God Has a Bigger Shovel

March 01, 2020 - 6 minute read


Hank and Dixie Aschbrenner

Hank and Dixie Aschbrenner lead by example when it comes to generosity. Since 1994, Hank has worked with Concordia Irvine to raise funds for numerous projects. But Hank doesn’t just raise funds — the Aschbrenners give around 30 percent of their annual income to Lutheran universities and churches, and encourage others to do the same.

“You can’t ask people to do something that you don’t do yourselves,” Hank says. “We want to set an example so people say, ‘If they can do that, I can do this.’”

Though their earnings/salaries as Lutheran educators were quite modest, the Lord led the Aschbrenners to make a series of savvy financial decisions which allow them to give significant donations to Concordia Irvine and other Lutheran universities, for scholarships for Lutheran church workers.

“We want to see more people get into Lutheran education,” says Dixie, who taught in Lutheran schools for more than 20 years.

You can’t ask people to do something that you don’t do yourselves.

Hank grew up on an 80-acre, self-sufficient farm in Iowa where they raised dairy cows and grew corn. A generous man in his local church paid Hank’s way for eight years to the high school and college at Concordia Seward where Hank had “a remarkable experience.” Meanwhile, Dixie left California’s Central Valley to venture to CU River Forest to get her degree.

“I missed California a lot,” Dixie recalls. “My mom sent boxes of grapes and oranges via railway express.”

Hank and Dixie met in California’s Bay Area where both were working as Lutheran school teachers. They married in 1962, and in 1966 accepted a call to St. John’s Napa where Hank became the principal and middle school teacher. In his 15 years there, the school grew from 94 to around 300 students, including the preschool.

But it was a book in the public library that caught Hank’s eye — and changed their future. The attention-grabbing title, How I turned $1,000 into One Million in Real Estate in My Spare Time, impressed Hank, and he bought the book for $4.95. “It was a Godsend,” he says. “Easy to understand and do.”

The basic advice was to buy fixer-upper properties in good locations, using as much of other people’s money as you could through mortgages. “I followed the book and it worked beautifully,” Hank says.

He and Dixie scraped together enough money on his principal’s salary to buy run-down houses in good locations, and improved them. The value of the homes went up quickly.

“All we did was paint them, fix the landscaping and re-sell them,” Hank says. “Within two years we would almost double the price just by doing those things. It didn’t take that much money to get started. It was fabulous, a real blessing.”

At one point, they owned 19 units. Later, through the sale of some of these homes, they were able to put their four children through college without debt. “And we were only Lutheran school teachers,” Dixie marvels.

While holding onto their investments, they left Napa to start three Lutheran schools in the East Bay Area, and while fundraising for the schools, Hank’s eyes were opened again to the value of generosity.

“We were just tithing at the time,” he recalls. “We had four children and were living paycheck to paycheck for many years. But while I was fundraising for the schools, I talked to people and thought, ‘They sure give more than I do. If they can do it, we can do it.’ We upped our offerings at that time. My dad was always a good giver to the church, though our family could hardly afford it. He told me, ‘Remember, the Lord shovels it in and you shovel it out, but the Lord has a much bigger shovel.’ We have certainly found that to be true in our own lives. It’s amazing how the Lord has blessed us.”

They began to watch as they gave sacrificially, and the Lord gave it back to them, “to the exact penny sometimes,” Hank says. “It was amazing. Malachi 2:10 is my favorite verse.”

That passage reads: “Bring the full tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. And thereby put me to the test, says the Lord of hosts, if I will not open the windows of heaven for you and pour down for you a blessing until there is no more need.” (ESV) In 1991, Hank took on the challenge of recruiting more students for Concordia Irvine and Concordia Portland in the California-NevadaHawaii District of The Lutheran Church— Missouri Synod through a program entitled “Sharing the Vision of our Ministry.” At that time Concordia Irvine had just 12 students from the CNH District and Concordia Portland had only seven. Hank conducted fundraising campaigns in over 100 congregations to raise money for the congregations and the two colleges for their endowments and scholarships. By 1995, Concordia Irvine had almost 100 students from the CNH District, and Concordia Portland had more than 70. Then a phone call from an old high school classmate, Ray Halm, brought the Aschbrenners south. Halm, then president of Concordia Irvine, wanted Hank to bring his fundraising expertise to Irvine. Hank accepted the offer over offers from other universities and the private sector.

He heard a bit of advice that has defined his approach to fundraising: “It takes the right person to ask the right person, for the right gift, in the right amount, for the right purpose, in the right manner, at the right time.”

“I’ve shared that with many colleagues because I think it’s so great,” Hank says.

He retired as CUI’s executive vice president in 2001, but his retirement didn’t last long.

“I became very bored after six weeks of retirement,” Hank says. “Then President Jack Preus called and wanted me to work again, so I went quarter time. I was so happy to come back to work.”

At 82, and almost 20 years later, Hank is still working at CUI and “enjoying it very much.” He spends time with around 100 donors, mostly outside of Southern California in places like Northern California, Arizona, Missouri, Nevada, Colorado, Oregon and Washington. A few live in Minnesota and South Dakota. “What I enjoy most about fundraising is working with people,” Hank says. “They’ve all become great friends. I look forward to every visit, and I drive away encouraged. Donors tell me it gives them joy to see what the University is doing.”

Amazingly, more than 50 percent of his donors have never visited the Concordia Irvine campus.

“They hear about us through our choirs and musical groups that go into their churches,” Hank says. “Others are grandparents and parents of former students. I always try to bring new material for them to see, to share the excitement of what’s happening on campus.”

The Aschbrenners love to travel — they’ve been to 51 countries — and when home, Dixie plays the organ for church services, gardens, and teaches Bible studies on books including Daniel, Colossians and Revelation. They continue to give generously to projects such as the recently-completed Borland-Manske Center.

“It sets an example,” Hank says. “When donors get the annual report or look at a donor wall, I’m sure one of the things they look for is, ‘Hank asked me for a gift. Is his name there?’ A couple have shared with me that they did that!”

The Aschbrenners have set up an endowment at Concordia Irvine and other Concordia universities for students training to be Lutheran pastors, teachers, DCEs or church musicians. Most of the giving in their bequest will go to Concordia Irvine.

“When we pass away, very sizable gifts will be given to these endowments for scholarships to support students,” Hank says. “The Lord led us to make the right investments.”

“Praise the Lord. He has a bigger shovel,” Dixie agrees.

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