Alan Wildes

Alan Wildes

The 4 Don’ts of Debt

“Thank you. I’m looking forward to getting started! I’ll talk to you soon, bye.” 

Ted hangs up the phone. He cannot wait to go home and tell his wife, Lynn, the good news. 

The new pastorate job they’ve been praying about has finally come through. The church Ted and Lynn have heard so many wonderful things about has just hired Ted to come be their Senior Pastor. When Ted shares the good news, they head out to celebrate over dinner. They’re thrilled!  

A few months later, Ted finds himself at dinner again, but this time, he’s alone in his office. He’s pouring over excel docs and financial records. His laptop strains his eyes and his food is cold. He couldn’t be more frustrated. 

This new church has been an incredible blessing. The last three months have provided new fruitful friendships and a great school for Ted and Lynn’s children. Ted’s sermons have seemed to have never of been better, and Lynn is plugged in to several groups around the church and finally feels like she has some real friends. 

But there’s a problem. A big problem. 

The church is in debt. A lot of debt. The building campaign from several years ago did not meet its goals and now the church is suffering from debt reduction payments. And Ted doesn’t know what to do. 

How will the church ever get rid of the debt? Should they even try?

In a recent survey, it was discovered that 29% of Americans have more credit-card debt than they do emergency savings. In another recent poll, over 65% of U.S. adults with debt don’t even know if or when they’ll ever become debt free. 

Debt is everywhere in our culture, and unfortunately, the church is no different. 

Like most people, you understand that debt is bad. Maybe just like Ted, you’re brought onto church leadership and see your new church is making debt reduction payments of $25k a month to a 9-year debt, and you want to get rid of it. And that’s good. But what’s bad is four big mistakes that are commonly made around the church and debt. Let’s talk about them.

1. Don’t move too quickly. 

Debt is bad, but so is ruining every relationship with every leader you have that you haven’t gotten to know yet. Before you begin to tackle the large debt problem of your new church, you must have a clear understanding of the church in general.

You probably have a general knowledge of change management: whether its debt or the music ministry, you can’t come in and make sweeping changes because you’re the new guy in town. Focus on building strong relationships with the people in your church. Do life with them. Earn their trust. Then, when you’re through your first year, you’ve built relationships and assessed the culture and gotten a good feel for your church, it’s time for a generosity audit.You’ll grow your influence to change when you grow your patience to change.

2. Don’t move too slowly.

Just as it is important not to move too quickly, a leader can also lose their influence when they aren’t moving fast enough.  You don’t want to wait 18 months before you start having conversations about debt removal. A year is plenty of time to get a feel for things, as we learned in point #1. Once you can see everything a church can do in a year, you’re in a position to do something different. 

Before that year is up, decide what an intentional generosity initiative looks like where debt is a big part of the conversation. Look at the timing in the big picture of the life of your church and see if there’s an appetite. Is there a hunger within the people of the church to do something better with the money instead of paying off debt? Talk to key leaders, then float the idea to your staff and the core 20% of your church. If there’s general approval with them about getting rid of debt, then go ahead and move forward. 

Seem too easy? In most churches 70-80% of the total giving comes from the core 20% anyway. Get those 20% on board and then invite the rest of the congregation to join you. 

3. Don’t forget the stories of the past.

What typically gets lost in the process of debt removal is celebrating why the church got into debt in the first place. Let me say that again so it can sink in: don’t forget why you got into debt in the first place. Not only should you avoid forgetting why but go back and celebrate again and again all the opportunity the debt has provided. Here’s what I mean:

If you’re like me, you had to have a mortgage to buy your home. You went into debt. And yet, you provided a safe, comforting place for your children to grow up in. We don’t like paying a mortgage, but we don’t begrudge it because we’d rather pay the mortgage than live in an apartment and be debt free. When your children begin to grow and you reminisce together all of the memories you’ve shared in the living room, making that mortgage payment begins to get a little easier. I believe the same can be true of our churches.

Don’t forget the stories of the past and lose sight of why you went into debt in the first place. Don’t have disdain for your facility… look back and think about all that God has done through the facility. Look at what God was able to do for the Kingdom because you were willing to go into debt!

When you tell stories and celebrate what God has done, you’ll remind your congregation why the church exists: to bring life change through the power of the Gospel. Not only will those who voted for the building originally be motivated, but you’ll also prompt people who have since joined the church to help pay for it in full and eliminate your debt. Everyone loves a good testimony.

4. Don’t lose sight of the future vision. 

If you’re getting stuck on Don’t #2, then it is probably a Don’t #4 problem. 

If your core 20% of the church doesn’t want to tackle the debt, it’s time to re-evaluate your vision.

I heard something once that’s never left me: 

“The only bad debt is the debt you don’t have a plan to get rid of.”

– Nathan Artt

Debt is bad, but not having a reason to go into debt is even worse. When you have a vision and a plan to do something new with the dollars allotted to debt reduction payments, you will find opportunities to inspire your congregation to eliminate the debt. 

“Money follows vision.”

– Jim Sheppard, Contagious Generosity

Just like Ted, you’ll find that inheriting debt as a new leader in the church can be a daunting task. For many pastors it is intimidating to talk about money from the pulpit because you think it my damage or even ruin the deep relationships you’ve built within your church. But if we’re afraid to talk about tackling debt with the people we are close to, then we must not be as close to them as we think we are. 

Where is your church headed in the next five years? Ten years? How much faster and how much more could God do through your church if she wasn’t crippled by debt? Leave a comment and let me know the awesome things God is doing through your church right now.

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