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Happy Surprises: Help others discover the joy of giving

By: Rev. Dr. David Heetland, Senior VP for Planned Giving, Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary

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I began my ministry 45 years ago as a church pastor in South Dakota. Two years later my wife, Kathy, and I were invited by President Don Messer to join the faculty at DWU—she as a piano instructor and I as campus minister and assistant professor of religion and philosophy.  Three years later I became the dean of students.  Then one day Jim Beddow, the new president of DWU, called me into his office and asked me to head up the development department—even though I had no formal training in development.  “Why in the world would I want to do that?” I asked.  I can still remember his response, all these years later.  “You get to be a matchmaker,” he said, “bringing together the dreams of individuals and the goals of the institution.”

He convinced me to give it a try. The first response I received when my new appointment was announced was from a gentleman who said he was sorry to learn that I was leaving the ministry.  The second response was a word of caution from another gentleman.  “You will discover,” he said, “that fundraising is a series of disappointments interspersed with a few happy surprises.” 

I am pleased to say that both of these men were wrong!  First, I did not leave the ministry.  While fundraising may not be the image many people have of ministry, I have found it to be a vitally important ministry.   It has been suggested that lack of funding is the major impediment to eradicating hunger, developing self-help programs, and spreading the gospel of Jesus Christ.  What could be a more important ministry than enabling programs of relief, development, and proclamation to be carried out in Christ’s name? 

And as Henri Nouwen noted in his wonderful little book, The Spirituality of Fundraising, a ministry of fundraising can also encourage spiritual growth—for both the donor and the fundraiser.   I have had the rare opportunity to see lives take on new meaning as people devote themselves to causes greater than themselves.  And I have grown in my own faith journey as God has taught me much about life, and giving, through the donors I have come to know.

While there is some truth in the cautionary words from the second gentleman, I think he got it backwards. Maybe it’s because I’m an optimist (or, in theological terms, a person of hope), but I prefer to say that fundraising is a series of happy surprises, interspersed with occasional disappointments.  While some of the happy surprises are financial in nature, my days are filled with other happy surprises as well:  hearing from someone how one of our graduates helped him turn his life around, learning about the excitement of a potential student who can come to school because of scholarship assistance, seeing tears of joy as a donor shares a letter she received from her scholarship recipient.  These are the happy surprises I witness day after day.

After a year of learning how to do fundraising at DWU, I was invited to join the development team at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, Illinois.  I was delighted to have the opportunity to work in a seminary setting since seminary had been such a formative part of my own life, and I’ve been there ever since—35 years as vice president for development and the last two years as senior vice president for planned giving. 

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In my early years at Garrett-Evangelical, I would often share with the president some of the happy surprises I experienced in my visits.  He would always respond by saying, “Another chapter for your book someday!”  So a year ago I gathered together some of the more memorable happy surprises and sent them off to a publisher.  I was delighted when a few days later I received a response saying they would like to publish my book of 36 short stories under the title, Happy Surprises: Help Others Discover the Joy of Giving.  It is my hope these stories will encourage pastors, development officers, presidents, trustees, and volunteers to see fundraising not as a necessary evil, but rather as a joyful opportunity—indeed, an important ministry.  I also hope the stories will inspire others to discover the joy of giving, just as these donors have.

“Happy surprises” is not a phrase I choose lightly.  Rather, for me it is a theological statement.  I firmly believe that if we do our work well, God rewards our efforts with happy surprises!

The work I have been called to do is not to convince people to do something they don’t want to do, or to extract a gift from an unwilling donor.  Rather, it is to plant seeds (seeds of awareness about the seminary’s mission) and then to cultivate, nurture, and at the appropriate time harvest those seeds that mature.

I grew up on a farm near Montrose, South Dakota, and one of my favorite parables is the parable of the sower.  We are reminded that some seeds fall on rocky ground, some seeds fall on thorny ground, and some seeds fall on good soil.  The sower does not cause the seeds to grow.  The sower simply plants the seeds, knowing that God will cause some to grow and bring forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, and some thirty.  (See Matthew 13:1-23.)

And so it is with us.  We are called to diligently plant seeds day in and day out.  We never know for sure which seeds will sprout and produce gifts, some a hundredfold, some sixty, and some thirty.  We simply know that if we are faithful in our work, the Word is our promise, and we can rest in the knowledge that God will cause some seeds to grow and bring forth grain.  These are our happy surprises—and they never fail to delight because they remind us that God is always at work in our midst.

There is a hymn entitled “What Gift Can We Bring.”  Verse 3 summarizes well my own theology, and I conclude with its words:

Give thanks for tomorrow, full of surprises,
For knowing whatever tomorrow may bring,
The Word is our promise, always, forever;
We rest in God’s keeping and live in God’s love.  Amen.



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