Burning the Mortgage Note at St. Stephen's New Harmony

On a Sunday morning in mid-July, Bishop Jennifer gathered with members of St. Stephen’s in New Harmony for an unusual liturgy:  the burning of a mortgage note. “Sweat was pouring down our faces and we were singing ‘Ode to Joy,’ remembers St. Stephen’s rector the Rev. Dr. Beth Macke. “It was a lovely liturgy.”

The occasion marked the successful end of a 14-month fundraising campaign to raise the $50,800 necessary to pay off the mortgage on the parish hall. “We burned a copy of the mortgage note, and a copy of the final payment that erased the loan totally,” says senior warden Linda Warrum, who spearheaded the fundraising effort.

Even after the parish managed to refinance the loan ahead of a looming balloon payment, the mortgage continued to a be a drain on the small parish. “I looked at the amount of money that was going to interest, and I just said, ‘we’ve got to pay this off,” says Warrum. “And I said, ‘there are foundations and people out there that give money for things like this.’”

“On paper, we don’t look like we should have been able to do this,” says Macke. “The town of New Harmony has less than 1000 residents. But I was willing to back Linda and her effort because I’ve seen her work, and she gets done what she wants to accomplish. So when she came to me with this idea to pay off the loan I said, ‘okay, let me know what I can do.’”

Macke and Warrum attended a church fundraising seminar based on William Enwright’s “Kitchen Table Giving: Reimagining How Congregations Connect With Their Donors.” “It was an was like an eye opener to me, because the speaker talked about how people give for the joy of giving,” says Warrum. “It makes them happy to give money.”

As Warrum began to consider her pitch to potential donors, she drew on the context of the parish within New Harmony, a town with a unique history. Originally founded by the German Harmony society as a religious community, it was sold in 1826 to Robert Owen, who established New Harmony as an experimental socialist utopia.

While the Owen experiment last only two years, a tradition of philanthropic giving and an interest in the history of the town remains strong. Founded in 1841, St. Stephen’s is the oldest church in New Harmony and, therefore both a piece of its history and a vital part of its present-day community. “There are other churches here in town, but this church is open 24/7,” says Warrum. “It opens its doors for Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, it opens its doors for seniors to meet here three days a week, it opens its doors for the ministerial association. We have programs open to the public on subjects like human trafficking and gun safety in a small town.”

Based on the parish’s place in the town’s rich history and contemporary life, Warrum told potential donors that “St. Stephen’s is an Episcopal Church, and it’s also a part of the history of New Harmony. It needs to stay in New Harmony.” Using what she had learned at the Kitchen Table seminar, Warrum followed up all fundraising conversations with a letter. “So it wasn’t just going up to someone and saying, ‘you need to do this,’” she says. “I would follow up with a letter that gave all the history, and the ‘why.’”

Warrum, who had never been involved in this kind of fundraising before, gave herself 12 months to raise the money necessary to pay off the mortgage. “It took me 14,” she says.

The relief of having the financial burden lifted will ensure St. Stephen’s is able to continue it ministry and work in the community. Warrum believes it will also help the congregation, which confirmed and welcomed four people into the Episcopal church on the very same morning they burned the mortgage note, continue to grow. “It’s hard to say to newcomers, ‘come join us, and by the way we owe all this money.’ Now we can simply say, ‘oh yes, come join us and let’s work together. Let’s do this.”