminary.

Covenant’s approach sidesteps the common misconception that the church as an institution is the solution, no matter what the problem is. Instead, Bolsinger said, Covenant has focused on discipleship, inviting individual members to use their unique skills — skills that church leadership may not have — to identify needs in the community along with creative solutions that the church can help support, though not necessarily lead.

“The goal is not to just launch some new things but to ask as we become more in tune to our neighbors, ‘How might the charism of our congregation help? And how might that inspire us to change?’” said Bolsinger, who advised Covenant as they created the Love Letter concept.

The Covenant mission team does volunteer work at a local school for a service project in 2019. Photo by Danielle Walker

That transformative component was critical for Covenant Presbyterian. The 60-year-old congregation in downtown Austin is not the first to offer financial backing for creative social impact ventures, said Daniel, who pointed to similar programs at First Presbyterian Church Houston and First Presbyterian Church of Atlanta. At least during this pilot phase, Covenant grant applicants are required to be members of the congregation.

“This is specifically so our people have to wrestle with their own call. Our people have to own it; they have to roll up their sleeves,” Daniel said. “It’s not just about who in the world has a good idea to help other people. It’s about our people’s discipleship. It’s a commitment to the formation of our own people, not just other people.”

Volunteers on Covenant's mission team smile for a photo on a service day in 2019. Photo by Danielle Walker

Unveiling the Love Letter Fund during a Sunday service last October, Daniel noted that the old model of church participation — “If you build it, they will come” — is collapsing.

Worship services are no longer the feeder system for all the church does, he said, and waiting for people to come into the building to experience God’s love isn’t going to work. So the church was trying something new.

“You’re the idea. You’re the plan,” he told worshippers. “We’re going to invest in you, the thousands of gifted people in the Covenant orbit, to experiment and try something new [so] that you might be able to make a difference.”

That willingness to experiment is abundant in entrepreneurial settings but sometimes less so in faith institutions, said Bolsinger, who leads workshops aimed at helping churches adapt their ministries to a changing world.

Through the Church Leadership Institute, he has begun working with about 40 other churches in an 18-month program that uses much the same process he introduced at Covenant, Bolsinger said.

He preaches “adaptive capacity,” the ability to evolve and meet new challenges through learning, facing loss and navigating competing values — like attracting more people to the pews versus having an impact on the neighborhood, he said.

Items collected from the Covenant congregation support the church's ministry with refugees from Afghanistan. Photo by Danielle Walker

As part of that process, Bolsinger urges congregations to identify “pain points” in their communities and then learn how best to address those through “safe, modest experiments” that play out over time. That takes patience and works best in churches where a great deal of trust already exists between the congregation and the leadership, he said, churches where overnight results aren’t necessary to keep everyone engaged. It also requires clergy who can tolerate efforts that don’t work as planned.

What might happen if your church stopped asking, “Is this successful?” and instead asked, “What have we learned?”

“You’re changing the conversation from, ‘Is this successful?’ to, ‘What have we learned?’” said Bolsinger, who is also a senior congregational strategist and associate professor of leadership formation at Fuller. “This is a really different process and approach, but the goal is the same: for people to experience the love of Christ in the midst of broken places in the world.”

Daniel assembled what one Covenant member called “an all-star cast” of creative thinkers and business-savvy professionals to spell out how the Love Letter Fund would work and what criteria would be used to judge applications. Another three dozen or so church members, including attorneys, accountants, marketing executives and writers, volunteered to mentor applicants and help them navigate some of the complexities of launching a startup.

Proposals ran the gamut, from a medical student establishing a COVID testing program for Austin’s homeless residents to an attorney who wanted to help low-income families preserve generational wealth by providing low-cost wills.

Covenant Presbyterian partnered with Austin Public Health to offer a vaccine clinic to people experiencing homelessness. Photo by Danielle Walker

In addition to providing a solid business plan that addressed an unmet need in Austin, applicants had to show how the project would contribute to their faith formation and how it would continue beyond the life of the church’s initial grant.

Using those criteria, the committee narrowed the initial pool of written proposals to three or four finalists, who then pitched their ideas in oral presentations, said Ethan Burris, who is the chair of the Center for Leadership and Ethics at the University of Texas at Austin McCombs School of Business and serves as chair of the Love Letter Fund committee.

Steve Goldsmith, a committee member and software executive, said it was refreshing, as a lifelong churchgoer, to have his faith and work worlds “collide.”

“I’ve done Bible study. I’ve done prayer groups. And this is the first time — I’m in my late 40s — that I’ve felt like I can really engage with my whole capability and not just be in spectator mode,” he said. “I’ve gotten so much out of it.”

Staff members Amy Skaggs and Kathryn Sedberry greet visitors and members at the coffee bar on Sunday morning. Photo courtesy of Covenant Presbyterian Church

The group’s favorite proposal was submitted by Shirin Keshavarz, a businesswoman and Iranian refugee who had launched a catering business during the pandemic preparing her grandmother’s Persian recipes and delivering them to friends, neighbors and the less fortunate.

She proposed expanding her home-based operation into a prep kitchen — and eventually a food truck or restaurant — and hiring other women refugees so they’d have a source of income and marketable skills.

