Phil Helmuth sees no contradiction between his two longtime professions: ordained Mennonite minister and fundraiser for Mennonite-backed causes. Both roles are relationship-based and mission-oriented, he says.
Phil grew up in Arcola, Ill., where his father owned a farm-machinery business. He enrolled in Eastern Mennonite University (EMU) for 1972-73, married fellow undergraduate Loretta Kuhns in August 1974, and soon left EMU to hold a paying job (he marketed potato chips for six months while Loretta finished her degree in elementary education).
In early 1975, Phil became director of development at Lancaster Mennonite High School and that July he and Loretta became parents.
After a couple of years on that job, Illinois Mennonite conference approached Phil about being a pastor. Phil agreed “to test the whether I wanted to be a pastor or not” by arranging to be the quarter-time associate pastor for East Bend Mennonite Church in Fisher, Ill. He initially shadowed the lead minister, but eventually he did his own preaching, visitations, weddings and funerals. The remainder of his time he worked as an assistant manager for his father’s business, which entailed a two-hour round-trip between the church in Fisher and the business in Arcola, Ill.
Phil felt comfortable in his pastoral role—as a teenager during the Jesus-movement era, he led Bible studies in high school and had helped start weekend coffee houses. He had taken Bible classes at EMU.
Just before the end of his second year at East Bend, Phil accepted a senior pastor position at Science Ridge Mennonite Church in Sterling Ill., a comparatively large congregation with 250 to 275 active members. After two years, he often preached twice on Sunday mornings, adding a message for a small congregation on the opposite side of town.
His last role as a full-time pastor was at Olive Mennonite Church in Elkhart, Ind., for four years, charged with working at church growth.
After 11 years of being a minister, Phil headed back to EMU in 1987 to be a fundraiser for the college that he had not yet graduated from. (He finished his bachelor’s degree in management and organizational development through EMU’s Adult Degree Completion Program in 2002.)
“For me, it was a short leap to go from the ministry to development,” he says. “Having grown up in a business-oriented family, I feel comfortable with money matters. I know there is a place in God’s kingdom for people who have the ability to make money. And I value people who have been good managers, good stewards, of their resources.”
Phil says he acts as a facilitator for people to apply their resources to satisfying ends: “I am not just going out and begging for money—I help people to articulate what’s deeply important to them. I try to help them align their dreams and goals—their stories—with those of an organization that also has the common good at heart.”
Not a person to “preach and not practice” his views, Phil is a major donor of volunteer time and his personal money to many causes, including EMU, Park View Mennonite Church, Mennonite Central Committee, and the United Way.
For more than seven years, Phil has chaired the annual Virginia Mennonite Relief Sale at the Rockingham County Fair Grounds on the edge of Harrisonburg, raising hundreds of thousands of dollars each year for Mennonite Central Committee’s work. From 1996 through 2001, Phil worked part-time as MCC’s North American Relief Sale coordinator, helping to launch 11 new sales, many in urban communities.
“I love what I do,” Phil says. “I think fundraising for a worthy cause—one in which you deeply believe—is one of the best jobs anyone can have. You get to meet wonderful people and to hear their stories. What better way to spend your time?”
Phil has been named “2011 Fundraiser of the Year” by the Shenandoah chapter of the Association of Fundraising Professionals.