Tuesday, March 3, 2015

The danger of building church facilities with debt

Yesterday was an interesting day. Earlier I had a conversation with a lay leader of a church whose church is struggling with numerous issues. As a result, their attendance and giving are both down and has been this way for several months. The church is without a pastor, but their giving level is barely meeting their budget without having to pay a pastor salary and benefits. There are several reasons for this, but a major reason is the church has a large debt on an addition they built a few years ago. When their attendance was strong they were actually paying ahead on their debt, but now they would struggle making their regular payment and pay a pastor.

When I finished speaking with this individual I thought of another church that decided a few years ago to relocate. That decision was not without controversy and some people left the church when the decision was finalized. I feel certain that some believed that a new church facility would attract new people, the "build it and they will come" mindset. Unfortunately, that did not happen, and the church has struggled financially since moving.

About an hour later I was driving and listening to a Dave Ramsey podcast that had been downloaded on my I-Pad. Each day someone comes on the program to do a "debt-free scream." It's almost always a family who has followed Ramsey's plan and has gotten out of debt. However, this time the caller was the director of a church camp.

He shared how the camp board and others decided that they needed to pay off their mortgage to free up money for ministry. They challenged the churches in their denomination to support that decision. They were able to raise the money in less than one year to pay off their mortgage and become debt free. The director was delighted at how much more ministry they could now do without this debt hanging over their heads. It was quite a contrast to the two churches I had earlier been thinking about.

There are many good reasons for a church to build new facilities and even to relocate. I'm not sure there are any good reasons for a church to go into debt to accomplish that. We always enter into debt when things are going well, and we seem to forget that churches also have times when things are not going so well. In the good times we may not have any problems making our payments, but each payment is less money we have available for ministry. When times are tough, we may struggle keeping current on our payments, and in those times we often find we really have to cut back just to stay afloat financially. The things that we usually cut back are ministries, staff salaries, and mission support.

Some may argue that they are stepping out in faith when they borrow money to build. Such people reason that God will help see them through if times get tough. I'm not sure that is faith or presumption. If we can trust God to provide the money to pay off our debt, why can't we trust Him to provide the money up front and avoid debt?

When I was pastoring our small church we decided to build a new fellowship hall. We had outgrown the old fellowship hall, and we felt we could increase our ability to do ministry with a new facility. We spent months talking and praying about building this addition before finally making the decision to move forward. The only problem was that our architect estimated the cost of this building would be about $250,000. That was a lot of money for a church that averaged around 55 people.

During the time we were discussing the building we had raised about $30,000 towards the new facility. After we voted to move forward we had a Commitment Sunday and raised another $52,000 at that one service. We decided to begin work immediately. The building committee asked where I suggested we borrow the remainder of the money. I said we should let God finance it. We believed He had given us the vision to build this, and I felt we should trust Him to provide the necessary funds. I challenged our church to see what God would do.

Several months later the new fellowship hall was completed debt-free. Our treasurer told me that money came from places I would not believe. There was so much money left over that the church had all new furniture put in the kitchen and dining areas.

Proverbs 22:7 says, "The borrower is servant to the lender." This applies to churches the same as it does to individuals. Debt can be a heavy burden and can severely limit what a church is able to do. If God is leading a church to do something, He can certainly provide the means to allow it to happen. It may take a little longer than we would like, but that's because our timing and God's timing isn't always the same. But, when the project is done debt-free we are free to go about serving others without having to worry if we'll have the money to make our payments.

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