Church Debt Epidemic


Is there really a church debt epidemic?

Epidemic means to affect a disproportionately large area or group.  So, is there a church debt epidemic?  Unfortunately I have to say yes and unfortunately I find it to be the case in the more established and traditional denominations.  Why?

There is no short answer and I’m sure the answer varies from region to region but I can trace it back to the 10 year time period from 1998 – 2008.  Churches were no different than the secular housing industry.  Money was cheap and it was easy to get your hands on.  Churches in rapidly growing areas such as metro Atlanta experienced growth in attendance and felt compelled to address their facilities needs due to the increase in people attending their church.

Unfortunately many of those churches planned as if the growth would continue on forever.  Over speculation on rising attendance led to the over building of church campuses.  Many of which today are somewhat empty shells of where they were in the mid 2000’s.

So here we are.  Enough of why we are where we are.  The reasons why really do not help us address the problem and help churches figure out a way to address the debt and get out from underneath the gorilla that is standing on them and holding them back from being the shining light God intended them to be.

I feel burdened to figure out a way to help churches who are in this situation.  As a consultant who ran capital campaigns for churches during this time I now feel a sense of urgency to help churches address their debt situations.  The difficulty is that addressing debt is not any more enjoyable in the church than it is in our personal lives.

It takes:

  • Vision beyond the debt – People will give to vision.  They are not very excited about debt.  What ministries and mission work is the debt keeping us from doing?  How would things be different if the debt were gone?  What is the “Golden Tomorrow?”
  • Planning beyond tomorrow – There is not a short term solution.  What are the steps?  How long will it take?  How will we get there?  Who will lead the charge?
  • Diligence beyond belief – Again, there is not a short term solution; nor is it easy.  The Pastor and leaders must be patient and persistent.  There MUST be consensus from the leaders that this is the course we are taking and we will not veer from it until the plan is complete.

Is your church in debt?  How much?  How are you handling the debt?  Is the debt crippling or is it manageable?  What is your solution?

If your church is in debt who knows about it?  Does anyone outside of the Finance Team and Senior Leadership Team know?  When will you begin the conversation?  What will the conversation be with the congregation?  Transparency is key to addressing the problem.

I’d love to learn from you.

4 Comments

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  1. Carolyn R. Clements

    As a retired commercial banker I applaud this information. You are exactly correct with all of your points in this article. A church needs to operate just like any small or large business. Make sure you have the right people making financial decisions and make sure the financial picture is clearly understood with the congregation and church leadership. You have to always be good stewards of your church’s giving and make leadership and congregation own this responsibility. Make sure to ask the right questions when you feel something needs to be addressed. Alan, your comment “Transparency is key to address the problem” is absolutely paramount for any congregation. I hope any church seeing cash flow or debt issues address them sooner than latter by following your solid advise.

    Regards,

    Carolyn Clements
    Retired Commercial Banker
    Midlothian, Va.

    • Alan Wildes

      Thank you Carolyn for your feedback. Coming from a banker your comments carry a great deal of weight. Your advice is well taken regarding making sure you have the right people making financial decisions.

      What questions would you encourage financial leaders in local churches to ask banks regarding their debt? Are the special questions that churches should ask because of their non-profit status?

  2. Susan

    I am working at a main denomination church for over 6 years now, and every year there has been debt. Today, I saw the financial statements as of Sept. 30, and our debt increased $7k in just one month! For the year our debt nearly stands at $28k. But since I have been there, there has been an average of 3 pastors. Currently there are two, and there is a search committee for a third pastor to be added. The church added a gym 12 years ago, and finally was debt free of the loan last September, but the operating budget remained in the red. I communicate with the congregation with Sunday bulletins and monthly newsletters, but I know firsthand by visiting with some of the congregation members they are unaware that we are in the red. The senior pastor has even reviewed past annual reports looking for other information, but commented how this particular church has typically been in the red year after year. It does not set a good example for families to be in debt. Since I became manager for the past 3 years, I have cut our office budget each year, and try to look for ways to pinch the pennies on office supplies. I keep praying that the majority of the congregation will wake up to the realization of the debt.

    • Alan Wildes

      Susan,

      You are correct in that it is not a good example for the church to continue to run in the red. Does the pastor team meet with the finance team regularly?

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