But in April 2021, days before the church was set to announce Keshavarz as its inaugural Love Letter Fund recipient, she learned that the breast cancer she’d beaten several years earlier had returned, this time at stage 4. Keshavarz died in June.

How does your church cultivate spaces in which ideas can be “overheard” and shared to multiply creativity, resources and contributors?

Meanwhile, another group of applicants had decided to forge ahead with their idea, even without the Love Letter Fund grant, working to improve their business plan in light of feedback they’d gotten during the process. Still mourning the loss of Keshavarz, a beloved member of the congregation, the committee invited that group back to make a follow-up pitch.

Calling their idea the Margin Institute, the group proposed creating a nonprofit that would grant low-interest loans to recent immigrants and others who might not have the credit and collateral to qualify for funds from a commercial lending institution.

Dan Michel, an accountant and partner in a wealth management firm, said he started thinking about the concept after reading an article about government-backed lending in distressed communities. That led to a conversation about microlending with fellow church member Dan Pucci, who has a background in business development and had done mission work with Indigenous people and with inner-city populations.

Michel and Pucci knew each other from one of the church’s small groups; another member of the group overheard the two talking and suggested that they meet with Matt McMichen, an accountant and controller at a health care solutions firm who had experience in startups. The trio was breathing life into their idea right about the time Daniel announced the Love Letter Fund concept, and participating in the application process helped them refine their business plans, Pucci said.

In August, Covenant awarded its first Love Letter Fund grant to the Margin Institute. And in mid-October, Margin made its first loan — to one of Keshavarz’s adult daughters, who is pursuing her mother’s dream of running a catering business that employs women refugees.

“This is exactly how I want to give back as a Christian,” said Pucci, a day after Margin awarded that loan. “Twenty-four hours ago, it hit me — this is all coming together for all the reasons God wants us to be here on earth, walking the walk he wants us to walk.”

The Rev. Thomas Daniel prays over Dan Pucci as he is commissioned on behalf of the Margin Institute, the first team to receive a grant from the Love Letter Fund. Photo by Danielle Walker

Michel said he now plans to retire from his full-time job at the end of the year and focus his efforts on Margin, which already has about 10 potential clients referred to them by Refugee Services of Texas and several area congregations.

In addition to initial investments from its founders and seed money from the Love Letter Fund, the Margin Institute hopes to attract missions funding from other congregations and be certified as a Community Development Financial Institution, making it eligible for matching funds from the U.S. Treasury.

“We set out to help people change their lives. And sure enough, along the way, I’ve been exposed to people I never would’ve been exposed to and heard stories I’d never heard before,” Michel said. “It has absolutely been phenomenal for me. I don’t know how that’s not transformational.”

What does transformation look like in your church?

At Covenant, they’re tweaking the Love Letter Fund process using feedback from the first round of applicants before starting another cycle in the spring. For instance, they’re planning to match grant applicants with mentor “navigators” within the congregation earlier in the process to promote “greater connective tissue” within the church and lead to stronger proposals, said church member Jewel Crosswell Stone, a former strategy consultant at Deloitte who now works full time for an Austin nonprofit that provides low-cost loans to low-income women entrepreneurs.

Stone had never worked in a church before but was recently hired part time at Covenant to help with the Love Letter process; before that, she offered volunteer guidance on microlending to the Margin Institute team.

They’re also examining ways to create a more meaningful experience even for those who don’t ultimately receive grant money so that they still gain from the process — whether it’s a better-defined vision, a list of next steps or simply a deeper understanding of how to live out their faith, Stone said.

“I appreciate so much the humility it takes as a church to see a need and be willing to recognize that they’re not the ones to necessarily solve it,” she said. “They’ve been deliberate about bringing in people with a variety of experience, but not necessarily church experience. There’s a ton of humility around learning and just no ego.”

What would a calculated risk in the name of spiritual formation look like in your setting?

Goldsmith and Burris said the committee has tried to balance being good stewards of the church’s money with taking calculated risks in the name of spiritual formation.

Some of the Love Letter Fund projects may not work out, Burris said, noting, “You don’t make big, massive changes in the world without taking some risks and making some failures along the way.”

For now, Stone said, they’re using “soft metrics” to gauge success of the program. Are applicants tapping into creative thinking? Are the projects sustainable, and do they provide tangible benefits to Austin’s most vulnerable populations? Does the effort promote stronger connectivity within the congregation? And do members of Covenant feel empowered to use their gifts to make a difference?

Goldsmith noted that the answers to those questions may be years down the road. Churches need to have “a longer-lens desire” to sponsor programs like this, because — just as with a mission or a child care operation — it’s a long-term commitment, he said.

People from Street Youth Ministry, a mission partner of Covenant Presbyterian Church, fill out paperwork to receive vaccines. Photo by Danielle Walker

Along the way, grant recipients will be asked to share their experiences with the congregation, Daniel said, including what they’re learning about the Austin community and how the effort is affecting their individual faith journeys.

The entire process is creative, collaborative and limited only by the imagination of Covenant’s members, Daniel said.

“The cool part about this is you have no idea where this is going to go. We say to our people, ‘You’re the big idea,’” he said. “They’re going to come up with something I never dreamed of. There’s something so empowering about that.”