Before you start your next big project, beware: Debt can devour or even kill you.
For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not sit down first and count the cost, whether he has enough to finish it--lest, after he has laid the foundation, and is not able to finish, all who see it begin to mock him, saying, "This man began to build and was not able to finish"(Luke 14:28-30, NKJV).
A few years ago our church, Calvary Assembly of God in Winter Park, Florida, celebrated an achievement that reversed a curse on our church. We wept, shouted, laughed and had the time of our lives celebrating becoming free of debt. It was a huge accomplishment for us. Calvary had suffered for years--at times with excruciating pain--because of this mountain of debt. By God's grace, it will never happen again!
This wasn't the first time I had been in this type of situation. In 1986 I became the pastor of another church deeply in debt. The leaders could see no way out. The bond company that underwrote the mortgage was breathing down our necks and would soon take legal action against us. God provided a miracle of provision, and we made our payment--but it was years before we became debt-free.
Both of these churches went into debt believing they could handle it. Fast growth brought a need for larger facilities. Money was raised to build, but prices escalated, changes were made and large debt resulted.
Then trouble came. The economy went sour. A scandal happened. Attendance dropped. The debt that before seemed manageable suddenly became a threat to the very existence of the church.
In both these churches, I have had a bird's-eye view of the incalculable price paid for mistaking wants for needs. Neither church needed what was built. They wanted it, and they got it, but they didn't need it, at least in the sense of it being an absolute necessity.
God promises to provide for our needs--not for our wants. We always pay a price for living beyond what God graciously provides. In our zeal to "do a great work for God," or under the pressure to provide space for growing ministry, we forget or ignore that where God guides, He provides. If He has not provided it, we should not spend it.
I sincerely believe both of these churches could have built their buildings without debt. It might have taken more time and patience and a revision of plans, but it could have been done. In both cases, years of suffering could have been avoided. Better still, years of fruit for the kingdom could have been produced in much greater measure had they done it God's way--with cash.
PAINFUL LESSONS LEARNED FROM DEBT
Following are a few of the painful lessons we learned behind God's woodshed about the dangers of excessive debt.
1. You cannot serve both God and mammon (see Matt. 6:24). The word "serve" means "to be enslaved to." We were enslaved to the bank and bond company.
A borrower is always in a position of servitude. Proverbs 22:7 says, "The rich rules over the poor, and the borrower is servant to the lender." Every Monday morning for almost 13 years (8 years in Oklahoma and 5 years in Florida), we would bow down to mammon and make our offering (debt payment).
Invariably we would have great needs in other areas, but debt had to come first. Many times I would weep at seeing God's money go to interest and the bank's bottom line.
At Calvary, the original $15 million indebtedness ended up costing in the neighborhood of $27 million. It is difficult for me to classify such needless waste as anything but abominable. It is a great testimony to the faithfulness of Calvary's people and of God's grace that the buildings have been redeemed.
2. Debt brings a negative witness to the community and to God's people. How can we claim to trust God when we don't trust God? Trusting the bank and the future giving of our people is not faith. It's foolishness, it's presumption, and we know how God feels about that. In the Orlando area, people knew two things about Calvary: We were a big church with a big debt.
Obviously that is a generalization, but it was a significant part of our reputation. No longer is it true. We made sure our city heard the news of the victory.
Debt also is a negative influence on God's people. There I was preaching God's Word about living beneath our means and avoiding debt while the church was heavily involved in it. There is something illogical--if not hypocritical--in that scenario.
Someone once said that we teach what we know and impart who we are. There is an impartation by church leadership into the lives of people. I can now impart Deuteronomy 28:12 into my people: "'The Lord will open to you His good treasure, the heavens, to give the rain to your land in its season, and to bless all the work of your hand. You shall lend to many nations, but you shall not borrow.'" Churches with debt cannot impart that blessing.
Something is happening in the lives of Americans and American Christians that is frightening. Personal bankruptcies rose from 700,000 in 1990 to about 1.3 million in 2000. It is estimated that the average college student will have $5,000 in credit card debt by graduation.
Many young couples enter marriage with debt payments that are staggering. College loans, car loans, consolidation loans, credit card debt, finance company loans and parental loans are prevalent. Such practices are not only impractical, but also immoral.
Any pastor who truly cares about his or her people will not want to put a congregation into the hellish bondage of debt, but will take an active role in leading them to freedom and a place of blessing. We are to take our direction from God's Word, not from the world or our civil government.
According to Romans 13:7, Christians are to stay current in paying debts, dues, taxes, customs, and so on. We are simply to pay those whom we owe in a timely manner. It shouldn't take the threat of debtor's prison to motivate us.
