How influential are donors and private foundations in influencing American religious denominations?
That question may become more pressing as American denominations are increasingly being funded by individual donors, such as in last wills and testaments, and foundations [see February `97 RW]. This change in funding is coming at a time when offerings from congregation members are being targeted to local rather than national ministries. The Forum Letter (April), an independent Lutheran newsletter, reports that in the case of the 2.6 million-member Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, substantial gifts from a foundation may be moving the denomination in a more conservative direction. The Marvin M. Schwan Charitable Foundation has donated millions to the synod and other conservative Lutheran causes, and usually requests anonymity on the source of such gifts.
Although the source of such gifts has now become an “open secret,” officials on the regional and national level are worried that Schwan funding may mean that the “donor tail will begin to wag the donee dog.” Gene Brueggemann writes that “Questions get asked privately, what happens to one or the other of the LCMS seminaries if the Schwan Foundation smiles more kindly in one direction or the other?
Has the overwhelming preference of the foundation for work in Russia tipped the balance which the LCMS board for mission services tries to maintain among its many programs? Would the foundation ever fund any program involving inter-Lutheran cooperation?”
Schwan funds have fueled a recent series of pamphlets from President A.L. Barry’s office which deal sternly with such controversial issues as the ordination of women and intercommunion and church relations with the more liberal Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, ruling out any dissent on these issues.
Brueggemann asks whether the suppression of debate on these issues is related to the significant influence of an “anonymous” donor, and if so, whether such a trend bodes ill for the democratic structure of the denomination.
(Forum Letter, P.O. Box 327, Delhi, NY 13753-0327)