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Strings attached

Your church gym helps keep local youngsters healthy and off the streets. It badly needs refurbishing, and your church has no money. A sporting goods merchant offers $10,000 but wants a small sign advertising his store displayed somewhere in the gym. Do you accept?

By Ken Gallinger and Ruth McQuirter Scott

Reluctantly, yes. A gym is just that — it’s not the sanctuary. This gym is a much-needed community resource, and while my preference would be for the congregation to step up financially, it sounds like that’s not going to happen. So I need a partnership, and this one has become available.

The issue is the sign, and I’d want some control over its size, visibility and, most importantly, wording. I’d be okay with it saying something like, “Funds for the refurbishing of this gym provided by Joe’s Sports.” Unenthusiastic, but okay. I wouldn’t go for advertising, but I’d be fine with acknowledgment. If Joe is prepared to do what my people either can’t or won’t, why shouldn’t credit be given?

Let’s be honest: the church has been sticking brass plates with donors’ names on pews, walls, windows and every other possible bit of stuff for a long time. Toronto’s largest United Church is named Timothy Eaton — and near as I recall, Mr. Eaton was not one of the 12 apostles. So, Joe’s request for a sign is a small concession; he’s not asking for the gym to be called Joe’s Gym.

Having said that, though, I still can’t get over my reluctance and lack of enthusiasm for going this way. I know the church needs new partnerships for the work it does, and as religious “like minds” become fewer, the business world is an obvious place to look. I’m really tired of the United Church’s “business is terrible and we’re scared of the big bad capitalists” mindset. But, I’m also tired of seeing advertising everywhere but on the inside of my eyelids. I’d take the money, allow the sign and silently curse the lack of generosity of so many United Church people that makes it necessary to do so.
Author's photo
Ruth McQuirter Scott is an educator and member of Port Nelson United in Burlington, Ont.

Our goal is to provide a safe and healthy gathering place for youngsters in our community. We have a willing local sponsor with a generous donation. All he asks is for a small sign recognizing his contribution. What’s the problem? Nothing, as long as we consider the issues.

Our governing body would need to ask whether this sets a precedent. A small sign in the gym acknowledging the donation is one thing. If, next year, a local lumber store offers to supply materials for a project in the sanctuary, will they be afforded the same “small sign”? Will we make a distinction between what we consider holy space and what is used for the broader community? Is a donation from a local merchant acceptable, but not from a large multinational corporation? Is a sporting goods store okay, but a store selling video games with violent content less so?

Let’s face facts. Plaques can be found throughout most churches indicating gifts in memory of loved ones. Local businesses may help promote a charity event by underwriting the cost of publicity. Their support is often acknowledged on the program or in an announcement to the congregation. In times of great need and limited resources, these creative approaches to fundraising can help unite the church and the community.

We need to have a discussion about how we see our church property. Is it a building to be set apart from secular influences, or is it part of the fibre of our community? In accepting this merchant’s gift of $10,000, we are inviting the community to participate with us in creating a space that can be enjoyed by everyone.

Whatever we decide, we need to look carefully at what our goals are for our church, and place this offer within those parameters. 
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