steve-bauerleSometimes a story—like an unexpected gift—begs to be shared.

For some time now, Pastor Steve Bauerle (’82) has been sharing the story of a couple from his congregation, Zion Lutheran Church in Waterville, Ohio, and their lasting legacy to numerous ministries, including Trinity Lutheran Seminary. He calls it a “Million Dollar Love Story” and he plans to publish it in a book of the same title.

Bauerle first met Katie and Doug Graf when he accepted the call to Zion in 1987. Katie was the director of the children’s choir and Doug was the church custodian. “Doug and Katie’s family was Zion Lutheran Church,” said Bauerle, of the couple who had no children or close next of kin.

Katie was the only child of wealthy parents, and Doug’s working class background did not impress Katie’s mother. She threatened to withhold her daughter’s inheritance if Katie married him. Despite her mother’s pleas, Katie married Doug and the two made a life on their conservative salaries; she worked as an elementary teacher and he as a custodian in the local schools.

Over the course of the next 50 years, Katie’s mother invested her wealth in nursing homes. According to the investment policies, every 10 years Katie’s mother reinvested and reallocated her wealth. When it came time for the money to be reinvested in 2000, Katie’s mother had died and the money went to first of kin: Katie. By then Katie was living in a nursing home with Alzheimer’s disease.

“Doug came to my office one day with a $200,000 IRS bill and was panicked. I said you need to go to your accountant, and that’s when he learned he had inherited this money,” said Bauerle.

Doug died that same year at the age of 78, and Katie two years later. A small portion of the couple’s inheritance went to nieces and nephews, and the remainder ($2.7 million) went to Zion.

The money came to Zion in 2002, and the congregation established an endowment in 2004. “We spent a couple of years asking ourselves, ‘What are we going to do with this?’” said Bauerle. The committee charged with overseeing the fund contacted the ELCA Mission Investment Fund, the bishop, and other churches and pastors for direction.

It would haven been easy for the members of Zion to spend the money on repairs, a new boiler, or even a new building.
 
“The first lesson I learned was if you put it in a silo or you hide it, it will become a curse. Churches have literally fallen apart because they received these gifts,” he said. He heard stories of churches that put similar endowments into building projects, and years later the church closed and the money was gone.

Instead, the members of Zion established three guiding principles based on biblical texts for the management and disbursement of its endowment. 
  • Exodus 19:5. “…Indeed the whole earth is mine...” First, the church started with the precept that the money belongs to God.
  • Luke 12:12-31. The parable of the rich fool. Second, the members of Zion would not store up treasures for themselves, but be rich toward God.
  • Acts 1:8. “…and you will be my witnesses in all Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” This last verse guided the actual distribution. Funds would go to Jerusalem (Waterville and the surrounding area); Samaria and Judea (Northwest Ohio and Ohio); and the ends of the earth (throughout the world). Each year, funds are designated to a project, program, or organization that fits into one of these categories.
“This account is for mission throughout the world,” said Bauerle.

Funds have been earmarked for Lutheran World Relief, a children’s home in Guatemala, a medial mission trip to Tanzania, projects and programs at a local hospital and area high schools, and for Trinity Lutheran Seminary.
 
Last year, Trinity used the funds it received to remodel and furnish the former rec room, now called Tierra Santa. Other years the seminary received funds for students participating in immersion trips to Kenya and Haiti. In addition, Melissa Curtis Powell, Trinity’s Financial Aid Director, has applied for and received $100,000 in scholarship monies for students since 2005.

Trinity is a category unto itself for funding each year, said Melissa Peper Firestone, a member of Zion and the chair of Trinity’s Board of Directors. Through her application sponsorship, the seminary has been able to annually apply for funds, unlike other recipients who may apply only once.
 
“Trinity was a very natural choice for the [endowment] committee, and as a result Trinity has become a huge presence in our church,” said Peper Firestone. The members of Zion celebrate the various mission projects in October with Mission Sunday, the day it distributes the monies applied for that year.

Applications for funds are received between January and March each year, and the endowment committee selects about 20 projects. Groups that seek money for capital improvements must also submit a “mission application,” seeking matching funds for a mission-related project. When the women of Zion applied for a new stove for the church, they also applied for funds for a stove for a children’s home in Guatemala.
 
In the 10 years since Zion began dispersing funds, only the interest from the endowment has been used to support the various ministries; $2.8 million remains in the fund.

“What really got my attention this year was finding out that we have given away one million dollars,” said Bauerle. “Knowing Doug and Katie, and knowing their love for each other and the church, I just had to tell their story to show what love can do.”

He hopes to publish his book by Christmas. It will tell the story of Katie and Doug, but the larger story is the one of a congregation that has found a way to share the couple’s legacy near and far through thoughtful and deliberate giving.

“We went from a maintenance church to a missional church,” said Bauerle. “We are a 160-year-old mission congregation, not in the sense of a new start. We no longer count nickels and noses, but we are counting those who we serve and disciple.”

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