The heart-cry of all pastors is to impact their city with the love of Christ. That is no less true of the congregation in which I was raised and which was founded by my parents, Mike and Kathy Hayes. I grew up hearing and praying the prayer, "Lord, give us our city."
When my parents handed over the 40-year-old ministry of Covenant Church to me in 2016, my team and I began to look for new ways we could continue to bless our city. We began to pray a slightly different prayer, "God, give us to our city."
As pastors and leaders in the church, it's natural to measure everything we do through a return-on-investment scale. We start to judge the success of what we do in the community by how many families it draws to our church. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but I started to wonder, What if we measured a different way? What if we measured our success by the impact on the community if our church closed its doors? Would we leave a vacuum, or would our community even notice we were gone? We were driven to action by these types of questions.
When Opportunity Knocks
In late February or early March of 2018, one of our staff pastors sent me a video from one of our local news broadcasts. The NBC 5 channel had spent $50,000 to buy bad medical debt from a company whose mission it was to cancel debt, not collect on it. The company, RIP Medical Debt, purchases bad medical debt (as it comes available for sale) for pennies on the dollar, then works with outside groups and donors to cancel the uncollected debt.
When I saw the news report, I knew Covenant Church needed to be a part of this important effort. Since Easter was coming in a few weeks, we developed a plan to use our Easter advertising funds plus some local mission funds.
We worked with RIP to buy up as much bad medical debt as the company could find within a 20-mile radius of each of our Dallas-Fort Worth (DFW) campuses for a cost of $100,000. We asked RIP to first focus on medical debt for veterans. These men and women have laid their lives on the line, and in most cases, the medical debt they've accumulated is because of or connected to their military service. To know we could help veterans was another layer of community impact we just couldn't pass up. Once we purchased all we could of that bad debt, our remaining donation focused on everyone else with this need in our communities.
What better picture for people of what Jesus did for us by purchasing our debt? Our hope was that by being able to provide freedom from the crushing weight of medical debt, we would help these recipients make an easy connection to Jesus.
Our goal was not to be recognized but to express to needy people in a tangible way that Jesus loves them and that someone cares. While introducing ourselves to these families as a local church, we also showed them we weren't trying to get something from them—but rather give something to them.
When Tragedy Comes
I feel a particular empathy for those experiencing the weight of medical debt. When I was 17, I was in a terrible car accident that left me in a coma for 12 days with weeks of recovery. Thankfully, our church family rallied around my parents in an unprecedented way, and we weren't left with unpayable debt. But I realize this just isn't the case for many. When tragedy comes, it's difficult enough to recover physically, but then the extra pressure of seemingly insurmountable medical debt can sometimes be unbearable.
Our church's $100,000 donation was able to purchase just over $10 million worth of medical debt, ultimately touching approximately 5,000 families in our area. And God has multiplied the blessings. The Covenant Church donation, coupled with the earlier donation from NBC 5, has sparked the DFW community to start donating to this cause. At last count, NBC 5 had raised another $215,000 to wipe out more than $21 million in bad medical debt in the metroplex.
No matter if we ever hear from any of the recipients, we feel that's a pretty good return on investment. Buying the medical debt wasn't just a great opportunity but also good stewardship with our giving. It's nice to be able to do something good, especially for people you don't know, for no other reason than to show them God cares.
My parents are the most generous people I know, and they built the foundation of Covenant Church on that generosity. I have the privilege to be able to follow them and lead our congregation into new ways to give and, I hope, inspire others to do the same.
We truly do want God to give us to our city. We are working now with city officials to create strategic partnerships where we can provide a constant source of volunteer labor that directly helps our city and those who live in it. This comprises everything from minor painting and construction projects to school mentoring programs. We've told them, "If you need help, call us first!" We may not be able to do everything, but we want to be given the opportunity to try.
Stephen Hayes is senior pastor with his wife, Erika, at Covenant Church (covenantchurch.org), a multi-campus church in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex.
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