A surge in charities has swept across Germany in the past few years -- despite the less than rosy economic situation. The nation's financially strapped churches are benefiting from the commitment of these benefactors.
The Church Building Foundation aims to save small churches
Germany is home to some 15,000 charities and over 100,000 church-affiliated foundations. And every year, new ones are set up.
Rupert Count Strachwitz from Berlin's Humboldt University studies the significance of these foundations for society. He said he's even noticed the spontaneous launching of charities in Germany.
Theologian Hans Küng is the president of the Global Ethic Foundation
Citing one example, Strachwitz refers to a successful businessman who heard theologian Hans Küng talk about global ethics. The businessman spontaneously said, "this is something important that I want to do something for," Strachwitz recalls the man saying.
The Global Ethic Foundation was hence born. And well-known theologian Küng can since concentrate solely on his work: dialog between the world's religions.
Making up for cut subsidies
The idea behind foundations is simple. The benefactor makes part of his assets available, which are in turn profitably invested. These proceeds are dedicated to a certain purpose: sick children, talented musicians or a school.
The Canisius College in Berlin is an example. The Jesuit school is noted for its high standards, liberal religious education and the comprehensive social commitment of its pupils and teachers. In the past years, the school faced cuts in subsidies by the archbishopric and the city-state of Berlin. A school foundation now makes up for the difference. This was the only way to continue maintaining certain projects at the school, said principal Klaus Mertes.
"A library for all pupils, generous scholarships, special courses and much more, which is in danger from the large cuts we're facing," Mertes said of the projects his school maintains.
Conserving church heritage
Not only religious orders take advantage of the benefits of a foundation, though. Churches do so, too. In the past, for example, a member of a congregation would donate his orchard in order to secure the parish priest's livelihood -- and perhaps in the hope of being amply rewarded in heaven.
Today, the churches face other problems, such as their diminishing income from church taxes. A number of congregations can no longer support their churches.
The Protestant Church in Germany founded the Church Building Foundation in 1998 in order to save their places of worship from decay. Its head, Baron Friedrich-Leopold von Stechow, considers the preservation on churches nearly as a mission.
"If you have a small baroque church or a stone church in Brandenburg which is crumbling, I think it's very sad if it disappears, both in terms of imagery and the history of the region," Stechow said. "But the actual goal should be to get more people back to church."
The Zinna Cloister in Brandenburg dates back to 1170
A well-kept, appealing church, which is maybe even significant in terms of art history, makes people curious. Maybe even non-Christians would see a church for the first time from the inside, especially in eastern Germany.
In the past years, the Church Building Foundation has saved 130 churches in cooperation with other incentives.
Not enough to save the Church
What is striking about these new Christian foundations is that most of them are established for a certain project, not for the church as a whole.
"If I set up a charity, even for a Christian purpose, I still do so as a civic foundation, not an ecclesiastic one," Strachwitz said. "Then, I'm autonomous."
A Church-affiliated organization, on the other hand, would be subject to church administration. "And a lot of people don't want that," he said.
These charitable proceeds are anyway not significant enough that they could truly come to the aid of these huge institutions, which churches have become. Foundations are not really rays of hope for the Church. But they play a significant role in promoting Christian goals and perhaps getting people to return to the church.