Paying our debts is a positive witness of Christ to the world. Failure to pay on time is a severely negative witness. According to Romans 13:8, we are to never cease loving others; one way to prove our love is to pay what we owe. Beyond this simple and biblical admonition to pay our debts is the step of faith to get to the place where we owe no one.
Debt-free living (other than the debt of love) is God's highest order for our financial lives. The church must set this example for our people. Numbers of our people at Calvary became debt-free as the church modeled that commitment for them, and many others are in the process. That, perhaps, is the greatest victory of all.
3. Ministry opportunities go unfounded, pastoral leadership and support staff are underpaid, and excellence is forfeited. The answer to almost all inquiries concerning funding for ministry, staff raises, building maintenance, and so on, was: "We can't afford it. When the debt is paid, maybe."
The church suffers in many "behind-the-scenes" ways when debt dominates. Our debt payments at Calvary were about $30,000 per week, which was roughly 40 percent of our budget.
The one place we stayed committed to excellence was missions. We believed God would bless if we stayed committed to giving outside ourselves. And He did. But literally years of lost ministry opportunities were sacrificed on the altar of debt.
4. Discouragement, distrust and division are always close at hand when dealing with debt. Just as debt is a factor in dividing marriages, it also can divide churches. Long, discouraging board meetings are a memory I won't soon forget.
The testing of one's faith in the area of finances is a wearying proposition. Discussions about money get old fast. Fingers are pointed and unkind words are spoken. The past is rehearsed endlessly and negatively. Vision for the future is put on hold to a great degree. Disagreements abound in staff meetings over money, or the lack of it, and so it goes.
In the process of being fiscally responsible, choices are made to cut salaries, which are the only non-fixed budget items, because cuts have been made everywhere else. Staff suffers with the burden. Layoffs are necessary. In the church prior to Calvary, weeping could be heard in offices as the decisions were shared. We called it "Black Monday." Mammon must be served!
It may never get to this point in your church, but why risk it when there is a better way? It gets ugly. And the devil loves it.
A church simply cannot be free and be in bondage to debt. Satan walks uninhibited through the open door that disobedience provides and causes all kinds of chaos. My advice: Do not open the door.
5. Debt is a violation of God's principles and restricts blessings. While I do not believe there is a biblical law against borrowing, there are principles that should guide our decisions related to this subject.
One principle concerning borrowing given in Scripture is found in Proverbs 17:18: "A man devoid of understanding shakes hands in a pledge, and becomes surety for his friend." "Surety" means you have taken an obligation to pay without a specific way to pay it.
Churches that assume debt obligation presume the future blessing of God. What if He chooses to prune? Debt is allowed in Scripture, but it definitely is not God's highest method or way of provision.
Debt is not promoted in Scripture--faith is. According to Luke 16:10-12, God can only trust us with true riches (spiritual) if we are found faithful in handling less important issues such as money (see vs. 11).
Being a faithful steward of God's money allows God to bless us with greater spiritual treasure. The least blessed person in Jesus' parable of the talents at least did not foolishly lose his master's money but buried it. Even that was not pleasing to his master. Paying interest on debt with our Master's money cannot possibly be pleasing to Him.
Jesus is teaching us in this passage in Luke that our willingness to bring money under control is necessary for our spiritual prosperity to be released. In verse 12 there is an indirect reference to the issue of debt: " 'If you have not been faithful in what is another man's, who will give you what is your own?'" Debt puts us in a position of dealing with that which is not our own.
A commitment to never use our Master's money to pay interest forces us to wait on Him to provide, to bring our wants under control, to be patient and to be content. It forces us into God's school of character development in order to be capable of righteously handling true spiritual blessings.
A MORE EXCELLENT WAY
In our culture, paying as you go, building with cash and living debt-free almost are a novelty. Few operate that way, though everyone should. While there are many ways to finance our wants and needs--and many people eager to "help" us get into debt--there is a better way: cash.
There are two memorable examples of debt-free building endeavors in the Bible: Moses building the tabernacle (see Ex. 35-37) and David raising funds to build the temple (see 1 Chr. 22). Granted, these projects predated easy financing, but the principle of building with cash proves true.
God's highest and best method for our financial lives, both as individuals and as a church, is to owe no one. The glory of it is awesome: "Then everyone came whose heart was stirred, and everyone whose spirit was willing, and they brought the Lord's offering for the work of the tabernacle of meeting, for all its service, and for the holy garments" (Ex. 35:21).
That is worth waiting for! It ends well, too. Exodus 36:5 reports: "And they spoke to Moses, saying, 'The people bring much more than enough for the service of the work which the Lord commanded us to do.'" Moses eventually commanded them to bring no more. Impossible in today's world? I don't think so.
