Thrivent Financial for Lutherans — the Minneapolis-based, Fortune 500 fraternal-benefits giant with more than $80 billion in assets derived primarily from Lutherans over the past 100 years — is ready to offer its services to all Christians.
The idea has not been greeted with universal acclaim.
While the proposal may surprise many of Thrivent’s nearly 2.5 million members, the idea is really “nothing new” and the “time is right” to make the move, says the organization’s President and CEO Brad Hewitt.
Expanding Thrivent’s membership to all Christians has come up for discussion among the organization’s management for at least each of the 10 years Hewitt’s been there, he says. And today, with Thrivent “in a position of strength” — both in terms of membership and financial worth — “we think now is the time to be proud of our heritage and extend that heritage to others.”
The primary motivation to expand is missional, adds Hewitt: As a faith-based organization, Thrivent is called to serve more people.
Thrivent is in business for two reasons, notes Hewitt: to help its members manage their money wisely and to encourage them to “be generous” in helping others.
Thrivent chapters sponsor more than 50,000 charitable activities annually, notes Hewitt, raising money for — and donating time to — a myriad of causes. Last year alone, 7,539 LCMS organizations received more than $21.4 million of the total $50 million-plus Thrivent Choice Dollars distributed.
Other Christians, Hewitt says, “see what we have and ask, ‘Could we actually start one of those ourselves?’ Well, yes, you could, but you’d have to wait 100 years for it to have the scale and the products and all the other things we have. So the question becomes, ‘Well, why can’t we buy from you?’”
In order to operate as a fraternal-benefits, tax-exempt, nonprofit organization, Thrivent is required by the IRS to designate a “common bond” — something that members have in common — in its articles of incorporation. Like its predecessors — Aid Association for Lutherans (AAL) and Lutheran Brotherhood, which merged in 2002 to form Thrivent Financial for Lutherans — that common bond is Lutheranism.
To change that common bond from “Lutheran” to “Christian,” Thrivent’s members must vote to approve it. Approval requires a simple majority.
Thrivent members may vote March 1 through April 30 by phone, online or via regular mail. A website at www.thrivent.com/vote offers information about the proposal.
While it would allow Thrivent to serve all Christians, a majority of yes votes likely won’t produce changes right away, Hewitt says.
He understands, Hewitt says, when Lutherans contact him, upset because they’re afraid Thrivent wants to shed its Lutheran identity, but he insists that’s not the case.
“Lutherans started this. We’re not going to change the founding story,” he says.
He bristles when he hears accusations that Thrivent is “trying to grow because we want to make more profit. Well, we’re not-for-profit, profits don’t have anything to do with this. If we make money, we give it all back to our members.”
But some Lutherans don’t necessarily believe “bigger is better.” And they wonder about Thrivent dollars being used to support non-Lutheran ministries.
The Rev. Timothy J. Scharr, president of the LCMS Southern Illinois District, has had a stake in the organization since shortly after his birth, when his parents purchased an AAL policy for him. When he entered the pastoral ministry, he added Lutheran Brotherhood products to his portfolio, and he has been a Thrivent member since its inception.
“Looking at the Thrivent proposal from a business perspective, I understand the need to expand the base from which they may attract customers for their products,” Scharr told Reporter. “Lutheranism is shrinking within the United States and that does not bode well for growing a business solely upon Lutherans.”
But, over the years, the Lutheran congregations and schools where Scharr has served “relied heavily” upon the AAL/Lutheran Brotherhood/Thrivent money made available to them through grants and matching funds, he said, and “many schools came to count on Thrivent matching funds as a third source for operating revenue.” Now, he adds, “the formula for matching has been changing in a way to lessen this dependency,” and if Thrivent membership expands to all Christians, “one fears those funds will decrease even more.”
Scharr notes, too, that before the merger that created Thrivent Financial for Lutherans, “I could count on both the AAL representative and Lutheran Brotherhood agent to visit me annually to review our family needs and inform us of new products. … Thrivent came and that personal service has changed.”
Scharr said he does not plan to vote yes.
Rich Robertson, president and CEO of Lutheran Church Extension Fund (LCEF), told Reporter that he, too, understands that businesses need to expand their customer base. “However, the obvious risk is alienating their supporters that have helped create the organization they are today.
“People like myself have been attracted to [Thrivent's] Lutheran heritage and have made decisions to be a member due to that affiliation,” Robertson said. “Do they have solid products, with good leadership and quality employees? Absolutely! However, they are not unique, and similar products are available through other secular providers.
“I, for one, prefer that any funds derived from investments or purchases be shared with ministries of The Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod — that is my preference.”
Like Scharr, Robertson is a long-time AAL/Lutheran Brotherhood/Thrivent member, and he says his home congregations have “benefitted greatly” over the years from the organization’s support. “Like LCEF, I knew where my invested dollar was being used and I chose to support those organizations that were ‘like-minded’ and provided benefits to those organizations that were important to my family and my church.”
As to his vote, Robertson said he is “certainly weighing this decision carefully, as all members should.”
And while he said he applauds Thrivent’s “continued mission to serve,” he notes that “in contrast to their approach, at LCEF we only embrace the LCMS, providing assurance to Lutherans that want to empower LCMS ministries.”
Posted March 7, 2013