“Cast your bread upon the waters, … for you do not know what disaster may come upon the land” (Ecclesiastes 11:1-2 NIV).
One hundred years after Madison County’s famed covered bridges were built, disaster “[came] upon the land” in the form of the 1980s farm crisis.
Bankruptcies, divorces and suicides soared among farmers who had borrowed too much and expanded too quickly, only to see their markets collapse. The crisis was a deathblow to agriculture as Iowa knew it, and a lingering threat to the small communities farming supported.
Charles and Lois Taylor farmed in Madison County for decades. The couple, who had no heirs, weathered the crisis well. After Lois’ death, Charles drew up a will that left more than $1 million to their church, First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in the county seat of Winterset, to endow scholarships for Madison County students wishing to continue their education -- regardless of affiliation with the Disciples of Christ or any other denomination. Charles died in 1987.
Questions to consider
Questions to consider:
- First Christian’s scholarship program is an example of a congregation choosing not just to invest, but to overinvest in the young. How does your institution overinvest in the young?
- The Rev. Kevin Blader said, “We have only one ‘dogma’; that you confess Christ as Lord.” What doctrinal or theological tenet in your tradition could clarify your institution's mission?
- One recipient said the scholarship was “one of the most ‘Christian’ things” this congregation could do. What activities in your institution have no apparent payoff but witness to the faith of the church to a watching world?
- This church draws from its tradition and denominational identity to undergird a commitment to ecumenical service. What are the resources from your own tradition that generate hopeful mission and practice?
- What sorts of generative partnerships between judicatories and congregations might support the development of your mission?
‘It opened my eyes’
Today, the recipients themselves bear witness to the fruits of that expansive vision.
Though a member of a Lutheran congregation in Winterset, Hannah Pickett nonetheless stood with other recipients among the congregants of First Christian on a Sunday morning in early August 2008 to receive support for her continuing studies at Simpson College in nearby Indianola, Iowa.
Pickett had lived as a legally emancipated minor since the age of 16, leaving an abusive home environment to support herself through high school and college. Before graduating from Simpson in 2010 with a major in journalism and mass communication, she had worked up to 60 hours a week simply to pay her tuition and other bills.
She wasn’t even aware of the Taylor fund until, two years into her studies, her boss at the local newspaper informed her of his church’s scholarship program.
Today a reporter for ABC affiliate KETV in Omaha, Pickett says the scholarship made a significant difference in her education, easing the burden of her outside obligations.
“The Taylor was vital,” she said. “I was able to finish college.”
At least as significant, though, was the impression the program made on Pickett’s understanding of her own identity as a Christian.
“It opened my eyes,” Pickett said. “I was surprised to hear the scholarship wasn’t restricted to just Christians. It was probably one of the most ‘Christian’ things they could do, to offer help to anyone who wants to further their education.”
All welcome at the table
First Christian is a small congregation, even by small-town standards: the tiny brick church off Winterset’s business district has only about 100 active members, with an average of 72 attending Sunday services the past year.
As in most mainline Protestant denominations, those numbers are shrinking as members age and -- like Pickett -- the town’s young leave to seek their futures in Des Moines, Omaha and other large cities in the Midwest and beyond. (The congregation itself counts only two or three high school graduates in any given year.)
Yet despite its size, since Charles Taylor’s death in 1987, First Christian has awarded more than 1,500 scholarships worth more than $1.6 million to residents from across the county. Awards range from $500 to $2,000 annually, based on financial need, and may be renewed for up to four years, provided the recipient remains enrolled in an accredited college, university or vocational school. Originally created for high school graduates, it now also includes home-schoolers. Recipients can be older students, and the grants may be used as students see fit.
In a typical year, the fund awards 25 to 30 new scholarships, with another 50 awards renewed. Applicants are seldom denied support, and each year nearly a quarter of all new Madison County high school graduates receive assistance from the fund.
Although church affiliation is one factor in the awards, it is not the primary factor. Forty percent of an applicant’s request is scored on the basis of financial need, with additional consideration given to academic merit and community involvement.
Although these were Taylor’s terms, they nonetheless reflect the church’s broad embrace of others and the deeply ecumenical nature of the Disciples of Christ.
“The Christian Church feels that everybody is welcome at the table,” said the Rev. Kevin Blader, who, along with his wife, Sue, has led the small congregation for the past four years. “We have only one ‘dogma’: that you confess Christ as Lord. That’s it.”
The Disciples have always placed a high premium on education, moreover, and founded nearly 500 educational institutions between 1836 and 1986.
“The social mission is a big piece of what we do, to reach out and raise people up,” said the Rev. Sue Blader. “And through learning, hopefully they might increase their faith as well.”
A model for others
Madison County’s economy is supported in part by a small tourist industry based around the actor John Wayne’s birthplace in Winterset, as well as the handful of surviving covered bridges that were featured in “The Bridges of Madison County,” Robert James Waller’s best-seller of the 1990s, and Clint Eastwood’s film of the novel.
The county itself is small -- only 15,000 call it home. People know their neighbors here, and First Christian’s leaders had no desire to pry into their finances.
The church therefore enlisted the help of Higher Education & Leadership Ministries (HELM), a national agency of the Disciples of Christ that oversees campus and leadership programs, to manage the Taylor portfolio, screen applications and make recommendations for scholarship awards. Today HELM is affiliated with 17 colleges and universities and 10 theological institutions that enroll students from all nations, ethnicities and faith traditions.
As important as the Taylor program is for Madison County and its shrinking economy, equally important, said HELM president Dennis Landon, is the model the program provides for other aging congregations and their shrinking memberships. HELM’s Hope Partnership for Missional Transformation, Landon noted, makes a critical distinction between struggling congregations that look inward and dynamic congregations that look outward.
“The assumption is that congregations will be more vital if the questions they ask are not tied up with their own survival,” Landon said, “but instead ask, ‘What is it God is calling us to do in the community we are in?’”
“Certainly,” he said, “long before anyone was talking about that, the folks in Winterset were practicing it through this program.”
Bridges to the future
Under the stewardship of First Christian and HELM, the Taylor fund is strong and growing. Over the years, hundreds of students like Hannah Pickett -- Disciples, Lutherans, Methodists and others, believers and unbelievers alike -- have been helped to a future beyond Iowa’s fading agrarian past.
“In some ways, they’re fulfilling an obligation of just being the church,” said HELM’s Landon. “But also, because people who love that congregation put this resource in their care, they’ve been faithful to that. And they’ve now given away more money than they originally received.”
Yet Landon and the Bladers are aware of the seeming irony of Taylor’s foresight. For as youth leave Madison County for opportunity elsewhere, few will likely return to reinvigorate local congregations and economies.
No matter, said the Bladers: the scholarships are bridges to better futures, not just for the students, but inevitably for the church and community as well.
“They build bridges to other churches, too,” Sue Blader said. “They open the door to be able to have the conversation.”
“‘Cast your bread upon the waters,’ and some day it will come back to you,” her husband said. “As Christians, we’re called to serve anonymously into the greater kingdom, into the world.”
He smiled and added, “It will come back into our communities, into our lives.”