When our debt was paid off, it was suggested that I challenge our people to continue to give to the building fund. I refused, and instead publicly urged our people to stop giving to the building fund because we had more than enough. We actually gave $100,000 away the day of our celebration. Many had never heard a pastor tell them to stop giving!
There is much pressure on pastors and leaders to move ahead of God's provision when the needs for facilities are great; in those times, a predetermined commitment to build with cash is necessary to guide us as the pressure is applied.
Many individuals, myself included, have testified of how God provided when we refused to borrow. You have heard similar stories, too, of cars, food or rent being miraculously provided by God. If He is willing to provide in the smaller things, He is willing in the larger. Trust Him. Be willing to wait for the larger blessing.
By the way, raising money to pay off debt is much more difficult than raising money to build. I have done both and can testify to the truth of that statement. Impatience is a killer. Proverbs 21:5 says, "The plans of the diligent lead surely to plenty, but those of everyone who is hasty, surely to poverty."
Patiently waiting until cash is in hand also is a safeguard against building facilities beyond our actual need. We tend to be more careful with our money than we are with the bank's.
I equate church-building debt with personal-consumer debt. When most individuals take on a home mortgage, they are investing in an appreciating asset and receiving the benefit of a need for housing being met. Church buildings are rarely appreciating assets in the sense that they are rarely sold for a profit. Beyond question, the primary biblical pattern for building church facilities is to build based upon the people's response in giving. We build what we can with the resources provided, not borrowed.
Good stewardship is the issue. God continually corrects all of us in the area of finances and in the sloppy stewardship of His resources.
Is it too much to ask that we seriously count the cost--including the hidden costs--of plunging ahead and becoming slaves to lenders?
When the price is totaled and all costs are included, it is simply too costly to borrow money to build church facilities. Calvary Assembly has decided to never do it again.
In fact, there is an engraved paver stone in our foyer stating this commitment. If new leadership in the future wants to borrow, they will have to dig up this stone!
Is your church buried in a mountain of debt? Pastor Clark Whitten shares from personal experience six practical steps for shoveling your way out.
Ever since our church, Calvary Assembly of God in Winter Park, Florida, celebrated its debt-free status at a two-hour mortgage-burning service in September 2000, pastors from around the country have called, wanting to know the details of how to lead a church out of debt. Here are a few practical steps I learned from our situation.
1. Cast the vision of being debt-free and what it will mean for future ministry. In early 1996, we had what we called "Vision" banquets for our people, where we showed our ministry vision. Our vision for the future could not be accomplished with the debt load.
A debt-free future was a must. $1.5 million per year would immediately be released into ministry the day our debt was paid. We showed our people practical ministry ideas that would be possible. Vision attracts resources and commitment.
2. Project an aggressive faith. The Sunday in 1995 that Calvary voted to call me as their pastor, I shared this thought that God had given to me: "You have lived so long in the shadow of this mountain [the debt] that you have come to believe it is normal. You have little faith that it can be moved.
"If I come here to lead you, this is what we will do. According to Mark 11:23, we will stop complaining to God about how big the mountain is and start telling the mountain how big God is!"
The debt was nothing less than an enemy of the future. We had to treat it that way. You cannot declare détente with an enemy that is strangling you. Debt must be aggressively attacked or it will linger forever. Once an absolute commitment is made to become debt-free and live that way, God miraculously helps us achieve the goal.
3. Commit to paying mortgage payments through the budget. If you want your people to give above their tithes to eliminate debt, apply every dollar given above the tithe to principle reduction.
In our program called "Moving the Mountain," we committed to this principle. It would take cutting expenditures, but it had to be done. Even though we refinanced our debt and the actual payment amount was reduced, we continued to pay the same amount through our budget. Our people saw us sacrifice, and they responded in-kind.
4. Keep the spiritual health of your people in mind. Capital fund-raising programs can hurt people if manipulation is used to motivate them to give. Using "professional" firms was not a path we chose to take. Our approach was simple. We informed our people of the need and the vision, then we challenged them to do two things: pray and obey.
Whatever God says, do it. Do nothing more and nothing less. If God says don't give, then don't give. Some people will give more than is healthy for them if they are emotionally manipulated. The spiritual condition of people is more important than money.
5. Commit to staying debt-free in the future. "We may not have anything, but we will not borrow" is a statement I made then and continue to make now. The truth is we will have more because we will not borrow. One of our published core values is to remain debt-free.
6. Stay committed to giving to missions. Calvary gave about $9 million to missions during the years of indebtedness. Most of that time, they could not afford it--but that didn't stop them.
God honored their commitment and sacrifice. The day the debt was paid, we committed to increase our percentage of budgeted giving to missions.
Clark Whitten is pastor of Calvary Assembly of God in Winter Park, Florida.
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